Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Everyone Has One...And Yours is Horrible: iTunes Genius

The latest version of iTunes has a new feature called Genius. The idea is to better provide the iTunes listener with a playlist of songs that he or she wants to listen to based upon their selection of one song. You highlight a song that represents a genre of music you feel like listening to, click on the “Genius” button, and an appropriate playlist is provided.

Curious, I decided to give it a try. I chose “Car” by Built To Spill and was told that iTunes Genius could not provide a playlist based on that song or artist and to try again. Hmmm. I did try again. This time with “Modern Leper” by Frightened Rabbit. Same result. And again with my third, fourth, and fifth pick. Some genius. Finally, “Androgynous” by the Replacements got the job done. For the next 1.6 hours I was hooked up with music from the Replacements and everyone that was covered in Our Band Could Be Your Life with the exception of Big Black and any band that prominently involved Ian Mackaye. And for whatever reason, “I Don’t Believe You” by the Magnetic Fields was thrown in at the very end.

Here’s the question: For those who have tried this new iTunes feature, have you found "Genius” to be an appropriate designation? (My experiences so far tell me it should be called iTunes Phil Anselmo.) Discuss.



Jim P. said...

I like it. The name Genius may be a little much, but for what it does, I think it's kind of cool. I seem to have had more success than you though. My first pick was, coincidentally, also Built to Spill - "Goin' Against Your Mind". It gave me a pretty standard and expected list of American indie stuff, but included some songs (maybe 6-7 out of 25) that I either never heard or never paid attention to. It was a good way to listen to stuff I might never have queued up ever again. Same thing with the Last Shadow Puppets' "The Age of the Understatement" - standard list of Brit-pop. But with some deeper cuts from albums I've ignored after the first listen (like "Lyla" by Oasis, which is pretty good).

My only main complaint about Genius is that when it builds a playlist from a song by Artist X, the playlist includes other songs by Artist X (sometimes several). Oh, so if I pick a Built to Spill song I might also like other songs by the same band from the same album? You are a fucking genius, Genius!

Also, who else thought it was hysterical last night during the debate when Brokaw said "Here's a question from the Internet"? If the Internet is asking questions during a presidential debate, mankind is fucked.

Alex said...

Maybe my personal iTunes just sucks, although I haven't had that problem of the "genius" not recognizing my song choice since.

I think it would be pretty cool if the genius had a feature that would bridge the gap from an earlier song to something today. Meaning, I want to see a playlist that reasonably goes from Black Flag to the Shins in less than 25 songs. Is that asking for too much?

There's NOTHING more dreadful than a "townhall" debate where the candidates can "speak directly to the American people." They are always awful and not conducive to an actual debate. I kept waiting for Brokaw to say, "We'll now turn to our monitor and the Youtube portion of the debate where Jimmy in Reno has a question about rising gas prices that he's going to ask while at the same time trying to watch '2 Girs, 1 Cup.'"

Brian said...

My big question is, how significantly different is Genius than just hitting shuffle? And are we too lazy to make our own playlists and mixtapes? I like making mixtapes. It's challenging and fun to find threads that link songs or genres or artists or eras. To me, Genius simply disengages us further from the process of listening to and making sense of music.

Alex, what do you mean 'bridge the gap' between Black Flag and The Shins? A six degrees of separation kind of thing? That's a project that no algorithm could tackle, my friend, because it would have to know principal players, producers and engineers, sidemen, and on and on. And how fun would it be to do all that research yourself and then playlist the shit out of it?

Alex said...

Here's how Black Flag to the Shins would work:
Black Flag recorded on SST. Dinosaur Jr also recorded on SST. Lou Barlow's other band Sebadoh recorded for a time on Sub Pop. The Shins record under Sub Pop. Oh, damn it, that only took four bands. I guess the other 21 songs can be filler.

No, what I mean is more of a timeline. Underground music from the early 80s all the way up until the time when Natalie Portman throws those headphones on Zachary Braff's ears. Now do you get it? Yeah, me neither.

Alex said...

