AirPods — the wireless headphones Apple introduced in September 2016, right when they announced the death of the headphone jack — sell for $159. Many of us, predictably, scoffed at seeing that price. For professional studio headphones, anything under $200 would be a steal, but these are Apple earbuds, and the first of their kind, cursed with inevitable fit issues, a limited performance life and less-than-stellar sound. Also, being two separate, tiny objects with no cord, AirPods are astoundingly easy to lose.
But as the months went by, people seemed to warm to the AirPods. They weren’t just headphones — they were the “future of computing,” as Slate described them. At first, I only ever saw tech dweebs in the Bay Area modeling the new headphones; these days, when I go for a run around my L.A. neighborhood, I’m cognizant of being one of the few joggers who still has the older ones. Especially if someone has high-end running gear on, they’re likely to complete the ensemble with AirPods, which somehow make them look cybernetic — or at least, like, aerodynamic. This is the future that liberals want!
What changed? It’s not that the AirPods surpassed our middling expectations, and they didn’t get any cheaper. The only plausible answer is that they became a status product. If you can drop that kind of money on an unnecessary gadget that’ll disappear down a sidewalk grate or a toilet within a year, you must be rich.
In the Instagram age, if you want anyone to know about your wealth, you’ve gotta flex, and AirPods are ideally suited to the task. They let the rest of us know you’re flying first-class through life.
In fact, simply purchasing a pair ushers you into an elite and powerful class of humans.
What arcane rings were to the secret societies of old, AirPods are to the influencer set. With money comes taste, and with taste comes a confidence in your own supremacy.
Once at that level, though, you can never let the peasants forget who you are. The AirPods are more than a lifestyle — they are a sacred commitment. Ideally, you’d never take them out. In time, perhaps, they could fuse with your ears. An evolutionary leap.
Yet the sheer flexiness of the flex is cause for suspicion. After all, AirPods are nowhere near as expensive as designer clothes, let alone a luxury car. Even a nice 18-year-old Scotch would cost more. Could it be that they’re increasingly desirable — or enviable — because they allow you to feign wealth in a multitude of settings with a relatively minor up-front investment? That memes about the opulence of AirPods became popular in the first place leads me to believe we’ve only been mocking the wearer, not the item. In our hearts, we know the status object means nothing and will never satisfy. It’s a dopey mass delusion.
We’ve been through this with the iPhone itself, dismissing the fervor of Apple fanboys and meanwhile half-joking that you’re only as cool as your current model. In that way, sour grapes get confused with reasonable disdain. We want what we don’t want to want.
And a new mutation in AirPod commentary cuts against the notion that they raise your social standing. Recent memes posit a scenario in which someone is unaware of imminent danger, but they can’t hear our warnings because they have their pods in. In reality, AirPods do a pretty poor job of blocking out external sound — for that (and for a fit upgrade), you need silicone attachments, sold separately. But much funnier is the stereotype of AirPods owners as tacky-rich and therefore oblivious, assured of their invincibility.
AirPods are meant to be worn constantly, sometimes playing audio, other times acting as a portable digital assistant (you double-tap one pod to call up Siri). Is the wearer paying attention to you? Who knows! But you’re expected to talk at him anyway, hoping he doesn’t ask you to repeat yourself.
My favorite recent development, however, is the stirring of a rebellion that targets the AirPods bourgeoisie. Suddenly, people are talking about eating AirPods, which feels like a throwback to the Tide Pod craze of about a year ago — but also a reimagining of the voguish anticapitalist advice, derived from the philosopher Rousseau, to “eat the rich.”
Just like that, the AirPods morph from a signifier of privilege to a mark of the indifference that comes along with it. You were so focused on showing them off — and so consumed by the jams they pumped into your brain — that you didn’t notice a resentful underclass organizing to destroy you.
I wish I could say it’s not too late to downgrade to a frugal alternative, something less likely to earn you a ride on the guillotine, but we know how these upheavals tend to play out. I’d start making my “Last Days on Earth” playlist.
If you’re lucky, they’ll have the AirPods 2 in the afterlife.