Thursday, October 23, 2008

iTunes Genius

Okay, so if you've downloaded the latest version of iTunes (and being a good little program, it should be prompting you to do so regularly if you haven't), you may have noticed the little item under your "playlists" heading that says "Genius" (with a graphic next to it of an atom). Basically, Genius is a feature that 1) generates playlists for you and 2) recommends music to you from the iTunes store based on what you already listen to and enjoy.

I really didn't even give the recommendation part a chance, primarily because I'm in a bit of a spending freeze in terms of music at the moment (I even quit Emusic, which is a waaaay better deal than iTunes to begin with). But the playlist thing intrigued me. Basically, all you do is select a song in your library and hit the Genius button (in the bottom right corner of the iTunes interface), and it generates a playlist of 25 songs (minimum; you can up it to 50, 75, 100...) that it thinks "go well together" based on your selection (the song you select becomes track 1 of the playlist). I basically went through my library finding the most diverse, random songs possible and hitting the Genius button just to see what it came up with. Some results were intriguing, some were frustrating, and some were disappointing.

Most frustrating is the fact that if the song is not something that is sold in the iTunes Store, or is by an independent artist, more than likely the Genius will just balk at it. For instance, if I select something really obscure and avant-garde (like "Industrial Ambients" by Laibach, from a compilation entitled "An Anthology of Noise & Electronic Music Volume 2), I get a message that says: "Genius is unavailable for the song "Industrial Ambients"." The same thing happens when I select a Dr. Pants song, or even a song by Abi Tapia, an up and coming songwriter in the folk scene (for the record, Genius doesn't work on K.C. Clifford, either).

The "disappointing" element mostly has to do with the stylistically narrow vision of the Genius, especially when it comes to music in genres primarily populated by African-American artists. For instance, I could tell it to generate a playlist based on a Marvin Gaye song, a Sly Stone song, or a Prince song, and I'd get an entire list of r&b stuff. Why, if I select "Little Red Corvette", do I not get some additional 80's hits that happened to be by white people? Why do I only get a list of all the other black folks in my collection? When it come to genres like this (r&b, hip hop, jazz, and even electronica), the Genius assumes that when I select a certain song (like, say, "South Side" by Moby) that I want an entire playlist of things that are in the same genre (a whole crapload of electronic stuff).

Interestingly enough, the Genius becomes most adventurous when operating in the exceptionally broad genre of "rock" (what on earth does that even mean anymore?). However, the Genius tends to select certain songs over and over again, regardless of what else is in the playlist ("Cars" by Gary Numan seems to be the Genius' favorite song in my entire library). I saved 23 of the playlists Genius generated for me that first day, and "Cars" is in 6 of them. It was in a whole bunch of other ones that I didn't save, too. My iTunes library has 9,192 songs in it, and it can't find another song to put in there instead? Seriously?

It did have some very intriguing results as well, though. Here are a couple of playlists that genuinely impressed me:

Playlist Based On "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" by Tom Waits:

I DON'T WANNA GROW UP-TOM WAITS
IT'S A MOTHERFUCKER-EELS
SEE NO EVIL-TELEVISION
YOUR LITTLE HOODRAT FRIEND-THE HOLD STEADY
I AM WAITING-THE ROLLING STONES
BOB DYLAN'S 49TH BEARD-WILCO
SONG AGAINST SEX-NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL
PASSENGER SIDE-WILCO
HOLD ON-TOM WAITS
LORD ONLY KNOWS-BECK
IT'S A HIT-RILO KILEY
DRUNKEN ANGEL-LUCINDA WILLIAMS
LOW SELF-OPINION-ROLLINS BAND (When does Rollins Band EVER follow Lucinda??? That's AWESOME!!)
START A WAR-THE NATIONAL
100%-SONIC YOUTH
LETTER FROM AN OCCUPANT-THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS
CALIFORNIA GIRLS-MAGNETIC FIELDS
PABLO PICASSO-THE MODERN LOVERS
RAILROAD MAN-EELS
HELL IS CHROME-WILCO
GHOST-NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL
YOU CAN HAVE IT ALL-YO LA TENGO
BACK IN THE HIGH LIFE AGAIN-WARREN ZEVON
EARTH DIED SCREAMING-TOM WAITS
TALKING WORLD WAR III BLUES-BOB DYLAN

If you know a good portion of those songs, then I don't have to tell you that it's a mix of the exciting and the bewildering. Also, I don't like the fact that whatever artist you ask it to base the playlist on, it will invariably include at least 3 of that artist's songs in the playlist. Here is my absolute favorite, though. I asked it to create a playlist based on the song "Bustin' Surfboards" by the Tornadoes (featured on the soundtrack to "Pulp Fiction"). THIS is what I got:

BUSTIN' SURFBOARDS-THE TORNADOES
EVERYBODY'S GONNA BE HAPPY-THE KINKS
FOOLS GOLD-THE STONE ROSES
DERELICT-BECK
WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW IS LOVE-JACKIE DESHANNON
FLYSWATTER-EELS
STARMAN-DAVID BOWIE
PICTURES OF LILY-THE WHO
DIGITAL-JOY DIVISION
EVERY FALLEN IN LOVE?-THE BUZZCOCKS
WAVE OF MUTILATION-THE PIXIES
BEETLEBUM-BLUR
DAYS-THE KINKS
BELA LUGOSI'S DEAD-BAUHAUS
SWEETNESS FOLLOWS-R.E.M.
LIAR, LIAR-THE CASTAWAYS
MOTHER'S LITTLE HELPER-THE ROLLING STONES
WALK ON THE WILD SIDE-LOU REED
JACK-ASS-BECK
CARS-GARY NUMAN (there it is again...)
LET'S SEE ACTION-THE WHO
TIRED OF WAITING FOR YOU-THE KINKS
ON YOUR OWN-BLUR
IMITATION OF LIFE-R.E.M.
(WHITE MAN) IN HAMMERSMITH PALAIS-THE CLASH

There are portions of this that melt my brain. First of all WHAT ON EARTH does "Bela Lugosi's Dead" have in common with "Bustin' Surfboards"? And THEN it follows that up with "Sweetness Follows" by R.E.M.?? Truly inspired. I mean, that moment almost made me weep with joy. Not all the playlists were this adventurous by any means...It's really interesting to see how inconsistent this thing is.

So, perhaps for a certain brand of listener, iTunes Genius could be construed as brilliantly smart (or some other adjective combination suggested by its name). I'm not convinced. Leave the Genius playlist making to we humans who have practiced it since our adolescence. I want Frank Zappa, Prince, R.E.M and Sly Stone all on the same playlist, and the Genius ain't gonna do that for me.

2 comments:

Abi Tapia said...

I've had some of this frustration with Pandora and LastFM, too. Like when I choose a woman artist to inspire a playlist, it plays only women. Even worse, when I chose Dolly Parton, it basically just cycled through Dolly, Loretta, and Tammy over and over. I really like the concept of these services, especially when you are in a rut, and I hope the more info we feed them, they'll develop into really exciting listening experiences. Thanks for sharing!

Rodney said...

I haven't had much luck with the "Genius" in the past. But just now, it made me an excellent mix based on "Pink Frost" by The Chills.

Sometimes it makes me wonder: it put "California" by Luna on there. Does it know that Luna and The Chills share a guitarist?