iTunes 8.0 incorporates a new feature called "Genius." Select a song, click the "Genius" button, and iTunes automatically constructs a playlist of songs that are similar to the song you originally selected. Or that's the idea, at any rate.
Pandora, of course, has been doing this for years. The music genome approach, if someone ever really gets it right, will revolutionize the music industry. And right now, Pandora has got it far more right than Apple. Select an Elvis Presley song and click that "Genius" button. What does iTunes recommend? Buddy Holly. Umm, no. Other than both artists' undeniable place in the Rock 'n Roll Pioneer pantheon, just what do Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly have in common? Not a whole lot.
Aside from the glitches in the recommendation, this isn't really what I'm looking for in "Music Recommendation" software anyway. I already know what the music on my iPod sounds like. I put it on there. I've already played it, most of it many times. And I've got ears. I don't need some unhelpful algorithm to figure out that Boston is classic rock, and Peter Frampton is classic rock, so if I like Boston then maybe I'd like Peter Frampton. Wrong, vocoder breath. I suspect my own ability to make musical connections is far more finely calibrated than anything Apple or Pandora will ever come up with.
What I'm looking for, and will probably never find, is software that will help me make thematic connections. When I select Sufjan Stevens' song "A Short Reprise for Mary Todd Lincoln," I'm not looking for more music that sounds like Sufjan Stevens. I can find that using my own brain just fine. I'm looking for other songs about Mary Todd Lincoln. Why? Because I'm weird that way. Because I used to spend hours making Gloria mix tapes featuring Vivaldi, Van Morrison, and Patti Smith. Because it's a kind of puzzle, and I like puzzles.
That's what I really want: an easy way to make a Pop Songs That Mention Mid-to-Late Twentieth Century Literary Figures playlist. Okay, we've got Rhett Miller with his mention of Don Delillo, Simon and Garfunkel with Norman Mailer, that stupid Deep Blue Something song about Breakfast at Tiffany's, which at least contains a veiled Truman Capote reference, and what else? I'm telling you, I'd pay big bucks for that kind of musical software.