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‘Baby Driver’ and the Nostalgic Return of the iPod

The wheelman in Edgar Wright’s new heist movie, ‘Baby Driver,’ has a secret weapon, and it isn’t his car

(Sony/Ringer illustration)
(Sony/Ringer illustration)

"How many of those do you have?" Debora asks Baby as he pulls yet another iPod — this one in a pink, sparkly case — out of his jacket pocket. "I got different iPods for different days, and moods," Baby replies with a shrug. Apparently that day he’s feeling glam: Baby pulls this iPod out because he’s pretty sure it’s the one with T. Rex’s "Debora" on it, and he wants to introduce his new flame to her namesake song.

Edgar Wright’s new movie, Baby Driver, is animated by details that make it feel more like a modern fairy tale than a heist film, none more surreal than the fact that Baby (Ansel Elgort) still owns about a dozen iPods … and they all still work. The fast-paced, musically driven tone is set in the film’s opening seconds, when we first meet Baby, a getaway driver. While his partners wreak havoc inside a bank, he keeps his cool by listening and lip-syncing to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s 1994 song "Bellbottoms." The viewer is in on the intimacy of this choice: We hear the patter of the click wheel as he scans for it and Wright shows us the song’s info on the iPod display screen. The film’s rhythm matches the beat in Baby’s ears: The ensuing chase scene is cut so it synchronizes to "Bellbottoms" and plays out like a choreographed dance. Music, and the methods by which Baby listens to it, plays such a big role in the film that the iPod often feels like a character itself. It’s the closest thing Baby has to a sidekick.

So thorough is Baby’s devotion to the iPod that, the first time I saw the movie, I found myself wondering if it was a period piece set in 2008. Or, at least I did until a flashback sequence about a third of the way into the film reveals the root of Baby’s obsession. One Christmas, when he was about 5 or 6, Baby’s parents gave him a first-generation iPod, the kind that was introduced in 2001. He’d wriggle in his earbuds and use the music to drown out the sound of his parents violently arguing. That’s what he was doing on a day when they were screaming at each other in the front seat of a car — causing a crash that, we see in the flashback, killed Baby’s mom and dad, left him with a permanent ringing in his ears, and busted up the screen and the click wheel of his iPod. Baby’s kept it as an artifact from the wreck and looks at it when he’s missing his mom, caressing it with his finger like a family heirloom.

With its knowing, hyper-referential sense of humor and its two young stars doing their best Bonnie and Clyde (or "Bonnie and Bonnie," as one character mockingly calls them, a self-aware wink at both Elgort’s pretty-boy charm and the sheer difficulty of making a truly original heist story in 2017), Baby Driver is being heralded as a movie of its moment. So why does it introduce its 20-something title character as someone who listens to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on a device that’s been discontinued for almost three years? Bro, do you even stream?

Last year, I wrote an essay about my own iPod nostalgia in the age of streaming. There are plenty of reasons I often still prefer listening to music on my 160GB iPod Classic instead of on my phone: It has more storage space, it doesn’t use data, and the curated finitude of the music it holds is far less overwhelming than the everythingness of the cloud. I admitted, though, that this wasn’t a particularly popular habit anymore, and that when I use my old iPod on the subway it’s occasionally provoked quizzical comments and stares. I concluded that, since its discontinuation, the iPod has become as much a retro fetish object as the record player was in the CD era — a signifier that someone is serious (perhaps even to the point of being a little snobby) about music. The way Wright uses it in Baby Driver all but confirms this.

There’s an early scene in which we see Baby in his room, chopping up a tape recording he’s made of another character’s voice, eventually collaging it into a track that sounds like an amateurish version of the Avalanches’ "Frontier Psychiatrist." While he’s doing this, we get a glimpse of his gear, a hodgepodge of analog and digital tools. In the background — like a tiny Stonehenge of the Apple store — we see a collection of iPods in all shapes, sizes, and generations. (Baby is such a completist that he even has the special edition U2 iPod; shout-out to the production designer.) In the middle of his iShrine, of course, is that broken iPod that serves as a reminder of the accident, and a connection to his mom.

Baby likes vinyl, cassettes, and even the radio — when he’s forced to drive a car too old to have an aux cord, he scans the dial until he finds, fortuitously, a driving song no less perfect than Golden Earring’s "Radar Love." But he’s got the music snob’s suspicion of newer (and more popular) modes of listening. It’s striking that in a movie as self-consciously about music as Baby Driver, only once does a character play a song through a phone. And even then it’s played for a gag: When Baby has to steal a car he scams some Juggalo-looking stoner twins, one of whom takes a long puff on his vape pen before speaking. "Can I at least get my phone?" he calls out to Baby as he jacks his car. He cannot. But Baby seems pleased enough with their selection of Young MC that he lets it soundtrack the rest of the ride.

Phones don’t evoke feelings for Baby the way iPods do: A smartphone would make him too vulnerable to GPS, so he uses flip-phone burners. (In this movie, being on the grid is for squares.) But it’s worth noting that Baby isn’t portrayed as a fan of any one band or genre so much as a fan of the act of listening — and of curation — itself. He doesn’t obsess over single songs so much as he uses them to express his passing states of mood. The closest he gets to anything resembling fandom is to Queen, the band that recorded his so-called "killer track," "Brighton Rock" — but even then he doesn’t seem to possess a knowledge or preference beyond that one song. He’s cool enough to know at least one early Marc Bolan song, but blows it when he tells Debora that the band that recorded her namesake song is called "Trex." That mispronunciation is an endearing moment: It shows how thin the veneer of his suavity actually is, but also how isolated his listening has been before he finds, in Debora, someone to share his earbud with. He’s probably never had occasion to say "T. Rex" aloud to anyone before.

Slight spoiler: The body count in Baby Driver gets pretty high, but at no point did I gasp louder than when a character shoots one of Baby’s iPods point-blank. The emotional impact of that moment shows how heavily Wright leans on his music player of choice. Baby Driver isn’t a radically original movie so much as an imaginative remix of tropes — the iPod is its perfect musical avatar. Will the movie make iPods so retro-chic that Apple will be forced to put them back on the market? A baby can dream.