The first time it happened I was in the Metropolitan Avenue subway station listening to my iPod on the platform, virtually alone. A song by the meteoric band Bloc Party was winding down when the blast of malignant air ahead of the L train rushed over me. As the subway doors opened and a crush of worker drones scattered, a young woman made eye contact.
She was dressed like a 70s era punk, just about the spitting image of the singer Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex. It was 8:15 in the morning and I couldn’t help but chuckle in my headphoned isolation at the vagaries of fashion—the amount of time the young woman had devoted to her appearance to master a look as anchored in time as Tom Cruise in Cocktail or a Civil War reenactment soldier.
Unfortunately, she picked up my vibe and without a hint of glamour or grace she made straight for me. Had I laughed audibly?
My stomach tightened and I pretended not to notice her approach, but as I tried to slide past her onto the train she reached for her purse. Uh-oh, I thought. This can’t be good. She brazenly yanked out her iPod and shoved it in my face. I flinched. She was wearing tiny Apple ear buds and her iPod revealed The Rezzillos playing.
I raised my eyebrows: you don’t expect many people to be listening to 30-year-old Scottish pop punk. She was obviously embracing the lifestyle of her crafted look. Good for her. I reconsidered my derision, grinned sheepishly at her taste in music, and moved again to brush past her onto the train.
Yet after her point had seemingly been made she remained grinning maliciously in front of me. My only guess was that she wanted to be congratulated, so I let loose a sarcastically mouthed “bravo” and mocked a handclap. She still didn’t move and the L train slid right out of the station. I had missed it. Damn it. When I mimed my annoyance she pointed to the pocket of my jacket.
I suddenly got it. She showed me hers. Now she wanted to see mine.
My iPod was set on shuffle and I had lost track of the music during her assault. As I reached to show her, it hit me: the Pet Shop Boys were clearly swooning away in the background. Jesus Christ. Mortified, I held up my iPod for her inspection and looked away, feeling defeated. She simply turned and skipped down the ramp as my face reddened in electronic solitude.
The platform was empty and I had been dismissed. I felt like a fool. I could have blown away her pesky Rezzillos with my 20GB arsenal of depravity and hardcore, punk and whimsy. Goddamn Pet Shop Boys. I always knew listening to them would come back to haunt me, but I never thought it would hurt quite this bad. Because we were both wearing headphones I was denied any chance to laugh it off, or soft-pedal it as a lark.
I quickly realized I had lost my first iPod face-off. Score: Punk girl, one. Me, zero.
I started to encounter this musical one-upmanship everywhere. Now I can’t use my iPod around NYC without challengers constantly catching me unaware. Some mustached hedonist flashes Turbonegro at me in front of Katz’s Deli and what do I counter with? The Shins. “Indie-rock loser,” he mouths. “Fuck,” I roar silently. Down in Battery Park I fare better when a guy slides up to me unprovoked and flashes his iPod’s “Cheeseburgers in Paradise” at me tauntingly. I laugh aloud not even bothering to embarrass him with my Big Boys version of “Hollywood Swinging.”
I learn that timing is everything in this vicious new styling. God forbid you get caught with a Bright Eyes or Kings of Leon track playing. Since the L train incident I’ve upped my score: I’d say I’ve won about 65% of the face-offs. It’s difficult to quantify because I never actually speak to my nemesis. The victory is mine to accept or concede alone, within the solitude of a particular song, and the predatory nature of the face-offs almost unfailingly grants a win to the aggressor. Merely cue the appropriate song and strike.
I’ve remained a defensive player in the street challenges thus far, content in my iPod’s ability to counterstrike effectively. But I have a playlist devoted solely to iPod face-offs, and every day I imagine a reversal of roles: my face-off playlist at the ready for a sought-after rematch with Miss Styrene of the Metropolitan Station, often skipping L train after L train, hoping for my shot at redemption.
Trace is one of all those white guys in Brooklyn who own iPods. When he’s not trolling the Metropolitan Station for deliverance, he can be found at Vice Magazine.
When hes not trolling the Metropolitan Station, Trace can be found at Vice Magazine.