Was 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 Beatles‘ Abbey 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”
Hmmm…got slightly better results, but ended up not liking for other reasons. Check ‘er out: http://www.hippiesaredead.com/2008/09/few-thoughts-on-apples-genius.html
that reminds me, I need to dig out that Ocean Blue cd. I always loved the solo on that song.
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?
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 last.fm
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.
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.