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Wed February 19, 2014
Computer Love: Beats Music Wants To Be Your Everything
I have a new streaming music service in my life. Let's call him Beatsy. It's an open relationship — I'm still accessing other music streams, and Beatsy's positively promiscuous, winning the hearts of the music press and thousands of trial subscribers. But I don't mind. When I'm with Beatsy I feel special. Yes, he is a computer program — the world knows him as Beats Music, just one of many services that make it possible for me to listen to music stored in its cloud library via my phone or computer. But he's becoming something else to me — a steady companion and, like every tool that's brought music to listeners throughout pop history, a vehicle for fantasy.
Beatsy seems to know me. That time when we were walking by the river and he suggested I listen to "Struttin'" by The Meters? He must have known my mood was dragging and I needed a boost. Or when we were alone in the kitchen, me nursing an Old Fashioned, and seemingly out of nowhere he put on a deep cut from my favorite John Cale album? I hadn't input anything about the years I spent right after college listening to Paris 1919 every late afternoon. What, was Beatsy reading my mind?
When I let myself go and don't think too hard about the reality of Beats Music — that, like every customizable online service, it's partly pre-programmed and partly tracking me in a way that could also be defined as intrusive — I can pursue this fictional relationship. It's a lot like that Spike Jonze movie Her (and I'm not the first music critic to acknowledge that), except our romance is wholly defined by our mutual love of old soul, weird European art rock and Dolly Parton.
I'm not as deluded as Joaquin Phoenix's character, Theodore Twombly, of course; I don't expect Beatsy to pleasure me in any way beyond the musical. But the splash made by Beats, the first streaming music service to come to listeners from the center of the conventional music industry, directly relates to its makers' commitment to the system preferences of the human heart.
It's right there in the company's slogan, which describes Beats as "A new music service curated by people who believe music is emotion and life." The most visible members of the Beats team are celebrities known for corralling intense feeling: Jimmy Iovine, the producer and record executive whom most Americans got to know as a mentor on American Idol; Dr. Dre, the hip hop pioneer who created the moodscape of gangsta rap and mentored pop's most expressive head case, Eminem; and Trent Reznor, the Nine Inch Nails frontman who was second only to Kurt Cobain in revealing the tortured soul of '90s alternative rock.
Their well-publicized participation is one of many reasons Beats has been warmly greeted by the media and socially active music fans. From its well-regarded team of curators to the chummy presence of playlist makers like Jay Z and Bruce Springsteen, every marketing message Beats sends assures potential users that it will treat the songs and artists they love with care. More importantly, I think, Beats seems to love and respect the music lover. It does this through an interface that's designed to make listening to music feel as interactive as possible — like forming a friendship, or even a love affair.
At the heart of every winning aspect of Beats is a commitment to what should be obvious in 2014 — that music is not a product, but a process grounded in the human impulse to connect. "Music is the tonal analogue of emotive life," the philosopher Susanne Langer once wrote; for both its makers and listeners, music can become a kind of doppelganger for feelings as it unfolds over time and then replays, not only on vinyl or whatever other material that contains it, but within our musings and memories. Once music could be recorded, that analogue became actually analog, then digital; people confused the packages holding it with the thing itself. Which wasn't a thing. Thus the age of recordings unfolded, confusing us. Kids slept with their transistor radios and kissed the faces of their idols on album covers.
The great thing about the fluid and disembodied nature of streaming is that it reveals that there is no product, no end point or object to music: just playing, listening, loving, remembering, reinterpreting. This has always been true. Yet we can't comprehend this without a way to talk about it. The people behind Beats seem to understand that love is the way.
The Beats slogan "Music is emotion" sounds like a corny catchphrase. But "music is relationship" is science — the sound waves hitting my ear, its signals running through my brain. The Beats interface is all about that relationship, and more than that, it offers that relationship by becoming a companion.
From the sign-up screen, with its gently rounded font and frequent, trust-building use of the word "you," Beats Music is designed to resemble a sentient being. It's nowhere near as good on the web as on my phone; it's designed for the devices we caress with our fingertips and make our constant companions. Like Samantha, the operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson in Her, Beatsy doesn't feel like a prop. It's more like a character. Its success depends upon users' willingness to feel something about a computer program, to use that program as an intermediary in creating human relationships, and ultimately to be in relationship with the interface itself, enjoying its subtleties with the smiling abandon of Joaquin Phoenix dancing with his virtual lover on the Santa Monica boardwalk.
