Last week, I pulled out my underused iPod, updated it with new songs from my iTunes, got in my car, and hit the play button. Almost immediately, I was reminded of why I had put my iPod away for that last few months. The reason: the shuffle feature.
What should be an awesome, even liberating way of listening to one's music collection instead becomes obnoxious and restrictive -- at least for me. You'd think that you'd spend your time basking in the depth and eclecticism of your own musical tastes. Reggae? Check. Krautrock? Uh-huh. British Folk? Covered. All of it blended together by a computer-generated randomizer. The shuffle mode is an endless radio station that only plays your music. Sounds perfect, so why is it not?
For one, most of us don't like the notion of random, even when the choices presented to us are culled from our own collections. It's like if there were a robot randomly selecting what we wear each day. Sure, it's our own closet and our own clothing, but we don't want to wear sweaters on 80-degree days, or to put on some magenta silk top that only looked good in the dressing room. With music, it boils down to mood and context, as well. You can adjust the randomness of the shuffle feature, but the options lack nuance. There need to be choices like, "Only play this song if I am driving between Seattle and Portland and I think about my old friend from high school" or, "Please play this one on cold winter days when the sky looks like it might snow and I realize I'm out of ingredients to make hot chocolate."
Additionally, by placing the songs in a horrible sequence, the iPod shuffle highlights the weaknesses of one's music collection instead of the strengths. After a few bad songs in a row, I begin to second-guess my taste in music. Why, for instance, do I still have that one Ludacris song on there -- or entire albums by Mastodon, Journey, or The Magic Numbers when all I need is a handful of songs? Also, there seems to be too much Beatles and Roxy Music and not nearly enough Wilco or Springsteen. And why play only my least favorite songs by my favorite bands?
I know: It's not my iPod's fault. It's mine; chalk it up to human error. Maybe I need to erase certain songs and add others. Or, even more daunting, I should probably convert my vinyl collection into MP3s. But wouldn't that make it worse? Wouldn't even more randomness just start to feel like nothingness?
The drawbacks of the shuffle feature mean more work for the listener -- and iPod shuffle should be about passivity, about letting go. I suppose that's the crux of the problem for me. In the shuffle mode, I spend most of my time hitting fast forward until I find a song I feel like listening to; I can't help but try to carve out a story. I love contrast and the blending of genres, so it's not about disparity. It is, however, about intention. What iPod shuffle lacks is one of the best parts of a great mix -- album sequence, or a justification for why one song follows another.
Or maybe I'm just a control freak and I don't like surprises.
But just for fun, set your iTunes or iPod to "shuffle" and see if you like (or can even tolerate) the order of the first five songs. I'm certain that at least a few of you will be itching to get to a song you actually feel like hearing.
And listen to this NPR story to learn more about the mathematics underlying the shuffle mode.
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