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.

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.


Read Bob Boilen's blog entry on Genius here.



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There are two versions of the Genius: one gives you stuff you ought to buy (in the sidebar) and the other is the playlist that includes only stuff you already own.

Just thought I'd clarify, since it confused the heck out of me when I first got it set up.

Sent by Emily W | 4:19 PM | 9-17-2008

This post: 2 F**ks and 1.5 Yeahs.

Sent by leah | 4:52 PM | 9-17-2008

i almost downloaded genius, but i got scared. does it work with songs not purchased from iTunes? will it arrest me for pirating music?

Sent by Lauren | 5:09 PM | 9-17-2008

i just downloaded the latest version of iTunes and seriously wish i hadn't. why they constantly have to ruin everything by changing it is annoying. but i guess people at apple need to justify their jobs.

Sent by xina | 5:12 PM | 9-17-2008

As soon as I saw "Genius" I wished I'd stuck with the old version of iTunes. Call me churlish but there's only so much interference in my listening habits I can tolerate.

Sent by Julia | 5:44 PM | 9-17-2008

You made me giggle. You're making babies with iTunes.

Genius sounds pretty cool. Maybe I should stop ignoring the "Update iTunes" window and actually do it.

Sent by Nick L. | 7:04 PM | 9-17-2008

I read all of your blogs and they are so real and so raw...love them.

Sent by Mel | 7:22 PM | 9-17-2008

i agree with you on the defensive part. at first i thought it was cool and kind of like magic. then i realized they are simply manipulating me to spend more 99 centses to build my library. it's a vicious cycle. i'm going back to my mix tapes for a spell. fuck those fuckers. genius never recommends the guts of anything anyway. just the surfacy hits. transparent bastards.

Sent by Jeff Selis | 1:33 AM | 9-18-2008

I don't update my iTunes anymore. I think the folks at APPLE have a conspiracy going on. If you own a MAC and have iTunes, your system runs as smooth as ice. If you own a PC and are running iTunes, your stuff goes to $h!t and crashes on you.

Sent by Natalie | 9:13 AM | 9-18-2008

@Lauren, no it doesn't know/ doesn't care. It can't tell the difference between ripped/ downloaded and Apple's not going to make money by turning you in.

I still wish Apple had just licensed http://www.musicip.com/mixer/index.jsp instead; no need for the Great Mixer in the Sky and it works on a completely different basis from the "People who liked x also liked y" thing that Genius, Last.fm, Pandora, etc. all do.

Sent by Tom | 9:16 AM | 9-18-2008

I just used Sleater-Kinney's "Little Babies" as a seed and got:
Double Dare Ya- Bikini Kill
The Sky Lit Up- PJ Harvey
Pat's Trick- Helium
Oh My Golly!- Pixies
Molly's Lips- Vaselines
Sugarcube- Yo La Tengo
Tractor Rape Chain- Guided By Voices
Wail- Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Come Together- Spiritualized
Ocean- Sebadoh
Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night- Hold Steady
Big Tall Man- Liz Phair
Show Me Mary- Catherine Wheel
Shop for America- Bratmobile
I Wanna Know What Love Is- Julie Ruin
Driveway To Driveway- Superchunk
My friend Goo- Sonic Youth
Stereo- Pavement

Sent by Peter | 9:21 AM | 9-18-2008

I may be going out on a limb here, but I actually think dorky features like Genius are a good thing, in at least this respect: More people listen to more different kinds of music these days, and I think a lot of it has to do with the internets (colloq. 'a series of tubes').

So many people I meet that are at or around my own age, give or take a few years, seem to all know Public Enemy, CSS, Atmosphere, and New Kids On the Block, and not just as one song but whole albums. Frankly, if this is the price we pay for the ubiquitous Internet and Apple inventing more and more neato products gauranteed to make you iFat, I'll take it.

On the flip-side, check out the latest Ad-Busters Magazine article about the Hipster: The Dead-End of Western Civilization (found here:www.adbusters.org/magazine/79/hipster.html), which correctly blames certain developments in our culture for creating a clique of people who are shallow, ironic, and barely possess a pedestrian knowledge of, well...anything.

Sent by Ryan | 9:22 AM | 9-18-2008

I was just thinking about Genius the other day and how it seems so limited as a means of discovering new music, because it's inherently limited to making playlists of stuff you already own and have therefore most likely already heard. Then this morning I made a Genius list and Yeasayer's song "2080" came on and completely rocked me. I hadn't been able to penetrate that album when I first picked it up and probably wouldn't have discovered that song were it not for Genius. I hear your point about it being a lazy alternative to making your own lists, but in cases like this I think it adds a nice new functionality that iTunes didn't have before.

