Living in New York City during a pandemic has made finding safe, people-free outdoor space an even tougher mission than usual. So, every few months, my wife and I take a rental car upstate to find some open, no-one-around-for-miles kinda air. The air that doesn’t smell like your own breath being forced back up your nose under a mask on a hasty trip to CVS.
But on each of these trips, something has followed me no matter where I go. Something I never asked for. Every time I get into the car, it’s there. It appears, unsolicited, to spoil the beauty of the winding roads surrounding Minnewaska State Park. On a quiet, early morning drive to the farmers’ market, it returns. It is legion. It is …
For those whose memories were spared: On September 9, 2014, Apple hosted an event to debut the iPhone 6, set to launch later that month. Apple’s annual iPhone events had become major cultural gathering points, and to spice this one up, Apple CEO Tim Cook invited U2 to perform a song from their not-yet-released 13th album, Songs of Innocence, on stage.
After the performance, U2 front man Bono stood in front of a screen depicting the new album’s cover art and, fully rehearsed, turned to Tim Cook, knowingly asking, “How do we get this to as many people as possible?”
Tim Cook, speaking as if he just came up with the idea on the spot, himself, said, “Well, you know, we do have iTunes.” The crowd laughed, apparently digging the cheesy vaudevillian bit.
Bono then responds to Tim Cook, really leaning into the bit: “You would consider putting Songs of Innocence out to over half a billion people, free, in, say, five seconds from now?”
Cook then explained that every one of the then-500 million existing iTunes users would instantly get the album added to their accounts, no action required on their behalf … and definitely no consent. And while there were likely U2 fans thrilled to receive a free album from their favorite band, most other iTunes users on the planet were instantly either confused, annoyed, or worried to see an album they didn’t purchase automatically downloading onto their computer or smartphone.
There was media blowback; Wired described the release as “spam with forced downloads.” Even Bono offered a mea culpa by way of a lactose-inspired analogy for the album’s backfired rollout, speaking to NPR the following month: “We wanted to deliver a pint of milk to people’s porches. [But some] people were like, ‘Hey, I’m dairy-free.’ So, you know, apologies for that.” Meanwhile, Apple’s support lines were flooded with calls from people demanding that the album be removed from their accounts (Apple never officially disclosed how many calls, but more on that later). It got so bad that, at one point, Apple released a (now-defunct) tool so people could manually remove the album from their accounts without having to contact Apple directly.
I remember the negative reaction at the time but didn’t pay it much attention; I’d already turned off automatic downloads on my various devices to keep my meager hard-drive space free, so Songs of Innocence never found its way onto my phone or computer. Somewhere in Apple’s database it said that I owned the album, but so long as I never saw or heard it, it may as well have never existed for me. When I heard about the removal tool I cockily thought, Why bother? I’ll never see this thing anyway.
I would come to regret that.
Around 2016 or 2017, a couple years after Apple launched its CarPlay service, allowing your vehicle to sync with iOS, I started noticing something odd. Whenever I got into a car and connected my phone, it would automatically play something I had purchased on iTunes: a list of options so small — just nine albums total — it meant I was incessantly hearing the same tracks over and over again. And as much as I love Huey Lewis, “The Heart of Rock & Roll” has its limits. The albums were constantly syncing to my newer devices because of some iCloud setting somewhere; even deleting them didn’t do the trick, as they’d continue to play over the cloud. After suffering with it for a few years, I found out that you could “hide” albums from iTunes, ensuring that they’re never automatically played. It saved me from the shame of hearing the first track of the Charlie Brown Christmas album for the 700th time. I was free.
But one album remained: Songs of Innocence.
Unlike the other albums, there was no way to hide this, and it never appeared in my purchased albums. Because I hadn’t purchased it. It was a gift from Tim Cook and Bono. And due to some quirk in iTunes, it was unkillable.
The pandemic was the breaking point for me. Trips outside of the city had to be carefully choreographed for safety and sanity. Every minute was scheduled to offer the precise respite I was looking for. My wife and I would park our car and go on long hikes through the beautiful Mohonk Preserve, taking in the natural splendor and quiet. We’d hike for hours, returning to our rental car in the late afternoon, looking forward to a relaxing drive back home. She’d pull open Google Maps as I started the car and rolled down the windows.
Suddenly, the calm afterglow of an exhausting hike would be dashed by percussion and chanting. It was U2’s Songs of Innocence, back again to terrorize us.
It’s possible that the whole album might be a triumph on the level of Abbey Road — Rolling Stone sure thought so — or DAMN. I wouldn’t know. I’ve listened to the first ten seconds of that first track hundreds of times. Those ten seconds play out the same way every time:
[First two seconds.] “Wait, what’s that noise?”
[Third second.] “OH! GODDAMN IT!”
