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AirPods, explained

Apple’s wireless earbuds have been fodder for memes and jokes about eating the rich — but people are still buying them.

A woman wearing AirPods.
A launch event attendee wears Apple AirPods on September 7, 2016, in San Francisco, California.
Stephen Lam/Getty Images

AirPods, though I have never personally handled them, are ubiquitous in my daily life.

I see them in the locker room at the gym, in the 99-cent store where I buy my off-brand Gatorade, in the crawling line of office workers tumbling their way down into the subway in their springtime best, in the elevator, in the freezer aisle, all over the internet.

AirPods are just like normal Apple earbuds except there’s no wire to get tangled in the wearers’ shirt buttons, just two white plastic rods barely touching the bottom of each earlobe. They play sounds into these ears, I assume, though I’ve never asked.

First sold in the fall of 2016, AirPods are by most accounts perfectly adequate-sounding. The first generation cost $159 per pair, and the second generation, released this spring, cost $199 because they came with a wireless charging case and can switch between your laptop and phone faster. There are fairly credible rumors that there will be a third-generation product later this year, which may be water-resistant and noise-canceling, and likely more expensive than the last.

AirPods were far from the first wireless audio option, but they were announced in the same breath as Apple’s decision to eliminate the headphone jack from its phones for the foreseeable future and probably forever. They were meant to recreate the standard way of listening to things — not just music and podcasts, but also the tiny voice of Apple’s voice assistant, Siri. At the time, I was writing for the tech website The Verge and was shouted down by dozens of excited Apple fans after complaining that a cultural shift to wireless-everything would ruin the romance of sharing your ’buds with a crush.

I stand by that opinion even as I admit that, two and a half years later, I no longer totally believe in the utility of crushing. I was still right on the larger point: AirPods did end up having an outsized cultural impact for something so small and uninteresting on the surface level.

They’ve become a meme because of the way they signify the atomization and isolation of modern life; the tension between the frivolous lives of the global elite and the dwindling health of our planet; the disillusion of millennials and Gen Z, who do not have the same fondness or capacity for displaying wealth as previous generations; and the apparently unstoppable ability of the power players in Silicon Valley to tell us how to live, even when their ideas are not particularly smart.

It might be too much to say AirPods represent late-stage capitalism, but they definitely represent late-stage Apple

This certainly isn’t Apple’s first stab at implanting some scraps of plastic and metal in the zeitgeist. For people in their 20s, it’s hard to remember a time before the Apple mystique — strong enough to warrant the publishing, in 2004, of a thick, photo-heavy history of the company’s evangelists (The Cult of Mac), and then a 2005 sequel (The Cult of iPod).

The first iPods shipped with white circular earbuds immediately identifiable as Apple trademarks, hammered home by the famous “Silhouettes” ad campaign. In the US, in 2007, the original iPhone replaced the Motorola Razr — arguably the first status symbol cell phone — and has reigned with diminishing impact for over a decade. It is, at this point, getting a little commonplace.

Apple Holds Press Event To Introduce New iPhone
Apple’s Phil Schiller announcing AirPods at Apple’s September 2016 hardware event.
Stephen Lam/Getty Images

Still, rappers love the MacBook Air. And Columbia Records’ latest multi-million-dollar record deal went to some kid from Florida with an Apple logo tattooed on his cheekbone. The company’s undeniable failure at turning the Apple Watch into a cultural symbol of similar immediate coherence and clout stands out as the exception that proves the rule.

Apple has relished its reputation as a trendsetter, and though its grip is slipping in the world of high-end phones, AirPods were an undeniable win. Now basically every major tech company has its own approximation, with Amazon’s Alexa-enabled version reportedly coming later this year. The key difference, still, is that AirPods connect the best to iPhones (and all other Apple products owned by a given iPhone user), though they and other wireless earbuds can connect to any phone with Bluetooth.