Also, Henry Rollins was for awhile the lead singer for Black Flag. Natalie Portman once shaved her head and looked like Henry Rollins. Natalie Portman likes the Shins.

Travis said...

I'm still waiting for Genius to analyze my library before I can test it out. While I'm waiting, my question is, is this playlist comprised of songs from your own library, or stuff they want you to buy from iTunes? If its just my own library, I'd agree with Brian that I think my collection is not large enough yet that I don't know what sounds like what, or that I have 'hidden gems' on my iPod. Its getting close to that point, but not yet.

I didn't watch the debate last night because I hate freedom, but if what Jim P. said is true and the Internet has become self-aware, I'm siding with the Internet, fuck all y'all organics.

Alex said...

It's from your own library. For instance, this is what it looks like when I genius up "TV Party" by Black Flag:

TV Party 3:31 Black Flag Damaged Alternative & Punk 2 10/7/2008 4:27 PM
Banned In D.C. 2:03 Bad Brains Banned In D.C.: Bad Brains Greatest Riffs Alternative & Punk 1 2/5/2008 8:04 PM
Complete Control 3:14 The Clash The Clash Alternative & Punk 2 5/27/2008 6:08 PM
Teen Age Riot 6:58 Sonic Youth Daydream Nation Alternative & Punk 15 9/4/2008 1:41 PM
Repeater 3:01 Fugazi Repeater + 3 Songs Alternative & Punk 3 9/2/2008 7:24 AM
White Light/White Heat 2:48 The Velvet Underground The Best Of The Velvet Underground Alternative & Punk
Only Shallow 4:17 My Bloody Valentine Loveless Alternative & Punk 11 9/25/2008 1:39 PM
Feel The Pain 4:19 Dinosaur Jr Without A Sound Alternative & Punk 1 8/3/2008 7:39 PM
Head On 2:14 Pixies Trompe Le Monde Alternative & Punk
My War 3:46 Black Flag My War Punk
Beat On The Brat 2:33 The Ramones Ramones Alternative & Punk 6 8/11/2008 6:15 PM
Your Little Hoodrat Friend 4:08 The Hold Steady Live at Lollapalooza 2006: The Hold Steady Alternative
Death or Glory 3:55 The Clash London Calling Alternative & Punk 7 9/20/2008 10:34 PM
Dirty Boots 5:29 Sonic Youth Goo Alternative & Punk 2 9/1/2008 1:59 PM
Pay To Cum 1:31 Bad Brains Banned In D.C.: Bad Brains Greatest Riffs Alternative & Punk 5 6/1/2008 1:37 PM
Little Fury Things 3:08 Dinosaur Jr. You're Living All Over Me Rock 2 9/21/2008 11:46 AM
Holidays In The Sun 3:22 Sex Pistols Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols Alternative & Punk 1 2/24/2008 7:55 PM
Rise Above 2:27 Black Flag Damaged Alternative & Punk 2 10/4/2008 10:46 AM
Maxwell Murder 1:26 Rancid And Out Come The Wolves Alternative & Punk 1 6/16/2008 4:42 PM
Corona 2:26 Minutemen Double Nickels On The Dime Alternative & Punk 1 9/17/2008 10:14 AM
One-Armed Scissor 3:48 At The Drive-In Relationship of Command Rock 4 7/7/2008 12:41 PM
Heroin 7:12 The Velvet Underground The Best Of The Velvet Underground Alternative & Punk 1 9/24/2008 3:27 PM
Bastards Of Young 3:38 The Replacements Tim Alternative & Punk
Teenage Lobotomy 2:01 The Ramones Rocket To Russia [Expanded] Alternative & Punk
Monkey Gone To Heaven 2:56 Pixies Doolittle Alternative & Punk 11 9/3/2008 10:18 AM

Surprisingly, it didn't end with the Shins. Back to the drawing board.

Alex said...

Okay, copying and pasting from iTunes doesn't work very well.

Audrey said...

I haven't tried the Genius feature, but it sounds lazy and unoriginal. Lazy because it's yet another step in which technology just hands us things without any sort of effort or motivation. Unoriginal because it's making a mix of your own music. Sounds like the boring autistic brother of shuffle. Smart, but not going to contribute much.