[Final seven seconds.] Me scrambling for my phone to shut it off.
In September 2020, upon returning from the latest trip, I hit rock bottom. I decided I would do everything in my power to remove this album from my life. Forever.
It was in that moment of exasperation that I discovered Apple’s removal tool was no longer functioning. I turned to Twitter for help:
Someone suggested I contact Apple support directly, so I steeled myself and called them up.
I know how tough working tech support can be; I really strive to be as polite as possible in these scenarios. I thanked them for taking the time to help me out before asking how I might remove an album from my iTunes account.
Apple tech support person: Which album?
Me: Uh … it’s called Songs of Innocence by U2?
Apple tech support: Oh … okay, just one minute. [30 seconds later.] Huh, so it’s not actually allowing me to remove it.
Me: [Dear God, this will never end.] Oh, huh, that’s weird. Any idea why?
Apple tech support: I’m not really sure. Let me put you in touch with my manager.
They forward me on to their supervisor.
Apple supervisor: Sorry, but we can’t actually remove that album. It was a gift.
Me: [I’m sorry?] I’m sorry?
Apple supervisor: It was a gift. It’s a gift that comes with every phone, so you can’t delete it. You know how you can’t delete the Messages app? Same thing here, it just comes with the phone.
Me: Okay, but what would happen if a kid purchased an inappropriate album on their parents’ account that kept showing up. Would you be able to remove that?
Apple supervisor: Oh, yes, we can remove that no problem.
Me: But not this?
Apple supervisor: No.
Me: I’m concerned ten years is going to go by and I’m still going to be stuck with this album playing in my car.
Apple supervisor: That’s funny, I actually really like the album!
Me: [Patiently.] Yeah, I’m sure the album is great. It’s more that it’s sorta forced upon me.
Apple supervisor: Yeah, I know what you mean. A lot of people call in about it, they have a problem with it. I think they’ll fix it eventually. I don’t think you’ll be stuck with it in ten years. I think they’ll fix it.
Me: [Dejected.] Alright, thanks for your time.
What will the world be like in 2030? Will it be a post-pandemic utopia? Will the iPhone 22, with its lavender-scented aromavision, revolutionize the ocular cybermod marketplace? It’s hard to say. But at least, I thought, I know what I’ll be listening to.
A few days after writing everything you just read, I decided to give one more call to Apple support, hoping to better understand what exactly was preventing them from removing the album in the first place. Here’s an edited transcript of the unthinkable conversation that ensued:
Me: [Politely laying out the situation, explaining that I have this album that keeps autoplaying in my car. I leave out the album name in the hopes that maybe she won’t dismiss me offhand.]
Apple tech support No. 2: That’s funny! I used to have CarPlay in my car and I used to sing a lot of karaoke. I used to sing that song, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” So every time I got in the car, that annoying karaoke version would come on. You know, like [singing] bingo bingo bingo bah bingo. [Laughs.] I’m like, Is this the most annoying thing or what?
Me: [Unironically loving this moment.] Yeah, totally!
Apple tech support No. 2: But I never really looked into it, so I see where you’re coming from.
Me: Yeah, so is there anything that can be done to remove it?
Apple tech support No. 2: Oh … well it’s giving me options on how to do it on the computer, but …
Me: [Wait, what? She can actually remove it?] Oh! Okay! That works great! [Hope is brimming.] So … under “Library” it says Songs of Innocence and it’s got, like, a cloud arrow pointing down. I just want to remove it from my account so it doesn’t keep syncing with my iPhone.
Apple tech support No. 2: Oh, I see! Is it that U2’s Songs of Innocence album?
Me: [Uh-oh.] Yeah, that one.
Apple tech support 2: Oh! For years — I’ve been working here for five years — at the beginning, you used to be able to request to remove it.
Me: [I’m doomed.]
Apple tech support No. 2: But now we have the option to just remove it for you. Would you like us to do that?
Me: [!!!] Oh! Yeah! That’d be terrific!
Apple tech support 2: Sorry, I should have asked what song it was, but yeah we have the option on our end. It was like a gifted album.
Me: [Traumatic flashbacks.] Yeah, I remember.
Apple tech support 2: So we get a lot of calls about it because people thought they were charged for it. So it became a thing. Obviously if it’s not an album you bought and it’s the first thing that pops up on your phone, I get it.
So I went ahead and removed it from your account.
Me: Oh terrific, so it just won’t show up anymore?
Apple tech support No. 2: [Reading from her screen.] Yeah, it says “U2’s Songs of Innocence removal queued.” So it should be gone.
Me: [Internally screaming.] Awesome!!! Well, thank you so much for your help!!!
Apple tech support No. 2: [Laughing at my enthusiasm.] Thank you, Russell, you’re the best. Have a great weekend, okay?
Hell yeah, I will.