Apple’s best asset is arguably its branding, which extends to a family of apps and devices that all function best together, and disincentivizes swapping in any other company’s laptop or earbuds. Why would you break up the crew? In September 2016, when Apple unveiled the AirPods and infamously credited itself with having the “courage” to remove headphone jacks from its phones, Carolina Milanesi wrote for Recode that AirPods were not just an accessory. “[AirPods] are an important tool to show users who are embedded in the ecosystem the power of owning multiple devices,” she wrote.

(Writing for Real Life in 2016, Haley Mlotek argued that Apple’s predilection with “aesthetic and functional simplicity” has long felt paternalistic, “inspired less by how people use their phones than by how Apple’s directors and engineers think people should use their phones.” “Paternalism” is also the word I used when describing Apple’s decision to get rid of the iPhone’s home button last fall.)

This doesn’t mean AirPods were always a sure hit, though they were, of course, intended as a sleek, fashionable improvement. Apple tried and failed to push the fashion industry to embrace wearables with the Apple Watch, and has a much less impressive track record with accessories than it does with core devices. Shortly after their release, The Verge hosted a roundtable on AirPods’ appearance and cool factor, which resulted in some useful takeaways:

  • “My long nails were problematic when trying to drop the little guys into their charging hole.”
  • “I didn’t understand why people kept staring at me until I remembered I had white plastic sticks bursting out of my ears like some sort of disease.”
  • “I hated the look of them when Apple announced them last September, and I still kind of do now, but I was able to forget that hate while I used them.”

Cam Wolf recalled then his experience enjoying the jealous eyes of fellow subway commuter, saying “AirPods felt like a huge flex.” He added, “Hyped-up new products get released and they’re so instantly recognizable; it’s not so different from what happens in the fashion industry. It felt a little like, yes, I have the new shit.” AirPods joined the latest crop of slightly ugly or unexpected status symbol commodities — settling in among fancy water bottles, high-brow canvas tote bags, and sneakers that look like marshmallows that have been put through microwaves.

Soon the internet’s cool rich kids started playing with ways to make AirPods even more obviously standoffish. Hypebeast reported in February 2017 that a “team of artisans” in Brooklyn were offering a $99 service to coat AirPods in a scratch-resistant black matte. Brikk, the luxe Los Angeles-based accessory company with a parody-ripe catalog, released custom AirPods last summer dipped in two layers of 24-carat gold, for $4,995. (Add $5,000 for a row of two-carat diamonds on the back of the pods.)

By 2019, young people had embraced AirPods — maybe seriously, but probably so ironically that it presented as seriously. In March, an adult man told Mashable that he’d been taunted by a group of kids because he was wearing headphones with wires. “I was walking to my office down Pennsylvania Avenue and began putting my headphones [in] to make a call. A group of 20 or so middle school students passed by me with one loudly proclaiming ‘nice headphone[s]’ and another exclaiming ‘POOR,’” he said.

AirPods became a meme because the internet hates rich people now

Though Apple has always designed things to give off an air of “I am transcending the indignity of the human experience with this clean and functional object,” young people have gotten savvier and nastier when it comes to ridiculing displays of wealth and implied purpose. AirPods — unlike the iPhone, unlike the MacBook — are indisputably a meme.

At this point, the meme has gone through all the life phases of an internet phenomenon. At first the joke was simple: Rich people wear AirPods. People joked about tucking them into their carrying case at night wrapped in $100 bills, and tweeted mockery of the well-dressed bros who adopted them first.

On Tumblr, the joke was slightly different. The thousands of pop culture fandoms there made a whole bunch of variations of a meme in which someone — a popular cartoon character or superhero — was in imminent mortal danger, but unable to tell, because they had AirPods in and weren’t paying attention to the world around them. (“Oh my god he can’t hear us he has airpods in,” was the recurring caption.) It’s hard to say, really, if this is a joke about AirPod owners being snobby and self-absorbed or if it’s just a not-that-nice or interesting joke about not being able to hear.

