Hey Mr. iPod, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal

29 Aug

A wave of reverence for the almighty mix tape seems to have swept through my friends lately, as the topic has come up in conversation a lot. I have a habit that gives my age away of calling any CD or digital compilation a “mix tape”, but what I’m talking about here is really the mix TAPE. You know, the one that took hours to put together as you had to listen to the whole thing as it was created. The ease of iTunes mixes and burning CDs – or just creating a Spotify list or something – takes a lot of the magic of playing amateur DJ away. (Now git off my lawn, you meddlin’ kids!) I remember the heartbreak of the do-over when the cassette didn’t cooperate and you ended up with a side full of warped-sounding songs. The only-sporadically-successful attempt to squeeze in one more song at the end of a side without it cutting off. Everyone had their can’t-miss songs that they shared over and over. For me, I feel like every mix I made for people during 1998 and 1999 started with the one-two punch of “Pure Morning” by Placebo and “Say What You Want” by Texas.

When I first arrived in Los Angeles a little over nine years ago, I appointed myself the messenger of new music to my Shreveport friends, as radio there was as bad as you imagine and a topic for another blog. I made tape after tape for my friend Jill of my latest finds. As tapes gave way to CDs, the mission of these mixes mutated, from “Here’s some awesome new music” to “Here’s stuff by a bunch of people I know” to “Check out my treasures from the Record Surplus dollar bin”.

The husband and I, both being throwbacks, went through a series of mix tape “challenges” in the early days of our courtship. One of us would give the other a topic to build a tape around; maybe all the songs had to be about animals, or had to reference colors in some way. (I was especially proud of the tape I was tasked to make about drinking and drugs.) Besides proving that we’re both utter dorks, it also indoctrinated us pretty quickly to each other’s taste in music. He learned more about Wilco and Robbie Williams; I learned more about Tom Waits and They Might Be Giants.

And, of course, I’d make mix tapes for myself. In my used CD store-employee days, if I happened to be closing and opening the store back-to-back, I’d ask the boss for permission to take home a box of used discs. I’d make a mix tape from these CDs when I got home and would return the merchandise the next morning.

Wandering back into modern times now, I’ve always been a tad put off by iTunes’s attempts to create a mix for me with the Genius service. I sniff, you think some computer can put together an awesome mix better than I can? And how does Genius work, anyway? Apple’s website doesn’t offer clues; it merely stats, “The Genius Mixes feature searches your iTunes library to find songs that go great together, then organizes them into mixes you’ll love.”

If you care to come along with me on a little experiment, then read on. Below is a Genius test run I pulled recently from my iPod, using as inspiration the lead-off track from Minibar’s 2006 record Desert After Rain, “Things I Left Behind”. I’ve been listening to this song more than usual lately; I’m guessing that whole nine-years-in-L.A. anniversary that just passed has a lot to do with it. I didn’t refresh this list or delete any songs; this is exactly what came up. Maybe I can use the results to crack the code of how Genius works. Let’s see how genius it is!