Sent by Matt G | 10:10 AM | 9-18-2008

I wanted to hate Genius, much like I hated Pandora. Genius appears to work very differently than Pandora, thankfully. Genius chooses songs based on what other folks who own and have bought also own and buy. It's closer to real life than the contrived BS you get from Pandora (and other systems that try to deconstruct music).

That status bar slowly working its way through my music was a bit ominous, but the results are interesting so far.

Sent by jho | 11:28 AM | 9-18-2008

I like Genius, but not for shuffling my own already-owned stuff. I can do that just fine on my own, thanks. But I do like the fact that it will offer items to buy to complete your collection of an artist. (Well, would you look at that? I actually DON'T own everything that band ever recorded. Who knew? Yes, I'll take that, thanks!) And I like the exposure to new music I might enjoy that I haven't heard of yet. That's why I love Pandora (after two days of tweaking, it rarely hits a clunker now), why I subscribe to Song of the Day and All Songs Considered, and why I browse the NPR music site daily. Genius is just another tool for discovering new music.

Sent by Andie Reid | 12:40 PM | 9-18-2008

I was wondering when iTunes was gonna do something like this. it's weird being attacked by recommendations like amazon but I'm don't really mind it and always click. i think the reason I feel weird is because I work at a record store and think recommendations should part of a give and take with the seller/buyer or friend/friend. Although, I'm not against genius at all. Im all about finding new stuff in any way possible whether it be genius, a friend, a blog, a review, a label etc.
gonna check it out.

Sent by esme | 1:05 PM | 9-18-2008

My old stereo has THE WORST Shuffle feature... it doesnt remove songs already played... So I could put 5 discs in... all with 20 songs on... and in one hour of playing, hear the same 3 songs over and over.

So I PRIDE myself on making great mix cds with great flows... Which Ive said before on one of your blogs I believe...

two of my all time fav song combinations that Ive come up with...

Alice Coopers Schools Out with the end cross faded into the begining of Pink Floyds Another Brick On the Wall...

the other

Pink Floyds Wish You Were Here, with the end cross faded into the begining of the doors Riders on the Storm... which if you do it right is simply beautiful... with Wish You Were Heres wind sounds at the end, and Riders thunder/rain intro...

odd that two of my fav combos involve Floyd, as Ive never really got into them...

Sent by Kramer | 1:10 PM | 9-18-2008

I am down on Apple these days just about as much as any one lately but ...

The Genius thingie just kinda works & is kinda cool ..

Between NPR , the music Blogs , record company promo , not to mention Artist them self ..

I am simply overwhelmed with great music at the moment .

Genius just makes it a bit easier to make the connections that might have slipped ones mind

Sent by Charles C Stirk Jr | 2:08 PM | 9-18-2008

Isn't figuring out the best song to follow another a source of pride?

You said it all right there. I'd rather spend the time thinking about why the Beastie Boys' "Groove Holmes" flows into Cassandra Wilson's "Runs The Voodoo Down" flows into War's "Lowrider" so well. Genius can string songs together, but can it do it artfully ?

Sent by Vortex | 10:35 PM | 9-18-2008

This is why I haven't updated my iTunes program since June. When I want a computer to tell me what songs I might like, I go on Pandora.com.

Sent by Anna | 7:52 PM | 9-19-2008

Machines choosing music. Isn't that what American Idol is?

Sent by Tom Hendricks | 1:28 PM | 9-20-2008

This smacks of the DJ-less commercial radio stations like 'Bob' and 'Jack'.
Okay, commercial(mersh) radio in general. So, bascially a disease. Just say no to homogeneity in all things.

Sent by Patrick T. | 9:52 AM | 9-21-2008

I have to say that I -like- Pandora. Because the suggestions come, not from Other People's buying habits, but from musical similarities - rhythmic, harmonic, textural, etc. Whatever algorithms (or whatever-the-hell) they're using, Pandora has done as good a job of reflecting my own taste back to me as I have a right to expect.

And the less time I spend enabling Apple and all the other multinational corporations, the happier I am.

Sent by m-argo | 12:36 PM | 9-22-2008

Hi Carrie,
Rather than rely on Genius, go to Pandora.com. It's all free.
Wait, D'oh...I now see someone else mentioned the site. Oh well.

Sent by Lisa A. | 9:48 PM | 9-30-2008