I remember watching the old iPod ads in my early childhood, with their infectious rhythm; the colourful backgrounds, the silhouettes of dancers filled with joie de vivre in every step, and the harmony that tied (or tangled, rather) them all together, the swaying white wired headphones that cut through the silhouettes. It was an age of innocence and simplicity of youth, without the sense of headphone snobbery that permeates today.
Nearly two decades on, we’ve experienced listening to our music in vastly different ways as the accessory has evolved, from the chokehold that was Beats headphones and their obnoxious bulkiness, to the immersiveness of noise-cancelling devices, and now to the ubiquity and convenience of wireless headphones in their array of variants, notably the AirPods. But in this year of our Lorde, the wired headphones are having an apparent Renaissance, at least in the Gen Z TikTok community.
TikToker @thedigifairy trend-forecasted the resurgence in popularity of wired headphones as a “vintage” accessory, comparing its equivalence to vinyl collecting in the 2010s. Visually, being wired-in “assures the aesthetic of listening to music,” as listening wirelessly makes for an innate disconnect with music. They also cite photos of celebrities (mostly nepotism babies and A-listers’ children) sporting the wired look. From Lily-Rose Depp to Bella Hadid, they give a nonchalant cool when wired-in – the it girl factor.
With other users confessing to swapping their AirPods for their wired predecessor to give a “Lily-Rose Depp look” or for a touch of Y2K, or simply to say they’re too unbothered to keep up with the latest gadgetry, it’s solidified the it girl as an aspirational aesthetic to emulate amongst the Gen Z TikTok community. One other trope Gen Z has aestheticised is old money: think east-coast Americana, Blair Waldorf, polo clubs, and country estates. Aestheticising old money “timeless staples” seems to provide a safe haven of longevity and stability for Gen Z, to retreat into the traditions of generational wealth at a time when constant uncertainty looms at the powers that be. It also makes for an interesting case in consumer behaviour, emulating old money through neutrals and natural fibres may signify a growing repulsion for micro-trends and an appreciation for slow-fashion. However, one TikTok I came across had even aestheticised “reading” as an old money hobby – the lunacy.
But in defence of wired headphones, they never went out of use. As for myself, I’m always a little mortified to speak on the phone in public, and cupping my mouth so that my AirPods can pick up my voice doesn’t help, nor does it make me look any less like a finance bro moving markets on a lunch break. So wires it is. Sure, the unspoken cliqueyness of AirPods users may have peer-pressured some, and no matter how hard Apple tried to accelerate the obsolescence of wired headphones, wires are still swaying off of ears (for most of whom I can assume are not raging aesthetes). However, lauding the it girl for using wired headphones demonstrates an interesting trend; they’re obviously able to afford the option of AirPods, yet by choosing to toss them aside for their older counterpart, they’re adored as a “trendsetter.” It reinforces how “being broke is an aesthetic.”
This touches on discussions of class appropriation – nothing new in fashion and dress. From Carhartt’s gentrification of blue-collar wear to the skater-boy urbanite, or middle-class high school boys’ eyebrow-furrowing fascination with high vis shirts in muck-up photos, seemingly to supplement their masculinity with a deliberately donned layer of “labour” and ruggedness – this makes for appropriation to add some character they think they lack. Whilst posing arms flexed, stretching the polyester of their tapered high vis sleeves to its seams, their hands tell of a life that has never done a day of work.
Yet assigning the supposed “outdated” use of wired headphones to a class is inherently offensive – so why is it a trend? Lauding the it factor for the wired headphones’ Renaissance reminds me of the adage “is it fashion or is it just skinny?”. Where ubiquitous and mundane objects are being used by a certain archetype of person (usually privileged), is adored as ‘trendsetting’ and aspirational, yet on anyone else, it wouldn’t be as aesthetic.
Although Apple wouldn’t subject their wired headphones to marked-up prices, a consequence of class-appropriated objects, it turns subscribers to this fad as hedonistic chasers in a consumerist culture. But will this fad circulate in the fashion system long enough? Accessorised for the layered autumnal look, and with Australia being the backwater for all seasonal trends in the Anglosphere, I wonder if wired headphones will reach our shores upon our return to campus next March.