The memes have gotten stranger and more elaborate over the past six months, peaking again around the holidays with another rash of TikTok clips and viral Instagram posts. One oft-cited post shows people who were gifted AirPods at Christmas being knighted as new “members” of the cultural elite. As is the way online, it spiraled into silliness, and was filtered through other popular meme categories until it barely made sense.

“Suddenly, people are talking about eating AirPods, which feels like a throwback to the Tide Pod craze of about a year ago,” Mel Magazine’s Miles Klee wrote earlier this year. “But also a reimagining of the voguish anticapitalist advice, derived from the philosopher Rousseau, to ‘eat the rich.’” In February, a professionally produced viral YouTube video about swallowing AirPods fueled a minor panic about the possibility of children swallowing them. (As of this writing, the video has been viewed more than 1.7 million times, but YouTube has added a “may be inappropriate for some users” content restriction.)

A few weeks later, a marketing agency opened up a contest asking Twitter users to edit AirPods into famous works of art, for no apparent reason, and with the only stated reward “a trophy.” (Eventually, it became five trophies, plus a small donation to the Brooklyn Arts Council.) The winner was a well-done ’shop of a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, well-timed to the Frida Kahlo exhibit that had just opened at the Brooklyn Museum.

The memeification of AirPods is mostly separate from their real-life uses, though. Adults, probably, have different reasons for being super into AirPods. In April, the Atlantic’s Amanda Mull wrote about workers in open-plan offices — urban, reasonably well-paid, but irritated by the constant imperative to be available and effusive — and why they love AirPods. The people she spoke to explained that they are a tool to discourage conversation, allowing you to walk around with earbuds in and “avoid the constant distraction of compulsory social interaction.” A 35-year-old social media strategist told Mull that, upon arriving in the office one day and realizing he had forgotten his wireless headphones, he “got up and walked straight to the Apple store to buy a pair of AirPods.”

AirPods aren’t even that expensive, but they seem like a rich person product because they don’t last long and are easy to lose and might kill the earth

In a recent feature for Vice, Caroline Haskins called AirPods a “tragedy,” singling it out as a symbol of the stupidity of modern consumption and inequality:

Workers are paid unlivable wages in more than a dozen countries to make this product possible. Then it’s sold by Apple, the world’s first trillion-dollar company, for $159 USD. For roughly 18 months, AirPods play music, or podcasts, or make phone calls. Then the lithium-ion batteries will stop holding much of a charge, and the AirPods will slowly become unusable.

AirPods generate an egregious amount of waste, many critics have noted, because Apple glues the pieces together, possibly to discourage people from taking them apart and attempting to change the potentially combustible lithium-ion battery once it begins to die. Like other wireless earbuds, you’re not really supposed to throw them out or recycle them. “When you die, your bones will decompose in less than a century,” Haskins writes. “But the plastic shell of AirPods won’t decompose for at least a millennium.”

Part of the reason they seem like luxury items is because of how reckless they appear as investments. As Haskins points out, this particular strain of the meme has seen a long life on TikTok. Those kids love pretending to flush their AirPods down a toilet, almost as much as they love pretending that everyone with wires on their earbuds is in poverty.

It’s easier to picture an AirPod skidding into a sewer grate than it is to picture an AirPod remaining perfectly still in the side of a jogging man’s head. We have all lived long enough to have a rough grasp of how physics will affect our bodies as they move around in space. Yet Apple will probably, eventually, convince us otherwise.

The absurd cultural reaction to AirPods defies exact explanation. They are a deeply boring-looking item and not a particularly innovative one either. The choice to own them is not really as revolting or funny as anyone makes it out to be. It seems closest to say that our collective reaction is against a superwealthy tech company mandating that we do something a little bit strange with a body part super near to our face. And then some of it is just the joy of having someone to dunk on — a rich doofus with AirPods, a swagless late adopter without them. AirPods can turn everyone into the butt of the joke.

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