Obsessed with shuffle

I have become obsessed with shuffle. Let me explain.

I have a lot of music, or at least I think I do. I know people with 10,000 CDs and I know people with three. Anyway, this adds up to a bunch of songs, and I have ended up with something like 6000 in my iTunes library. (Actually, 6143 – I had to check.) So that’s the kind of music collection that some people would say “I have more than that in my Q section”, and other people might say “you really need to get a hobby.” But it is what it is, I have 6143 songs. And for what it’s worth, I’ve pretty much stopped buying music, so it’s not going to be 12,000 songs by December.

[2020 update: it’s now just a few shy of 20,000 songs.]

Typically, I leave the house with my iPod, and on my way out the door, decide “I’m listening to x.” Then I select an album, go to track 1, and start listening. This is analogous to the old tape walkman days, when I’d decide on a band and title, put it in the tape player, and listen to it. Except instead of three or four tapes in my backpack, I have 6143 songs. This means two things, first that I only listen to a handful of music that I actually carry around with me. The other is that I sometimes become paralyzed with choice, totally freeze up, and go back to Rush – Moving Pictures or whatever. (Actually, thanks to iTunes, I can tell you that the most-played album, probably due to my indecision, is Guns N’ Roses – Use Your Illusion 2. Sometimes I think it was better when I didn’t have the technology to figure that out so exactly, and I had to resort to examination of tape case wear.)

To further complicate this, my current commute lets me listen to about 15 minutes of music if I take the train, and maybe 30 minutes if I walk. I used to get in a whole CD or more during the train ride, but switching islands has changed that. I also don’t get to read as much, but that’s another conversation.

I never used to listen to music at work. I’m not sure why, especially since everyone else does, and I’m in cubeland, so there are plenty of distractions and conversations I’d rather not hear. But last week, I gave up and decided to get out the iPod and create my own background noise. And for what it’s worth, I got a lot more work done, and time passed much faster. Plus I got to listen to music, which is good, because I was seriously worried that I was becoming one of those people who only own three CDs and when asked about their favorite music, they usually say “whatever’s on the radio,” or, even worse “Oh, I listen to everything!” In both cases, this means the person only listens to the two dozen songs that ClearChannel wants them to hear, and the latter is more annoying, because last time I checked, “everything” was the definition of a set containing all things, including Cannibal Corpse, skinhead hatecore, and Japanese experimental jazz, all of which would freak the fuck out of these people. (These are also the same kind of people who would pay $180 for tickets to a Rolling Stones concert, even though they own none of their albums and can’t name more than three of their songs, and when asked for their rationale, all they can say is “WOOOOO! ROLLING STONES!”)

Music at work is great. I remember working in factories or taking drafting classes in high school, where we had the radio tuned to WAOR constantly, and even though they played “We Built This City” every fucking hour, there was still a chance they would break out some old Van Halen or slip in a number from the first Boston album. My problem, however, was that I still had that deer-in-headlights panic about what the fuck to put on the player. Back in the tape era, or even in my MiniDisc days, you were forced to listen to whatever you carried, and usually a series of coin tosses could determine that. But that didn’t work when you have all of this fucking music. So I broke down. I shuffled.

I have hated shuffle mode on the iPod. I hated it even more when Apple came out with the Shuffle, a player the size of a pack of gum with no screen, no software, no features, and almost no memory. To me, it was the stupidest thing since IBM tried to sell OS/2 as an alternative to Windows. It was stupider than BetaMax. It was stupider than the Yugo. And they sold like hotcakes, and that really pissed me off. Why? It was basically saying that millions of people wanted to load exactly seven songs, all from the “Hey, Remember the 80s?” genre, and didn’t give a damn about substance or features or expandability, they just wanted to listen to Cyndi Lauper sing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” on repeat while jogging.

It’s no secret that I like a lot of music that could be categorized as “album-oriented.” What that means is the experience is better if you listen from track one to track twelve, and there aren’t any hits that can be cherry-picked out and listened without the context of the rest of the album. Bands like Yes or Rush don’t put out hits; they put out albums. If you loaded an iPod Shuffle with old Yes albums and put it on blend, you’d have an aneurysm. You’d seriously shit blood for a week. And it doesn’t help much that most of their songs are 27 minutes long. You could jog the Boston marathon and only be three songs into their 70s backcatalog. But I’ve always thought of the world as people who like listening to albums, and people who listen to songs randomly. And the former usually hate radio, because it neglected whatever prog/experimental/death/thrash/obscure rock movement to which they subscribe, while the latter love radio, so maybe that’s why. I don’t know, but I always thought album/shuffle was like oil/water, Bush/Kerry, or Roth-era Van Halen/Hagar-era Van Halen.