  1. Things I Left Behind – Minibar. Quite. That was the jumping-off point, after all.
  2. Truly, Truly – Grant Lee Buffalo. A beautiful song, from a CD that I stole liberated from CD Warehouse on my last day working there. Hey, it was just sitting in the back office, not being sold anyway…
  3. Lotus – R.E.M. Take the first song away, and this is veering back into those 1998-99 mix tapes. Sadly, “Pure Morning” and “Say What You Want” do not currently live on the iPod. My Pod is choked with R.E.M., as you would correctly assume, so them popping up here is no surprise.
  4. Fort Hood – Mike Doughty. I do love this song, and the three that preceded it, but I’m unclear as to how this tune from the ex-frontman of Soul Coughing (and a tune which borrows liberally from “Let the Sun Shine In” from Hair) fits in here. Perhaps Genius recognized “Things I Left Behind” as one of the most-played songs, and now is just compiling all the others?
  5. How I Am To Be – The Watson Twins. I bought this CD, Fire Songs, accidentally at the Rhino pop-up store last year; I was thinking of the Chapin Sisters. Eh, it was only a dollar, might as well give it a listen. I fell in love.
  6. We Haven’t Turned Around – Gomez. Oh, how I love Gomez. I really should have more of them on the Pod. I’m overdue for a songs refresh on this thing.
  7. Sinner – Neil Finn. We seem to have settled into a definite groove. And we’ve swung back to the “1998 mix tape” motif.
  8. Put the Message in the Box – World Party. So far, we’re not really stumbling…
  9. It Is What It Is – Minibar. Something that bugs me about Genius mixes versus ones I create out of my own brain: I try my hardest not to repeat artists. Plus, I have to think that a decision like this doesn’t show off the “Genius” capabilities that well. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if I like one Minibar song, I may want to hear others.
  10. Lonely Girls – Lucinda Williams. Finally representing the Americana contingent…
  11. People Got A Lotta Nerve – Neko Case. Whooo! Badass chicks block!
  12. Low Rising – The Swell Season. Sure!
  13. Ten Thousand Words – The Avett Brothers. Well played, Genius. But what, no Mumford & Sons?
  14. Driving Me Mad – Neil Finn. Artist repeat. Harumph.
  15. Bittersweet Me – R.E.M. Another artist repeat. Double harumph. (Though again, hard to avoid the boys from Athens on this Pod.)
  16. Angel Mine – Cowboy Junkies. Ahhhh. Let’s get a little mellow…
  17. Wide Open – Minibar. At least it’s spacing out the Minibar songs.
  18. Just Like Heaven – The Watson Twins. A lovely cover, though another artist repeat.
  19. Way Down Now – World Party. Genius, you’re just getting lazy with all these artist repeats. Perhaps the robo-brain isn’t edumacated enough on Minibar, because otherwise, you mean to tell me that on MY iPod you can’t find 24 other artists that are similar to Minibar?! I could’ve done that just by hitting “shuffle”.
  20. Airstream Driver – Gomez. Another pet peeve about Genius: certain songs pop up in mix after mix, regardless of the origin song. On my iPod, this is one of them. “Drunk Girls” by LCD Soundsystem and pretty much any song from Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs also fall into this category.
  21. Everyday is a Holiday (With You) – Esthero. Are we just grouping songs that have a similar tempo?
  22. World Where You Live – Crowded House. Sure, why not. Though with all the solo Neil Finn above, I’m counting this as an artist repeat.
  23. Whole New Way – Scissor Sisters. Scissor Sisters?! One of these things is not like the others. If Genius was trying to throw in some gay representation, wouldn’t any of the 20 or so Smiths songs on this Pod have fit in better?
  24. Holiday From Myself – Minibar. Back once more to the band that started this whole mix. Though coming right after the Scissor Sisters song, what does Genius think exactly is going on during this time away from being me?!
  25. Push & Pull – Nikka Costa. Not something I would have thought to throw onto this mix myself, much less as the closer, but it does an effective job.

In conclusion, this test mix is perfectly acceptable, I suppose, but it feels lacking. Again, being based off of my own music, Genius is not going to throw any curveballs my way, unless it arbitrarily decides that the Replacements and NWA fit together someday. But perhaps that’s the lesson and the failing of Genius right there. I wouldn’t bat an eyelash at a mix tape that contains both the Replacements and NWA; I figure that if “I Will Dare” and “Express Yourself” end up side by side on a mix, there’s probably a personal reason there that has nothing to do with the two songs logically “going great together”. Hell, maybe you think they DO go great together. Maybe these two songs remind you of college days, or they’re energetic driving music for that awesome road trip to the Grand Canyon, or they work perfectly on the soundtrack to that movie you’re totally going to write someday. A mix you put together yourself is ultimately going to reflect your creativity, your personality, and your eclectic musical tastes.

This is making me nostalgic. If anyone out there wants to show off and make me a mix tape, we’ve still got functioning cassette decks in this apartment. I promise I’ll actually listen to it. It’s only fair. I’ll know you worked hard on it.

The only video for “Things I Left Behind” that I could find, with a bonus song:

And the one-two punch:



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