My love-hate relationship with iTunes shuffle

I’m sprawled across my lumpy dorm room bed, writing the words you see on this very page as iTunes shuffles through my vast music library when, in all its infinite digital wisdom, iTunes follows Ed Sheeran’s beautifully tender “Firefly” with. . . the Doors’ raucous “Roadhouse Blues“? What gives, shuffle function?!? This is like an ice-bucket challenge for my ears. My mind turns from fluffy pillows and candles to red lights and sticky barroom floors. I mean, I love Jim Morrison, but not as a companion to my pal Ed.

The shuffle option has not always been my go-to method for optimizing my music listening. I used to make playlists of only the songs I was totally obsessed with at that moment. These were generally titled according to month, and in going back over “September 2013 or “January 2012” I see that my tastes often changed with the seasons. During the summer, which is May through September in my desert climate, I generally opted for the lively sounds of U2, the Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Grouplove, and Ingrid Michelson. When winter rolled around, I preferred Marina and the Diamonds, Coldplay, Katie Herzig, Fiona Apple, and Ray LaMontagne. I can’t explain why exactly these different artists appealed to me other than to say they just felt right at the time. And yet, after cycling through the playlists 30 (or 50, or 100) times, I was sick to death of these wonderful people. It felt like there was so much music in the world and here I was getting bored by the same 15 bands. So it was iTunes shuffle to the rescue.

Now this feature has some fine attributes. Shuffle’s process of random selection renews my interest in songs I’d totally forgotten about. Oh, hello, “Everything at Once” by Lenka! It’s been so long, “Where I Stood” by Missy Higgins! Welcome back, Jack Johnson! And these wonderful surprises enriched my playlists: I would mix some older gems into my most current roster and even organize songs based on shuffle’s order.

And, my god, the discoveries. I never knew I had so much instrumental music from movie soundtracks (The Theory of Everything, Big Hero 6, Lord of the Rings) in my iTunes library until I started using shuffle religiously. Turns out instrumental tunes between pop and rock songs sound really rad! I feel like a super-eclectic DJ, orchestrating unexpected musical collaborations, like Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” (Toy Story 2) and Paul McCartney’s “Queenie Eye” or Phil Collins’ “Strangers Like Me” (Tarzan) and “O Children” by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). If you’re into this type of thing, I recommend “The Glory Days” fromThe Incredibles followed by “Disneyland” by Five For Fighting. See what shuffle did with that last one, eh? They followed an official song from a Disney Pixar movie with one about Disneyland. Admit it, that is kind of genius.

But it’s not all hunky-dory. When my Japanese language tutorial pops up in between Haim and Fleetwood Mac, talk about being taken out of the moment! (I have tons of MP3 files from my Genki textbook CD to help with my studies.) OK, it’s kind of cool in that experimental, DJ Shadow way. But this is a problem when I’m trying to wind down before bed or I’m cruising in my car, looking for a little escape from all the schoolwork. The last thing I want to hear is “一元気。メリーさんは…” (translation: Number one, Genki. Mary is . . . ). It totally takes me out of the moment. Thankfully, I deleted my old Realidades Spanish Textbook CD from iTunes or I’m sure shuffle would have had some fun with that.

The truly bad, or perhaps downright ugly, experience is when you get the weird music first, and the good music only after skipping a million songs. I guess it’s part of the iTunes algorithm or something, but I often have to fast-forward 10 songs before I finally come to ones I want to listen to. For instance, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” followed by Carla Bruni’s “Autumn” is sublime, but the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” and Hannah Montana’s “Nobody’s Perfect” (don’t judge) is not. Simon & Garfunkel complement Carla — they both have a calm sweetness that borders on easy listening without crossing over into totally lame. But “Here Comes the Sun” doesn’t fit with “Nobody’s Perfect“: the former is slower, with sort of a ringtone complacency, whereas the latter has a faster tempo that you might want to yell out the lyrics to, if you were still into Hannah Montana, which I’m so not, iTunes. You don’t know me at all!!!

My relationship with shuffle is complicated, to say the least. It has the potential to steer me to a new Marina and the Diamonds track that I missed on first listen, because I didn’t spend enough time with the whole album. Or I get treated to awesome songs from artists I’d forgotten about, like Feist and A Fine Frenzy (iTunes is in the F section, obviously). When those songs cue up, I’m whisked away to the past. Then again, I’m not always one for surprises, especially at 11 o’clock at night. I don’t carefully comb through my iTunes library, weeding out the never-agains, or the language tutorials, so I’m bound to be sabotaged by dud choices. I guess you could argue the blame lies with me as the primary curator — but let’s not. Let’s just hope that in the future, iTunes version 23.2 will read our minds and always know exactly what to play.

[Image via here, here, and here]

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