Apple Genius? Not So Much

Albert Einstein - Think DifferentWas a time when my friends and I made mixes for each other. It was as much a creative outlet where we, like film directors or music supervisors, created moods and told stories through the song selection and pacing of a finely tuned mix tape (or CD, as the technology evolved). We strove to outdo each other and slip in the most obscure, but fitting, references we could find and thread a common theme or musical palette. It was fun, and it was time consuming.

Last month Apple released a new version of its ubiquitous digital media player iTunes and with it is a feature they’ve dubbed Genius that they claim “creates the perfect playlist.” By combing through your iTunes library and analyzing your listening habits and those of others in their vast universe of iTunes users, Apple aspires to be your new mix disk friend.

So, how does it rate? Well…

I still love making mixes, even if they’re only for me now. I make mixes based on genres or styles or even effects—I have one called Twin Reverb that features lush, echo filled songs from the likes of Serge Gainsbourg to Beck to My Morning Jacket. So, I took the news of an automated mix maker with a bit of excitement and a bit of skepticism.

One of the cardinal rules of mix making is that you must NOT over represent any particular artist. You may include more than one song from an artist if they are either part of a medley (think: side two of the BeatlesAbbey Road) or you’re showing a drastic musical shift in said artist’s musical direction that fits with the theme of your mix (think: my Jungle Fever mix that illustrates how black and white artists have borrowed from each other to inform their own musical direction, which means you may have a Ray Charles song from his earlier, soul career and another from his later country albums. Likewise of Elvis.) The Genius doesn’t really follow that rule.

The first Genius mix I tested had Modest Mouse‘s “Invisible” (We Were Dead Before the Shop Even Sank) as the seed. Of the 25-song playlist there are four Isaac Brock tunes: three others from the same MM album and one from his side project, Ugly Casanova. So, that’s a split decision with Genius coming up a bit short. Nice inclusion of Ugly Casanova as it’s not only a side project, but a slight musical departure from his day job. But three songs from the same album and not one from Lonesome Crowded West or the Moon and Antarctica? The rest of the list is mildly interesting with some odd juxtapositions but weighing too heavily on contemporaries but not a single influence? No Pixies????

Genius mix number two is completely baffling. Seeded with the somewhat obscure but undeniably awesome gem by the Monkees, “If I Ever Get to Saginaw Again,” this had the potential to be a case study in the foundation of alt-country or a lesson in how publicly ridiculed pop bands can turn in genuine musical brilliance, but no… Instead I got a disjointed and confusing mish mash of songs with no discernable cohesion or relation to each other. Everything from REM‘s “Crush With Eyeliner” to The Stooges‘ “1969” to Paul Simon‘s “Slip Slidin’ Away.” I can’t make head or tales of this mess. Doubly concerning is the preponderance of McCartney solo material; and not just the good stuff. Delete.

I had to mix it up and figured if Genius really does factor in the habits of the entire iTunes user base, maybe I should try something a little more in-line with what the kids are into since I imagine (but have no stats to verify) that the average age of the average iTunes user skews younger. Let’s see what Kanye West does to this mofo.

Granted, I don’t have a huge hip hop selection in my library, but I do have a lot of the music that clearly inspires Kanye and even makes up a number of his samples so I’d hope for some interesting matches up in this mix. It’s another mixed bag. Lots of Jay-Z and an odd bounty of the Beastie Boys but most of the songs are what you’d expect to find on a Hip Hip for College Boys CD shopped around on late night infomercials but none of that source material that Kanye mines so ingeniously. No 80s pop, no German synth, none of that. And “Jesus Walks” up in here? Seriously? I am offended.

I did finally get a dinger with an interesting, if not inspired, 80s alternative mix seeded with The English Beat‘s “Rankin’ Full Stop,” another sorta obscure beauty from a band with much better known songs. Yes, there are two songs from The English Beat in the mix but even the other one is NOT “Save it for Later,” a song I love but is also finding its way on every 80s college rock iTunes Essentials and iMix. More importantly, this mix has a clever concoction of contemporaries and followers to make for a decent soundtrack to the movie of my high school that took place while I was at wrestling practice. That’s what I am looking for.

