NPR logo Unreal Genius

Unreal Genius

As I write this, iTunes' new feature, Genius, is gathering information about my digital music library. Once the process is complete, Genius will send this information to the iTunes Store.

Okay, it's ready to go. I am asked to pick a song from my library, and I have chosen Love's "A House Is Not a Motel." I click the Genius icon, and in the side bar, it suggests a bunch of Love songs that I don't own. Something about the phrasing — not to mention the "click to buy" button — makes me feel defensive and incomplete. Actually, iTunes, I do own those songs; just not on CD. My first suggestion: Apple sends a person to my house to index my record collection.

Basically, the Love song is a seed, and iTunes fertilizes that seed and makes a baby. Thus far, my baby is 25 songs long and is pretty damn cool. With Arthur Lee for a head, Television and Pretty Things as arms, Suicide and Television as legs, and feet made of MC5, I really could love this thing. The top of my screen displays a button letting me know that I can save this baby and make it into a permanent playlist. Then iTunes and I can make more babies — right now.

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Sure, our lives are hectic. Sometimes, it might be nice to have someone or something — like our computers — act as our own personal DJs, with our own music collection. And, as discussed on this blog before, the shuffle feature on iTunes is rife with inconsistencies and disappointment. But do we not have time to make a simple playlist? Don't we want a little credit now and then? A little venture into creativity? Isn't figuring out the best song to follow another a source of pride? What Genius does is level the playing field. All of us who have spent years laboring over the perfect mix, the ideal playlist, we're out of luck — verging on obsolete. It's as if my dad and I, if given the same ingredients, can each make prize-winning cookies — even if his are store-bought and mine are made from scratch.

Maybe I should think of Genius as just another one of the music industry's performance-enhancing drugs. We might abhor cheating in athletes, but it's sort of what we aim for with technology — shortcuts and new ways of completing formerly arduous or unnecessary tasks. Leaving us more time for... more technology.

I imagine that I will use Genius in lieu of the shuffle mode. At least it's taking genre into consideration. And perhaps I need to let go of the notion that humans are better deciders. Then again, if iTunes Genius were deciding the election, it would probably think McCain sounded better following Bush than Obama would. Sometimes the next thing shouldn't be like the last one at all. That said, I think I'll stick to making my own playlists.

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Read Bob Boilen's blog entry on Genius here.

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