A few days ago, I was listening to aforementioned Rush album for the 8th time, and I broke down and said “fuck it, fuck it, fuck it” and put my iPod on shuffle. And at first, it wasn’t entirely bad. For every song I liked, I had to click Next four or five times to get another one that was okay. But sometimes it would pick two or three songs in a row that I liked, and sometimes they strangely fit together. That made me wonder, “how does it shuffle the songs?” And that was pretty much my last free thought before this consumed me.

Why? I don’t know. The iPod’s shuffle settings are buried in the firmware, unlike iTunes, which has them on a preferences page. But that still didn’t tell me anything. Did it use rating tags? Genre? Artist or album? Songs listened to all the way through? If I listen to “Iron Man” on a Sabbath record, is it going to throw “Crazy Train” from an Ozzy solo record on the pile? Does it like recently-added songs more? HOW DOES IT WORK? I’m the kind of person that, at a very early age, took apart absolutely everything to find out what made it work. (This was before the era of Torx fasteners, when a #1 Phillips would undo anything.) And I’m still that way about computers and software. But maybe because I listened to the iPod ten hours a day, I needed to know more.

Google returned a million sites in Eastern Europe or Indonesia that are giving away free iPod Shuffles if you send them your credit card numbers and signature, but nothing conclusive about the shuffle algorithm. To further confuse things, iTunes has a thing called “Party Shuffle”†, which can use ratings to pick songs. Some sites said it was totally random, some said there must be something more. But after thinking about it, I realized my next little obsession: Smart Playlists.

iPods and iTunes have playlists, where you create a list in iTunes, add a shitload of songs (in some order, if you’re not a shuffler), and then the list gets zapped to the iPod. It’s the 21st century equivalent to the mix tape, except if you send your playlist to a friend, they also need all of the song files, too. A Smart Playlist is a like that, except you don’t add songs; you add parameters that determine what songs will be played. For example, you’ve got a bunch of Weird Al albums. You create a Weird Al Smart Playlist, that selects every song in your library where Artist=Weird Al. Sync the iPod, select that list, and you’ve got “Eat It” and “Like a Surgeon” playing away. When you buy a new Weird Al album and add it to the library, those tracks magically appear on your new list. Want it to play Weird Al and Dr. Demento? Add a second thing on the list for Artist=Dr. D and you have both of them on the list.

This immediately stuck me as a great way to limit what came on the headphones during the work day. Like, one problem is that I have a lot of comedy albums, and when I’m jamming away to some tunes, I don’t want a seven-second Bill Hicks joke to break in. So I made a “no talk” Smart Playlist, and said “don’t play anything that’s in the Comedy, Spoken Word, or Speech genre.” Worked perfect.

The other thing is the rating deal. Songs can be rated from one to five stars, or not at all. You can now update these on the iPod, too. I don’t know if the shuffle looks at this or not, but I do know you can play or not play stuff based on ratings in a Smart Playlist. So I started added ratings as I listened to stuff. One star is “I don’t want to ever hear this when I’m shuffling.” Three stars is the average. Two is a little less; four is a little more. Five stars is one of my absolute favorite songs. I immediately rated anything under about 20 seconds as a one, because I hate it when just the intro sample, talking part, or weird gothic keyboard shit plays and then that’s it. (This always reminds me of a time in high school I was at Pizza Hut with a couple of friends, and I went to the jukebox and wanted to hear a song by Van Halen, so I picked “1984.” Well, that’s the stupid keyboard intro to “Jump,” so that played for ten seconds and not the song, and I was out 25 cents.)

Last night, I got into iTunes and started mass-rating stuff. It’s a pain in the ass to stay consistent, and I got so locked into it, that I forgot about the outside world, and then suddenly it was like two hours later, and I was midway through the D bands. I think it will take me about six years to rate everything, if I quit my job and never sleep.

So yeah, that’s why I haven’t been writing much lately. I had more to say about this, but iTunes is in the other window, and I keep clicking at ratings as songs scroll down the list. Very addicting.