So, it seems Genius did finally get around to making a good mix. Much like the misguided but charming and slightly dopey sidekick in every John Hughes film, it finally got the joke and delivered a zinger of its own before we drive off in a Porsche as the credits role. But it’s still not making out with Phoebe Cates while The Jam plays in the background. Maybe in the sequel.

The Winning Playlist:

Rankin’ Full Stop – The English Beat

Police On My Back – The Clash

Do You Wanna Hold Me? – Bow Wow Wow

Jumping Someone Else’s Train – The Cure

Between Something and Nothing – The Ocean Blue

The Globe – Big Audio Dynamite

Damaged Goods – Gang Of Four

So. Central Rain – R.E.M.

Rumble in Brighton – Stray Cats

Straight To Hell (Unedited Version) – The Clash

Two Hearts Beat As One – U2

Beat On The Brat – The Ramones

Transmission – Joy Division

One Step Beyond – Madness

Hands Off…She’s Mine – The English Beat

Gigantic – Pixies

Ghost Town – The Specials

That’s Entertainment – The Jam

Thieves Like Us – New Order

Bankrobber – The Clash

Bring On the Dancing Horses – Echo And The Bunnymen

Killing An Arab – The Cure

Girl U Want – Devo

I Will Dare – The Replacements

Pump It Up – Elvis Costello

Have you played around with Genius much? Post your best and worst results (Genius vs. Dummy) to the comments.

MP3: Ugly Casanova – “Things I Don’t Remember” (Sub Pop, 2002)

6 thoughts on “Apple Genius? Not So Much”

  1. I presume the logic behind the “genius” is something along the lines of what makes Google tick.

    So, has anyone tested how dynamic the playlists are? If you plug in the same seed song two weeks later, do you get a completely different playlist? If you hit it three times in a day, do you get three wildly divergent lists, or three samey-same ones?

  2. i was under the impression that this worked more in the way pandora does with the music genome project, rather than looking looking for similar listening habits like

    any thoughts?

  3. Genius seems too tied to specific genre and has real problems creating really dynamic mixes. It’s the same sort of problem that satellite radio has, assuming that jazz and rock and country and rap don’t mix well, when they do.

  4. As I understand it, ideally, your Genius will eventually help my Genius. Sort of like the “You May Also Like” thing that we’re all so familiar with now (thanks Amazon, Netflix!). Keep using Genius, even though it’s jarring and lame, because with all of your help, we can get this kid walking!

    But in the end, it will still only work with the music we have in our library. At best, it’s a personal assistant for people too lazy to create their own playlist, something shuffle took care of ages ago.

    Showing me just how bad my musical taste can get, here’s my list (in classic Side A, Side B format, and cut to fit a 90 minute tape), based off the truly embarrassing choice of “Possum Kingdom”. I call it the At the Time, I Was Only Trying to Do to Her What the Rest of the Republicans Were Doing to Us mix.

    1. Possum Kingdom ~ The Toadies
    2. Tarantula ~ Smashing Pumpkins
    3. Just Like Heaven (Promo remix) ~ The Cure
    4. The Underdog ~ Spoon
    5. Like a Rolling Stone ~ Bob Dylan
    6. Misery ~ Soul Asylum
    7. Timebomb ~ Beck
    8. These Eyes ~ The Guess Who
    9. Business Time ~ Flight of the Conchords
    1. Mr. Blue Sky ~ Electric Light Orchestra
    2. Diamonds and Guns ~ Transplants
    3. Personal Jesus (Boys Noize remix) ~ Depeche Mode
    4. Kids With Guns (Hot Chip remix) ~ Gorillaz
    5. Girls on Film ~ Duran Duran
    6. Santa Monica ~ Everclear
    7. Boy With A Coin ~ Iron & Wine
    8. Heart Of Gold ~ Neil Young
    9. Take A Picture ~ Filter

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