Genius Loves Beatles

My fruit-flavored music-playing device has a not-quite-as-intuitive-as-it-should-be feature called “genius”. The theory is simple. When you’re listening to a song you like, you touch a little fifties-era atom symbol and the machine will find twenty-four more songs that the genius inside believes are similar, so you can keep the mood going.

My first attempts with the genuis mix button were frustrating. I had the FFMPD set to play random music while I worked out. A song came on that helped fuel a second wind, so I hit the genius button. It glowed under my finger and returned to normal when I released my touch. The song ended and another came on, not dissimilar. But I couldn’t tell – was it geniusing? Another song came on, also similar, and I concluded that there was a decent chance that my music player was indeed genuising, but there was nothing in the interface presented to me to indicate that fact.

Then the player went from Blink 182 to a Beatles song. “Elanor Rigby”, if memory serves. Nope, I concluded, my music player was NOT geniusing; there’s nothing that song had in common with the one I had asked it to base the list on.

I went back to a particularly racous, up-tempo tune that had gone by (unsteady hands poking at the screen as I chugged along), and tried the Genuis button again. Three songs later I was treated to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Don’t get me wrong, I really like that song. Good for listening to in the dark, illuminated only by the glow of the stereo while sipping whiskey and wondering what the point of it all is, on those nights of doubt where inertia is your only guide. Not so good for working out, though.

“Fine,” I thougt, poking at the screen. “I’ll go through the interface and choose a particular song, while not on random play, and see if it geniuses for me.” Stabbing at an iPad while working on an elliptical trainer is not ideal; if you move your finger while touching the surface the machine assumes you mean to drag something. Which under any other circumstance is correct. I jabbed and poked until I came upon a tune (if I recall correctly, which honestly isn’t that likely) by Mudhoney, and pushed the little atom. “Not enough information to make a genius list,” I was told. Same story with Drill (whose eponymous and only album I once picked up used and remains one of my faves of all time). Maybe I should have started with L7.

My workout ended before I got a satisfactory answer to the genius problem.

Of course, I could have fiddled with the device while not working out, and possibly have found the answer sooner, but that’s not how I roll. After a little frustration at the start of the next workout I decided to turn to a playlist I’d already defined. There right next to it, was a Genius list based on “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” by Nirvana. “Sweet,” thought I, the genuis button had worked after all. I fired up that mix and started my toil.

And… after a few tunes had been pumped into my ears, a Beatles song came on. It was “Come Together,” which, yeah, I can see working with Nirvana. Nice work, Genius! I wouldn’t have gone looking for that one. A little Queens of the Stone Age, then Black Sabbath, followed by “Blackbird” by the Beatles.

What the hell? That is nothing like Nirvana.

I viewed the songs in the genius-created playlist. Three were by the Beatles. Out of curiosity, I geniused the Ravonettes. Three Beatles songs. Green Day? Three Beatles songs. I tried some other bands, sticking to what I thought the mainstream might be. Three Beatles songs each time. When I genuised ‘Holiday in the Sun” by the Sex Pistols, there were only two Beatles songs.

So it turns out the genius feature was working all along. It just wasn’t telling me it was, and it has a boner for the Beatles. It should be noted here that the Genius ex Machina has more than 10,000 tunes to choose from.* I promise you that fewer than 10% of those are by the Beatles.

The question, of course is, “Is this a conspiracy? Does the Genius get a kickback on Beatles albums sold?” Or are Beatles tunes the automatic fallback filler when the database that guides the genius is confronted with too much unknown?

You know where this is going, of course. I’m going to be hitting the genius button a lot, looking for The Tune That Has No Beatles Matches. I’ll keep you posted.

* I miss the unlimited legal downloads back when eMusic was young, which was when they hadn’t cut deals with major record labels yet. That might be part of the problem; my library is skewed strongly toward indie labels and obscure bands that I discovered by spending an afternoon sampling the used CD bins at Wherehouse. I contend that the only difference between a popular band and an obscure one is the marketing budget.

That is how I found Drill, sitting on a stool, headphones on, operating a CD player in a suburban music store. I had a system. I’d listen to the first track, and if it seemed to be going well, I’d skip to maybe the third or fourth. Also good? Sweet. Vocal power is absolutely required to get past this stage. Skip forward in the song. Does anything change through the song? Good musicians know how to find strength in softness as well as noise. The final test: skip around through several songs. If there’s not variety, then that sound they do every time better be awesome.

My original copy of Drill was badly damaged when I loaned it to a friend, and it took a couple of years on the waiting list at for me to find a replacement. Should I become president, I will track down the members of that band and have them play at my inauguration.

How many other Drills are out there? The chances of me stumbling on that band were remote, which suggests that there are many more waiting for me to discover them.

But the point of this giant footnote is that the genius don’t know Drill. Can we teach the genius? Broaden its horizons past RIAA-sanctioned muzic? I aim to find out.

Speaking of Flash…

Long ago, as a follow-up to my giant hit “Duck!” I undertook a much more elaborate project. Once more, Jose provided some of the key images (William Shatner, mainly), and I did the rest.

I never finished. I got close, and I put a lot of time into it (lip-syncing is time-consuming, to say the least), but it’s not quite there yet. There are flat spots. I haven’t got the easter eggs in yet. No credits, and no preloading. It looks like the audio has been shifted a frame. Still, there’s a lot to like about it, too. It’s Shatner, after all, at his psychedelic best.

I’d finish the thing, but I don’t even own a version of Flash that will run on my current hardware, and Flash is expensive. Hard to justify shelling out that kind of cash just to put the final touches on this monster. Still… It would be cool.

