At the end of December, a PR agency representing American footballer Tim Tebow's new signature line of Soul brand headphones — model number SL300, $US299.95 retail — emailed us to invite us to a CES event at which Tebow himself would be showcasing his headphones and "speaking with the media". The event was total bullshit. Just like celebrity headphones.
The email invite said members of the press should arrive at 9am sharp. At 8.55am, when I stepped off the elevator on the 31st floor of the Venetian hotel to walk to the suite in which the event was being held, I was greeted by a line of people snaking far down the hallway. I took my place in the line and waited, assuming that it wouldn't be long before all the media people assembled were led into a room to perform the strange 21st century task of asking a middling football player questions about some expensive headphones with his name on them. But then it hit me.
It started when I realised that one of the gentlemen directly in front of me was carrying not a voice recorder or a reporter's notebook, but a football. A few spots in front of him were two men in combat fatigues — Why are military journalists here, I wondered to myself — and directly in front of them was a man in a sweatsuit clutching a folded-up University of Florida jersey.
These people weren't tech reporters, they were football fans.
As if on cue, Gizmodo's editorial fellow and my photographer for the day, Nick, held up a message he'd written on his phone for me to read, so as to avoid saying it out loud: "Everyone here is just old and weird and into sports."
If you've ever been in a Vegas hotel, you know that they tend to get very strict about rules and regulations. The casino business is massively profitable, and to keep it that way hotel managers understandably operate by the book. Thus it wasn't long before security guards were swarming the line and demanding that everyone clear out of the hallway in order to avoid violating fire codes. In an effort to stop their "media" conference from being crushed by the fuzz before it even began, the Soul people cut a deal with Venetian security: they would squish as many people as possible — about 25 or so — into the suite and everybody else in line would have to disperse. When it became obvious that the men in uniform would not be a part of the chosen party, they were allowed to go to the front of the line, and for a moment sports fanaticism and gadget obsessiveness and patriotism all came together in a distinctly only-in-America kind of way. "Thank you for your service," a woman in a mobility scooter called after the two soldiers as they eagerly strolled past her.
Nick and I just narrowly missed making it into the suite, and as the doors swung shut in our faces, a young man who was in front of us and had been next in line to get in whispered to nobody in particular, "Seriously?" Yes, seriously. (I'd later find out that that guy's dad had gone in, leaving his son outside to wait. Thanks, dad.)
After some quick talking, the Soul people allowed me, Nick, and "anyone else from the press" to hang around outside the suite and wait to interview Tebow once he was done with the group showcase. It turned out that Nick and I were the only press people left in line, and the dozens of Tebow fans surrounding us ambled dejectedly down the hallway, away from their Christian Jets quarterback king. In a shrewd move, one man claimed to be friends with the soldiers inside, prodding the soft spot Soul leadership obviously had for servicemen and winning himself the right to wait behind Nick and me. Later, when the soldiers emerged, however, the man didn't follow them or talk to them at all, meaning I think he was totally lying about being friends with war veterans in order to meet Tim Tebow and have him sign a couple footballs he had packed in a rolling suitcase. Tebow makes monsters of men!
Nick and I and the #1 Tebow fan dude waited and waited some more. We waited as at least five people late to the event walked up, autograph markers at the ready, only to be turned away by a curt security guard. We waited when the showcase let out and smiling people — press and civilian alike — poured out of the suite, followed by Tebow himself, looking collegiate in a blue oxford shirt and a cream cardigan. We then waited as Tebow breezed past us into a suite next to the one he'd been in previously, and we waited after that, not fussily, of course, because waiting is a common feature of CES. Eventually, fully expecting to wait some more, I asked a middle-aged blonde woman with a gentle voice and a clipboard how much longer I'd have to wait before the interview.
"Oh, you haven't heard?" she asked me.
"Tim decided he's not going to do one-on-one interviews today," she said. "I'm sorry."
I went and gathered Nick, who was at that point shooting pictures of Tebow's SL300s, and we left.
I don't really give a shit that I didn't get to interview Tim Tebow. Celebrities like him have boilerplate answers to all the questions you're going to ask them about their headphones anyway, and in the event that you throw them a curveball — someone suggested I ask Tebow how his headphones sounded on the bench — they're coddled by a team of publicists and managers who swoop in to steal them away. I also don't give a shit that a bunch of football fans came to an ostensible press event and treated it like a fan convention. Good for them. I hope they either enjoy their signed footballs or earn a handsome price for them on eBay. I don't even give a shit that I waited around a hotel hallway for an hour for nothing. The only thing I really care about is that all the clowns running these kinds of operations quit pretending like they're in the technology business and start admitting they're in the celebrity business.
No consumer electronics sub-industry was more chockablock with nonsense this year than that of celebrity headphones. 50 Cent was here to talk about his headphones, as was Lemmy and the rest of Motörhead in support of their punnily named Motörheadphönes (har har). Snooki was here shilling her headphones, which come adorned with animal prints and dangly feathers — "They're about fashion," she told me — and Soul, the maker of Tebow's line, announced this week a new series of Usain Bolt-sponsored headphones, the "Run-Free" model, which come in a black and green colorway as a "tribute to Bolt's home country of Jamaica."
A pair of Snooki's earbuds, made to resemble dangly earrings.
Celebrity endorsements are nothing new, to be sure, and aside from the fact that celebrity worship is pathetic, I could care less if companies want to pay actors and athletes millions of dollars to use and pretend to like a specific piece of electronic equipment. But let's stop trying to coax ourselves into believing that celebrity headphones are about technology, and should thus be displayed at the world's largest technology conference.
I'd be willing to trust Tim Tebow's opinion on, say, football cleats or Bibles. But why should anyone care what he has to say about headphones, particularly headphones that simply mimic the look and bass-heavy sound quality that already made Beats by Dre wildly popular? At least Snooki's headphones, as hideous as they are, and as ignorant to the science behind them as she is, look different than other headphones. That's a selling point, I suppose, and one that goes a little bit beyond the fact that the person marketing them is a famous reality show "guidette".
In the end, Tim Tebow was probably right to baulk at the idea of doing an interview with me. What illuminating thing was he going to say? What illuminating thing could I ask about his headphone line? Maybe he understood perfectly what I should have understood before I even went to his hotel suite that morning: He's just a guy being paid a lot of cash in the hopes that all those fans who had lined up to get him to sign their footballs might also one day shell out a few hundred bucks for headphones in order to be a bit more like their favourite quarterback. There's little more to it than that, and there's practically no technological innovation. Regular people like famous people and want to throw their money at them, and it's been like that since the concept of celebrity was invented. Sometimes you don't need the most cutting-edge ideas to get rich.