Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Genius, Not so Fast!

I spend an inordinate amount of time listening to music. Actually, that's been less true lately. I can't read philosophy and theology with Lenny Kravitz in my ears the way I can with something less strenous like biblical studies. Heidegger and U2 simply cannot be in your head at the same time. But, in my normal life, I am always listening to something. My life definitely has a soundtrack.

Listening got even more interesting with the advent of iTunes. It made playlists, the true art of listening to music, an almost daily possibility. There were two levels to iTunes playlists the way I saw it. The first was to group songs together and put them on random so that you never quite knew how these songs that went together thematically or musically might come together in new combinations. This is fun, but does not require a lot of skill. The deeper magic for which I reserve the category "playlist genius" comes not only through grouping songs, but by putting them in just the right order. Ah, this is something that requires taste, sense, a poetic sensibility. Each song discloses possibility in opening and closing that requires the previous song and reccommends the next. And a true artist doesn't just string together obvious combinations, but finds unique points of contact that allows music to cross genre and era in a combination never dreamed of.

When iTunes let you share your playlist with users on the same network, my hidden gift came into the open. I'm not much of a theologian, and my contributions are not nearly so auspicious as my colleagues in publishing and lecturing, but my peers had to admit I put together one awesome playlist (are you kidding me, only two of them knew that iTunes even existed, but the staff noticed and appreciated that I made their days a little brighter). Who else would think to put Marvin Gaye, Van Morrison, and David Gray back-to-back? Well, ok, maybe others would as well. I'm just saying, I was good at it.

The latest version of iTunes has a feature called, get this, Genius. And this feature is a playlist feature. You simply let Genius have access to all your music, and then you pick one song and Genius creates a playlist based on that one song.

I was skeptical to say the least. I ran it through its paces. And I have to admit, it's pretty good. It would be one thing if it simply grouped music together based on some broad categories, but it seems to know the difference between Pearl Jam's "Yellow Ledbetter" and "Jeremy." Those two songs produced two totally different playlists. Sheesh, I could be out of business. And here's the kicker, it does it in an instant. The loving care that I took placing each song in just the right place took hours sometimes. This pulls songs together in a nano-second. Is this yet another instance of technology eclisping the human? Say it ain't so.

Ok, it ain't so. Genius has its limits. It tends not to cross genres and if you start with an older song (say the 70's), it tends to stay in that era. It would, for instance, be more likely to put Yellow Brick Road with a Zeppelin classic than a Wolfmother song. Some genius.

But it is also all teleology, and just in case you were wondering, I'm all about the eschatology. The difference is that teleology sees the end from the perspective of the beginning. The beginning has a certain momentum that simply works its way out. Eschatology, on the other hand, is an overthrow of the way things are. It is an invasion of the end on the middle, the last things determining things in between. iTunes Genius is determined only by the beginning. It is teleological.

So, when I'm bored--more properly, really, really bored--I like to take two songs that don't seem to belong together and see if I can get from one place to another. Can Genius do that? So, the last few days (I hope none of my profs read this), I spent a little time (about 2 hours total, I think) trying to start with the Elvis Costello classic, Shipbuilding, and ending with the new Kings of Leon song, Crawl. That's a pretty big gap to traverse. Then, to check my work, I compared it to what Genius came up with.

I'm not one to brag, but let's just say that I don't need a label to. . . you know. I'll spare you all the details, but there are some moves I'm proud of in there. I went from Elvis to Fiona Apple to Spoon to Beck to Liz Phair. From there I was home free. So, for fun in the middle I went from The Racontuers to David Bowie to INXS to Jet. I know, huh. But my favorite move was somehow getting a Weepies song within four of the Kings of Leon payoff. That's a Weepies song in the midst of a rock and roll buildup, a ramp up to Southern Rock no less. A Weepies song, sandwiched right between Tom Petty and Wilco! The Weepies! From Jack, to Suicide Blonde (perfect transition), to Kamera. Thank you, very much.

How did Genius do? Well, we both had Fiona Apple, Beck, and Liz Phair, but they were not the right songs to put with Shipbuilding (any half way informed PhD student wishing he were a music critic could see that). And I admit that I wish I had gone with Suzanne Vega's, Frank and Ava (what was I thinking). But the rest of the list is either predictable or uninspired. I know you'll have to take my word for all of this. But I think I've proven two things. First, for some things you still need a real human. And second, it's not so much where you begin that makes it worthwhile, but knowing where it ends.


Brad said...

What a wonderful post. I'm right there with you on the playlist obsession. I totaled the number of songs across all of the playlist/mixes I have made for my now-wife over the course of four years, and it was more than 1,000. Ahem.

Mark Love said...


You win! And I read your post from this week, High Fidelity is one of my favorite movies of all time. If you haven't read Nick Hornby, you need to (the author of the novel, High Fidelity). He has a book called Songbook that are essays on songs. Awesome stuff.


Kevin said...

Great post. I love the new Genius feature because it is quick and easy, but making a solid playlist is beautiful, powerful.

Cheryl Russell said...

So, you need a DJ name. Het one here: http://www.quizmeme.com/djname/quiz.php

thepriesthood said...

fun stuff. methinks Pandora is more genius than Genius...

Lisa Gonzales-Barnes said...

I was inspired to put some meaning into the playlist on my blog. I only have a few songs, but hey, it's a start and it was fun. If you have a moment, check it out and give me your "professional" opinion.