Steve Jobs will be very sadly missed it seems. Quite how sadly missed says a lot about modern leisure consumers.

Saint Steve

Apple’s former CEO and main face is being eulogised as a game changer, an inspirational CEO, a visionary and a hero – someone who inspired people and changed their lives. The grieving is being expressed with the fervour usually reserved for political martyrs or pop stars. Across the globe outside apple stores we’ve seen candlelit vigils as well as literal tributes in the form of actual apples inscribed with messages of grief and gratitude.
Throughout history, saints have created commercial opportunities and this is no different. The pop culture canonisation of Mr Jobs is already creating its own relics for sale. Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson (Little, Brown & Company 2011) already leads Amazon’s bestseller list on pre-orders alone. Meanwhile over at Sony Pictures there is satisfaction at having secured the $1m rights to Steve Jobs: The Movie. Jobs’ penchant for hoisted up jeans drew rare incidences of criticism, but in death he has achieved a style iconography for his turtlenecks. His brand of choice, St. Croix has revealed that its sales rocketed by 100% a day after his passing.

A Very Modern Pop Star

The parallels with Amy Winehouse’s posthumous Fred Perry clothing collection and spate of books are informative. Although they were poles apart, both were celebrated for being triumphant outsiders who gave people pleasure through works of beauty. The pop star parallels are informative and the story of Jobs’ rise from outsider hippie to definer of the mainstream, one who touched people’s lives each and every day, certainly has the ring of the classic band biopic. Factor in his fall during the 1980s and his redemptive rise to overhaul Microsoft in the 1990s and you have a tale to warm the cockles of wannabe CEOs and style-conscious consumers the world over. Steve Jobs will also be remembered as something of a performer, a front man taking centre stage to launch Apple’s latest devices and innovations, as Apple came to achieve an era-defining cool.

Big and Beautiful

Apple’s cultural dominance became so paramount that in the ‘brandscape’ the conceptual ‘ownership’ of the word ‘apple’ was successfully wrested from the hands of the world’s biggest ever pop group. In the minds of the modern post internet generation, it’s arguable that ‘apple’ is a brand foremost and fruit second. When bands and brands get too big, the convention is that they lose their cool, but not Apple. What’s fascinating is that Steve Jobs not only made his listening devices far cooler than the era defining icons that preceded them – Dansette in the 60s, the Sony Walkman in the 80s – he made them far more desirable and fashionable than the very music they played. Leaving aside iTunes, MP3 players made access preside over ownership when it came to music and in the absence of branded musical product with sleeve art, what you listened to became a far less tangible badge of cool than what you listened on. In the 50s we had Levis, now we have Apple.
Apple’s devices became the stars of the show and their various upgrades and editions came to be released with the regularity of records, and received with accordant anticipation and baited breath fanfare once reserved exclusively for the movie premieres of old. The device has become the new release; and an event in its own right that many consumers will queue for. Apple products are treasured by their fans as things of beauty: elegant, tactile statements of style and status, products to be seen out with. As such they have achieved the kind of loyalty levels usually reserved for artistes or sports teams. With Jobs as face and figurehead, for many, Apple became a members club in its own right – a community to belong to.

Thank you for the Music

Without getting into the debate around apple’s team ethic and the layers of genius underlying its success, part of the reason Jobs is so feted is not just that he’s perceived as a ‘liberator’ of music, but because he’s also seen as a ‘star maker’, a friend to DIY artistes everywhere. Apple’s raft of creative platforms moved privileged creative processes – recording, movie making etc – into the mainstream and then helped people distribute them to peers and critics. These processes were not unique or exclusive to Apple products but when it came to brand equity and word of mouth it often felt like it. So in many ways, Jobs came to represent the creative man’s Simon Cowell, someone who could make your dreams come true, minus the humiliating feedback.

We, myself and i

Another factor in people’s affection for Apple is a sense that its products have brought us them closer to the people they love. This is actually just a happy fact of modern communications technology, but Apple masterfully took ownership of the idea to become synonymous with ‘affectionate technology’ through its’ Face Time campaign. This successfully subverted the very notion of human communication and contact, so that for an entire generation of screenagers the phrase ‘face time’ is as much about video calling as being physically ‘in touch’. The next step in affectionate technology will be for the intrusive “Cam Cam” surveillance culture to become a more benign form of monitoring – one that protectively tracks and connects us with our children and ailing, elderly relatives.
As Apple has stepped into the emotional territory normally reserved for artists and other badges of taste, it has obviously taken some flack. Its “I’m a Mac / I’m a PC” campaign was calculatedly divisive in its bid to appeal to the egotism of the tribe that claims to be composed of aesthetes and artistes. As a result some have damned Apple as all shiny casing and no heart. Amidst the din of approval for Jobs, some have voiced the view that the “i” prefix for Apple products is informative, that it is a ‘me brand’. The argument goes that compared to the philanthropic feats of Bill Gates and Microsoft, Apple’s rebranding and regeneration of a Chicago El Train station looks like small beer.
Leaving aside whether the Apple phenomenon is indicative of consumers becoming more individual or more selfish, one thing is clear. As our pop stars become more accessible and less precious, as political party memberships and church attendances decline, the mourning for a company CEO tells us something about how seriously we take consumerism and how dearly we love our products. Our goods are the new gods.

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