Patent Application for a "Portable Gasoline Filling Station Booth" (1930)

OK Genius

Apple’s iTunes software claims to be a Genius at making mixes. We beg to differ, knowing how mixes should be made, and propose a duel of “Fingertips.”

You say you know me, Genius. But I want to know you. What’s the nature of your genius? What makes you go?

I have good reason.

These days, you make mixes, just like that. One click creates a bunch of music mixes, hours of related playback.

When I was a lad, mixes meant something. Boys would make mixes to fit precisely on two sides of a D60 cassette. Hours were spent researching and finding songs of exactly the right duration. Perfect control of the pause button was required. The ideal mixtape wasted no magnetic plastic whatsoever, every second was filled with song, or with gap between song. Appropriate silence, when necessary.

And here you swagger in with your mixes and your playlists and your la-di-dah, and I want to see if you’ve really got it. Because I don’t think you have.

Our mixes, back in those days, were clever. Eclectic. Made to suit the recipient. Crafted.

Yours are… digital. At least, I assume they are. So I’m going to test you. I’m going to try and trip you up. You can’t fool me, Genius, but I can fool you.


* * *

iTunes says: “People who listened to this and gave it a rating of x stars also listened to that and gave it a rating of y stars. Have we mentioned our new range of iPods yet? Anyway, yeah, those songs: we think you’ll like this one. And this one. Probably this one. This one’s a bit of an outlier but we’re including it anyway. We’re not making the decisions here, it’s you people. All you crazy, iTunes-listening, music-downloading, generation-defining, star-applying people. You’re the ones in charge. We’re just, you know, riding the wave. Ringo who?”

So, open iTunes. Click in the search box. Type “fingerti”—and we have it. Select “Fingertips” by They Might Be Giants, from the album Apollo 18. Press space bar to play.

Hover over the Genius button, smiling.

“Fingertips” isn’t like most songs. It’s four minutes 35 seconds long in total, but that’s comprised of 21 micro-songs between four and 61 seconds long. Each one a tiny moment of genius in itself, some of them as catchy as any chart-topping pop tune. “Fingertips” is a four-and-a-half-minute concept album.

You either hate it or you find it profoundly weird. And a few people like it. And some people just like bits of it.

I’ve chosen it for a reason. If any song were undefinable, impossible to categorize, or simply divisive of opinions: this is it. If ever there was a good song to define a mix with—a song so eclectic within its own boundaries that it infects everything touching it with eclecticism too—this is it.

If I were still making mix tapes now, “Fingertips” would be on some of them. A deliberate attempt to disrupt flow, interrupt thoughts, to make people listen.

Mix your way around this, Genius.


* * *

Genius needs no time to think. You click, and the new “mix” is there instantly. They could have built in a little pause, to at least give the impression that Genius was having a bit of a think.

No thought. Just purpose.

Using “Fingertips” as my source results in a mix full of more They Might Be Giants songs. Some R.E.M. Some B-52s. Pixies. Devo. They Might Be Giants. Jonathan Coulton. Elvis Costello. So dull.

I am triumphant, because my point is proven. Genius isn’t a genius at all, merely a regurgitator of other people’s opinions. And too many people who listen to They Might Be Giants also listen to that other lot.

You have much to learn, little Genius. If you’d got it right, you’d have included something chaotic. Something that would make me chuckle.That’s no mix. A mix considers the songs themselves, not just the genre. It listens to the possible combinations, it has moments of drama and moments of peace, and it has two very precise end points. The end of side one, and the end of side two. iTunes Genius provides none of these.

You have much to learn, little Genius. If you’d got it right, you’d have included something chaotic. Something that would make me chuckle, or do a double-take, or pick myself off the chair and dance and beatbox around the kitchen. Something that matches the spooky operatics of the final part of “Fingertips”: I walk along darkened corridors. Or something disco-blues-funky, the direct opposite of the janglepop harmonies of Come on wreck my car. This is how the real genius DJs work on the radio: they wait for you to sit and be complacent and expect something in particular, then play you something that’s the direct opposite.

If you’d got it right, Genius, you’d have ignored everything that millions of iTunes Store account holders have told you. You’d have gone with your instincts. You’d just know which songs should go together, and which unlikely newcomers you should throw in to muddle things up.

If you’d got it right, Genius, you’d have put in “Nobody Does It Better” by Carly Simon, probably right at the end. Because you’d know that no one can hear those opening piano notes without joining in with the line, “Nobody does it better / makes me feel sad for the rest.” And you’d know how the hairs on the back of your neck stand up when the band joins in and Carly belts out the first verse. And you’d know know how the hairs on the hairs on the back of your neck stand up when the orchestra swings in, full crescendo, as she tips her head back and repeats, “Baby you’re the best,” over and over, ad lib to fade. A glorious sound, one of those songs that fades out and leaves you yearning for it to continue.

You’d open your eyes, Genius, and you’d see you were still in the same room. It was just a song, just a song. But a song people get lost in. Actual genius in action.