Jim P. said...

People who will rely on genius may be lazy or unoriginal, but the feature itslef is not. It's something, and something is better than not something. I can see it being useful for non-musicsnobs, who really don't have a voice here. My mom, for example, would probably like it. Shut up Travis.

Brian said...

The feature definitely has utility, but how much more genius is it than shuffle? That (nearly unreadable) playlist that Alex posted could well have come up on regular shuffle. Overall, though, it strikes me as a new name for the same old thing, and a ploy to drive more traffic to, and thus more purchases from iTunes (cf., the Genius Sidebar). If Genius could learn from itself, that would be really sweet.

Brian said...

Another thing I noticed is that Genius doesn't stray away from genre, which is very facile. If you pick a rap song, you get a playlist of rap songs. Pick a punk song, a playlist of punk/punkish songs. Part of a good playlist/mixtape is connecting songs across genre and era.

Travis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Travis said...

Now that I've had a chance to try out Genius, I have to say that I'm not that impressed with the song selection. Although I agree with Jim Powers that it might have some utility for his mom, it...wait for it...doesn't take a genius to throw pavement, modest mouse, built to spill and the shins together for a themed playlist. That said, I'll give it time to see if the essentially one-button quick playlist feature is something I'll find useful in my daily life.

Also, is it me or does Genius put 2-3 Beck songs in every genius playlist?

It's hard to be impressed after playing with the Shazam application for the iPhone. Has anybody tried this? It's the feature that when a song comes on the radio, on the jukebox at a bar, on TV, etc, you press an icon on your phone, hold it up, and in about 20 seconds, it identifies the song, artist, and album, and includes links to purchase the album from itunes, or if applicable, watch the video on the youtube. I had heard about this and thought it a.) wouldn't really work or b.) could only identify a handful of songs with ubiquitous riffs, like your Back in Blacks, Iron Mans, or Smoke on the Waters of the World. Not so. Shazam nailed every song from left to right on the radio dial, plus track eight of the new Walkman CD.

Jim P. said...

Walkmans are making CDs now? Are Discmans jealous?

Alex said...

So is no one going to comment on that ridiculous Alselmo video? I thought I had really found a hidden gem there. Guess not.

Bridgie said...

Seriously? You made it through all 9 minutes of that video?

As for Genius, since my iPod is really old and has already outlasted a couple computers I'm having a real problem with this feature only working on songs saved on my hard drive - kind of makes for pathetic playlists for even those songs that Genius recognizes (really, Genius, Dean Martin is too obscure?). Joan Jett may be upset to learn she made the Genius playlist based on a 2Gether song, but I'm hoping that was from lack of more germane options.

If I'm going to be sitting at my computer listening, I'd rather just go to or pandora so I can listen to their recommendation all the way through before I buy.

Plus, I still have fond memories of making mix tapes and djing, so I'm having trouble believing that an algorithm can queue up a list of songs that feels right.

If I'm leaving it up to chance, the shuffle function is good enough.

Wendy said...

calm down, peeps. genius is good for people with a little less time on their hands and want to have a cohesive mix whenever and wherever they want. its an amazing feature to me. its a little far to go to say this is ruining the true listening experience, dont you think? if anything, for me, its enhancing it. if you dont like it, dont use it!

Alex said...

I am with Wendy, you all calm down. No one's life is being ruined here. Except for maybe Brian. But he was already on the edge of the cliff, Genius just came along and gave him that final push.

Brian said...

Me? Why me? If I haven't been pushed off the cliff yet, it's probably not going to happen. Besides, that's how I live. ON THE EDGE.

Alls I'm saying is that Genius is no different from/better than Party Shuffle, and with Party Shuffle, all your iTunes Library and iTunes Store information isn't collected and cataloged (granted, I agreed to have my info collected and cataloged, but still). All of that said, I don't dislike Genius, but I do think it's redundant and a bit of marketing trickery.

ps--Does anyone besides Travis have an iPhone?

pps--Genius doesn't like Elvis Costello either.

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