I got my first taste of the digital counterculture in college. The iPod — only a few years old at that point — was a far cry from today’s iPhone, but a sign of inexplicable style and wealth. I had neither, thus I couldn’t afford an iPod. Instead, I embraced an Apple competitor, which had long before already cemented itself as the butt of every joke. Determined to prove the mainstream world wrong, I sided with the underdog of the tech world and made the Zune my paramour. Here’s the story of my brief love affair with a discontinued MP3 player.
I was meandering through Best Buy when I came upon the Apple section of the store. A complicated mix of envy, disgust, and shame coasted through my brain as I muttered complaints under my breath. It’s too small. Too sleek. Too beautiful. Too ugly. My thumb traced circles around its silky-smooth click wheel. That’s when something caught my eye from another part of the store: A display of Microsoft Zunes just itching to be touched. I picked one up and fiddled around with its substantially smaller click wheel/pad hybrid. A gorgeous 3.2-inch glass LCD display lit up with an image refreshingly dissimilar to Bono’s face. I found the 120 GB device as beautiful as it was technologically confounding: Wireless syncing, built-in FM radio, video support, and good enough music quality for a guy who still listened to a lot of ska. I paid $190 for the floor model. No box, no headphones, no instruction manual, no problem.
I fell in love quickly, dedicating hours to burning my collection of awful CDs onto my molasses-in-winter-speed PC to then transfer onto the Zune. It’s hard to describe the public’s infatuation with Apple at that exact point in history. It was oppressive and ardent, with a sense of blind loyalty rivaling the MAGA crowd. If you didn’t own an iPod, you were expected to get one. If you listened to your music on anything but an iPod — let alone a product from Apple’s archnemesis — you were a pariah. I fell into my new social standing quite easily, trying as hard as I could to deflect the wry comments from my friends and family with facts and figures to explain what drew me to this underdog MP3 player.
It was bigger and less ergonomic, sure — but I found excitement in the unknown. All you saw when you turned on your television was the iPod. If you think 2021 is an unfriendly environment for owners of non-pple products, try remembering what the world was like in 2009, when a hotel chain’s cred could instantly spike with the introduction of built-in iPod charging docs in each room. Seemingly every product out there was specifically Apple compliant: car chargers, portable speakers, etc. I have a distinct memory of walking around Boston with my Zune in my right pocket and a charging cord in the left. I have to assume other Zune owners felt at least some semblance of what I did every time a family member or stranger asked if they could touch my hideous MP3 player.
“I have so many fond memories of my Zune, including the cherished one that led to its downfall.”
“Oh wow, it’s so bulky,” they’d say, unknowingly half a decade away from pining over the gargantuan iPhones of the 2010s that dwarfed the hands of grown adults. They’d put on a big production, feigning frustration at the alien buttons.
“How do you use this? It’s so big! How do you put music on it? Wanna hold my Nano?” My Zune was always too large, too confusing, and too different from what people were used to. It was as if Apple had caused the world to forget how to press buttons; this was the gray wheel generation.
I have so many fond memories of my Zune, including the cherished one that led to its downfall. On a road trip from Connecticut to California with my brother and best friend, I busted out my Zune and regaled the car with what I’m sure was Reel Big Fish-adjacent. I was the one driving when they started passing it around, marveling at the HD quality videos and gorgeous album art that would explode on the screen as songs played. They were guys of a different stock — far different from the trendier college friends who ridiculed my music player. They saw my Zune for what it was: A marvel of modern technology.
Zune didn’t have Bono, it was never a major plot point on an episode of The Office, and I’d like to challenge you to remember even one Zune commercial. You can’t.
Admittedly, the Zune died out for legitimate reasons: It didn’t have iTunes, the accompanying Marketplace was a mess, nobody made Zune accessories, and it just couldn’t compete with an innovative company like Apple. Microsoft officially discontinued the Zune in 2012, two years after the release of the lackluster Zune HD 64. My Zune met its fate during the very same road trip that restored my confidence in the underdog MP3 player. Somewhere between Virginia and New York, I put on a song and absentmindedly plopped the Zune down in my cupholder, where a small McDonald’s Diet Coke had leaked most of its contents hours before. When the music stopped, I assumed I’d run out of batteries. Then I saw what had happened.
Remember that scene from Terminator 2 when Sarah Connor has to lower the Terminator into the lava because Terminators cannot self-destruct? Through tears, young John Connor watches his robot buddy slowly melt into lava, a thumbs-up as the very last gesture it can muster before complete destruction. I got one or two blips of music before my Zune officially died a day later, but I’d like to think a small part of me drowned in that sludgy ocean of Coke along with my prized music player. Maybe I was tired of fighting, maybe it’s because I had finally started making money, but I knew my rendezvous with the technological counterculture had come to an end.
Now, as I sit with a Macbook on my lap and iPhone in my hands, I think not about what I lost when my Zune died, but how the world was never ready for the short-lived MP3 player. Maybe things would’ve been different had the Zune dropped at the height of streaming, maybe Microsoft could’ve partnered with Liam Neeson — a decidedly cooler Irish guy — for a partnership that would’ve made U2 look like the freaking Wiggles.
Zune taught me a lot. I learned to pick my battles, specifically when it comes to swimming against the current for the thrill of it. I’ll always hold a small torch for a product that made me feel special — as if giving money to one conglomerate as opposed to the other was the lesser of two evils. At the very least, I stopped listening to ska.
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