Steve Jobs’s greatest gift to music was the shuffle button

By making our entire music collection swirl-able with a click, the retired Apple CEO did away with the traditional idea of an album. Good, says Aimee Cliff.

02.09.11

Words by: Charlie Jones

“Stay hungry; stay foolish,” Steve Jobs told hundreds of Stanford University students at their graduation in 2005. These words, which encapsulate the fun-based attitude that Apple have brought to music in the past decade, might be seen as keynotes of Jobs’ career as CEO, the end of which was announced last week.

Apple is the company that gave us music players that took it on themselves to create playlists, and endowed us with the ability to create our own – not to mention the music-buying platform that is iTunes, the thousands of music-based apps that allow us to find, create and edit our own music, and those adverts that show silhouette hipsters dancing like lunatics to Jet. No idea has ever definitively sealed Apple’s approach to music – but shuffling has come close.

Once what one did to cards or how moved in a queue, the shuffle is now a button, a brand, a trademark, a machine and an idea that has fuelled a generation of creative music listening unlike anything else on the market. Reminiscent of teenagers painstakingly recording mixtapes from radio snippets for one another, or the excitement of those hi-tech stereos that had the ability to move between CDs, the shuffle feature brought the squeaky joy of unexpectedly hearing a song you love into our everyday listening experience. Acting as your own personal, uninterrupted radio station, shuffle made your music into a mountainous, swirling landscape, rather than a series of disconnected islands.

“Shuffle” permeates musical boundaries like a hyperactive child, completely oblivious to context and thriving on randomness; some look down on this mode of listening, believing that discographies need oceans of separation from other artists and genres in order to establish themselves fully. An album, particularly one built around a concept, is intended by an artist to be listened to in full, after all, and shuffle could be seen as an attention-deficit symptom of our generation which deliberately erodes this intention. Simon Reynolds, author of Retromania , stands firmly on this viewpoint, claiming that shuffle has generated a culture of pop without fandom – he argues that the consumer who shuffles their music is playing up to what the music industry wants by being characterised as “omnivorous, non-partisan, promiscuously eclectic, drifting indolently across the sea of commodified sound”. Industrialised and frantic, this mode of listening, according to Reynolds, strips music of its context, its obsession, its culture, and makes it instead into a rolling stream of names on a screen, each one as meaningless and fleeting as the next.

The erratic musical choices your iPod will make for you, though, craft music into shapes unlike anything you’ve heard before – maybe you’re less likely to listen to an album in its original format on an iPod, but this means that your listening experience is completely unlike anyone else’s. You might hear different emphases, be jerked awake by an unexpected change in tempo, or find that you like a song you thought you hated, all thanks to the sugar-rush approach that shuffle takes to your music library. In a paper published this year by the University of Melbourne, it was found that the abdication of choice in digital listening lead to a greater level of serendipity in listeners; perhaps when the pressures of decision-making and obsessive contexts are alleviated, a listener is free to take in the view around them with a greater level of awareness. The landscape is theirs to observe; there is no difficult swim to tackle between secluded islands of music, no “sea of commodified sound”, only glorious fate, and the ability to take it all in.

Shuffle is just one of Apple’s features that works to keep music foolish; stripped of the blandness and painful detail inherently associated with technology, Steve Jobs made the science of music listening into something that retains all the giddy foolery of music itself. Shuffle wants you not only to play your music, but to play with it, riding a pulse of surprise and spontaneity that the restriction of choice makes us forget.