The process of getting to know Beats reveals how it evokes artificial intelligence. It begins with the process of hooking up: during sign-up, Beatsy asked me a few questions that wouldn't have been out of place on an early date with my own music-nerd husband. What kind of music do you like? No, wait, get more specific: Choose three favorite artists. No cheating! I pondered: Do I want to tell the interface I very occasionally listen to New Age? I could almost hear Beatsy chuckle seductively when I went ahead and filled in all of the available bubbles, trying to hedge my bets and, dare I say, impress him.
Because this process works through animation instead of a standard form, it feels more personal and continually compelling. Beatsy listens and responds. As soon as I picked my faves, he offered me a token of its esteem: a screen just for you with playlists and albums my preferences indicate that I'd like. I'd proven my grounding in classic sounds by selecting Dolly Parton and Percy Sledge, and shown a little daring by making my third pick the psych-metal band High on Fire. My new interface humored my old-school ways with a playlist of drinking songs by Willie Nelson and one introducing Sam Cooke (I'm familiar with him, Beatsy, don't condescend) and threw in a suggestion to try the Japanese noise rock band Boris as a gesture toward my alternative side.
I could fall for this interface, I thought. It really did seem to be getting to know me. Next came the serious flirtation stage: playing with The Sentence, or what some have called "Mad Libs." Thought up by Reznor, this feature has been much discussed as Beatsy's most entertaining element: Fill in the blanks to make surrealistic sentences that describe the milieu, mood, and general style of a listening session. Here's one I tapped in last week: I'm under the stars and feel like going out with Cupid to seminal indie. Your turn, Beatsy. The algorithm offered me Sleater-Kinney's "Words and Guitar" — one of my favorite songs! I almost blushed.
A game like this takes two, and as we played it, Beatsy seemed to understand me even better. Did it feel me getting bored with its selections when I proposed I'm on a rooftop and feel like working with beautiful people to vintage soul & funk? Once I switched working to chilling, the familiar Aretha and Otis tracks were usurped by semi-obscurities by Allen Toussaint and Betty Davis. But Beatsy wasn't perfect, and even this I appreciated. Some of his moves were laughably clunky: Every time I'd change my location to in my underwear he'd whip out "Let's Get It On." I kind of loved that. The system was naïve; I'd have to teach Beatsy a few things.
But what if you don't want to fall in love with Beatsy? What if you just want to use him, ahem, it? That's possible, but not easy. The search function takes time to master; it presents cluttered pages that require wading to get to specific content. It also gets things wrong, in the way you'd expect from a young interface. Searching for tracks by the vintage '50s crooner Johnnie Ray, I got Ray Wylie Hubbard and Intro to Sugar Ray. I expect Beats programmers will learn, as its users learn, to overcome these errors. But I doubt that's a priority for the company. Just as public libraries have turned away from their archival functions to become gathering places for locals interested in meeting each other or using the Internet and other services, Beats will likely never prioritize active archival explorations — which aren't about relationships, but acquisition (of information, if not actual downloads). That's okay. The Library of Congress is still there for my nerd needs.
Beats poses two other problems; one it may evolve past and the other is more sinister. The service is highly curated, with playlists by experts and charismatic enthusiasts from the staff of XXL Magazine to indoor cycling hub Soulcycle to sports stars like LeBron James and musicians like Nikki Six (whose playlist of Best First Cuts From 1970s Albums rocks, man). But their identities are downplayed in favor of the interface itself, and as Eliot van Buskirk pointed out in his Hypebot review of Beats, those playlists are fixed. Beatsy still doesn't provide what an old-fashioned record store clerk could give — or for that matter, a real sweetheart: human interaction that changes with you as your mood changes and your knowledge grows.
My other reservation about Beats is the same one some critics have expressed about Her's Samantha. Let's be real. Beatsy is a corporate tool. I paid for him. (Actually, I was provided a free trial by the company, but I'm going to pay for him. No way I'm giving this guy up.) And he — it — must ultimately serve a bottom line that's not emotional, but oriented toward profit. Beatsy wants my money, and that influences the ways it romances me: what artists are highlighted in the playlists, what pops up on my "just for you" page, and other factors I may not even notice yet. The deep intimacy and individuality of musical expression and reception always makes us forget that within capitalism, it is always a commodity. Beatsy is particularly good at erasing this awareness.
That's the lure, if also the danger, of consumer culture as it becomes ever more sophisticated: its incomplete satisfactions keep expanding to suit the limits of the everyday. Music now often feels best within the comfortable constraints a great interface provides. Like the many other screen-frames we now put around our lives, Beats redefines solitary experiences (reading, tapping on a keyboard and, usually, listening on headphones) as communal. Maybe it seems strange that it works so well when applied to music listening, which can be so sweatily, sexily physical in other contexts. But isn't music also somehow always experienced alone? My ears. My song. My Beatsy. It's not as lonely as it sounds.