Note that this animation is interactive — don’t take your hand off that mouse just yet! Your final score will be displayed at the end. Also, there are a couple of things that happen differently each time, and a lot of things going on you won’t notice the first time through. Not as many as I planned, but the project is stalled.

If someone who has Flash would be interested in helping me get across the finish line, let me know!

Notes: It may look like it’s running, but you need to right-click the animation and select ‘Play” to make it go. (Controls are obviously something that didn’t get put in before the project stalled.) I optimized this animation for slightly larger display; if I could figure out why there’s no full-screen option when you right-click I’d fix that, too.



New Album Out!

I haven’t seen the cover for the Foo Fighters’ new album, but if the song I heard today is any indication, it’s pretty easy to imagine what it looks like. Here is my humble rendition:

The cover to the newest Foo Fighters album


Memo to Bay Area Radio Stations

Apparently at some time Monday afternoon a rumor began that it was no longer acceptable for a radio station to rock. (I suspect the Chinese and that Internet they have are somehow to blame.) Since that time there has been little but Enya and Yanni in slightly more electrified renditions. There has been no rocking of the airwaves.

Rest assured, Radio World, it is still acceptable to rock. Any assertion that rocking is unacceptable is the work of terrorists or at the very least individuals who wish ill for our nation.

Give me something to listen to on my commute this morning. DO IT FOR AMERICA!

Sticky Music

My sweetie and I both woke up with Christmas songs stuck in our heads. For me, the song was “Toy Jackpot” by Blackalicious, with its super-catchy chorus “Is it time yet? Is it time? I can’t wait” in a smooth hip-hoppish vibe. My sweetie emerged from slumber with “10,000 Watts” by Crystal Antlers, a high-energy song about Christmas lights, made to be turned up loud.

Now I have “10,000 Watts” in my head, too.

While very different in sound, these songs have two things in common: They are both really cool, and they both came from Target. In fact, you’ve probably heard parts of the songs already, along with a bunch of others, in Target ads. It was after watching an ad with a song called “You’ll Never Find My Christmas” that the light of my life encouraged me to go in search of the original music to download.

Well, what do you know? There’s a whole Christmas album for download for free at, and there’s not a dud in the bunch. Target found a bunch of different up-and-coming bands and gave them a great opportunity, and got themselves some fun advertisements built around the music at the same time. To me, this seems like exploitation done right.

For the Ebenezer Scrooges among you: Yes, Target is a big, giant retail corporation, and I’ve just become a shill for them. Lighten up, would you? It’s Christmas! These are good songs you wouldn’t get to hear otherwise!

So hop on over and give a listen — you just might find your new holiday favorite.


Ground Control to Lincoln Marketing Team

I’ve noticed a couple of new ads for Lincoln automobiles lately. They’re pretty standard fare; cameras sweep over the body of the car, revealing design details that are somehow supposed to make this car better than Lexus or a Cadillac. Then there is the music. I’ve seen two different ads, with covers of two different songs. The first is Cat Power’s rendition of David Bowie’s classic “Major Tom”, the second is Shiny Toy Guns covering Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home)”.

While both songs have their uplifting moments, you have to wonder about associating your car with songs about a man being killed when his vehicle fails.


Career Advice for a Wayward Pop Star

I was driving up highway 17 the other day, top down despite the threatening weather, ZZ Top playing slightly louder than strictly necessary. Inexorably, inevitably, sure as night follows day and a pilot for a terrible television series follows the Super Bowl, my mind turned from Tres Hombres to Britney Spears.

To call me a fan of Ms. Spears would not be terribly accurate. Her music and schoolgirl-slut image is interchangeable in my mind with that of several other forgettable young women. Presented with a song by one of them, I expect I’d guess the correct singer at a rate only slightly higher than random chance. I’m pretty sure she did one called “Not That Innocent” or something like that.

Recently I learned that she was a Mouseketeer, along with another of the interchangeable popsters, and Justin Timberlake. I didn’t even know they still had Mouseketeers. Maybe now they’ll reconsider. If memory serves Britney and Justin were together for a while, but I might be thinking of some other guy.

I’m not a fan, but I think about Britney every once in a while. Somehow she came to define the whole pop-bimbo image, the platonic ideal of sweaty teenage jizz-bait. Then something went wrong, and I heard even less about her than I had before. A year or two ago she tried to stage a ‘comeback’ (it says something about us that someone in their twenties can come back), and I read that it was a disaster. Recently I saw her face on a perfume commercial, so I’m pretty sure she’s not dead.

The things I read about her comeback meltdown were almost giddy in their celebration of the crash of one of the most famous people of the previous decade. While I was never a fan, I also took no pleasure in her downfall. I could have told her that her comeback was ill-concieved, however, had she taken the time to ask me. Britney the schoolgirl cock-tease won’t work anymore. There’s too much history. Under my sage guidance Britney could come back, however — just not as a recapitulation of what she was before.

This is what occurred to me while listening to crunching electric guitars while driving a curvy road. Britney is now in a position to make an album I would buy, and I suspect a lot of other people would too. The title would be Mea Culpa and it would be about her real experiences, the mistakes she made, her lessons learned and her hope for the future. She would tell us of the fear and insecurity and the agents and handlers and the drugs and all the other stuff that can make anyone’s life go haywire. It would be her taking responsibility for her life, and showing the strength to rise up and move on. That would be a cool album.

It would be Britney evolving from a singer into an artist. Does she have what it takes to make an album like that? The artistic power and the courage to open her soul? I doubt we will ever know. Her people would never stand for it.