Saturday, January 22, 2011


"What are you listening to?"

My friend Stan asked this when we were discussing an excellent blog post he wrote about music with graphs and analysis and scientific testing. When I say we were discussing it, I mean that we were posting comments back and forth to each other. I'm pretty sure it has been over ten years since Stan and I were actually in each other's physical presence and could discuss anything in person, but I'm still using the word "discussion" because the language of social interaction hasn't quite caught up with the technology of it.

In any case, Stan asked what I listen to, and a simple question has a simple answer: I listen to my iPod.

my ipod

(My iPod is modeled here by Ferro Lad, who hopefully did not punch out Superboy to get it.)

My iPod is the only place where I listen to music. I've had my car since 2006 and it doesn't have a single radio station programmed in because I only listen to the iPod. The radio has commercials, or songs that I don't like come on. Either is unacceptable. Before I had an iPod, I had a car with a six disc CD changer, and before that I had mixed tapes.

I've had the iPod even longer than the car, so long that Apple doesn't list it on their website anymore and will not service it if anything ever happens to it. Compared to the iPods of today, my iPod is a Neanderthal, the Cro-Magnon rung on Apple's ladder of technological evolution. When I got it, I spent over a week carefully copying every song I liked on every CD I owned onto it, generating a playlist that's somewhat heavy on the 1990s and early 2000s since that's the era when I had the most interest in music. I was even a radio station DJ in my undergrad for two years, with a two hour show in the "alternative" programming block. It's never really been clear to me how I progressed from that to my current sweater vest and khakis state, but I was never really that alternative to begin with, I think. I sure did like their music, though.

This is not to say that my iPod is without music made after 2005 or so. Despite not listening to the radio, new music finds its way onto my radar, most often through television but also through the kindly intervention of friends. Last Christmas, which I spent with my friend Sean, Sean was kind of horrified when I explained that I was still sort of unclear on who this "Lady Ga Ga" was and why she seemed to be famous. I was pretty sure that she was a singer, maybe in a band but possibly also a soloist, and I was unable to name or sing along to a single one of her songs. After three or four days of listening to Sean's radio while we drove around I was better informed, and he burned me three CDs to take home in the hopes that I would listen to them and become aware of pop-culturally relevant music again.

At roughly the same time, my friend Mike (who I call Larry) made a "Best of the Year" set of 4 CDs with an extensive seven page bibliography, explaning who each group was, what the song was, why he liked it, and including other bits of trivia that he felt may or may not be important. I listened to all of his CDs and the CDs that Sean made me for about three weeks on the way to and from work, then I listed all of the songs on them that I liked and downloaded them from iTunes and onto the iPod. The sad part of this story is that friends send me CDs like this on a fairly regular basis, because the only place where I hear new music otherwise is the television. If you've ever wondered who the people who google a band because they heard it on a commercial are, or who the intended audience for the "music from tonight's episode" sequences at the end of "Gossip Girl" is, then the answer to both of those questions is "me". I also buy a lot of soundtracks for movies.

Given all of that, what am I listening to?

1) A lot of cover songs. I love cover songs. I used to have mixed tapes of just cover songs for singing along to in the car. There are five versions of "Baby, One More Time" on my iPod, and only one of them is by Britney Spears. I have two versions of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", neither of which is by Nirvana, and in at least one case ("Land of Confusion") I thought I was downloading the original, accidentally got the cover song by mistake, and never went back for the version I intended to buy. A large part of the reason why I download so much music from "Glee" is my love for cover songs, but it's not confined just to that. I think the best song I heard last year was the Scala and Kolacny Brothers' version of "Creep", which I heard on the trailer for "The Social Network". It gives me shivers when I hear it, and I liked it so much that I listened to samples of all of their songs and downloaded three more.

2) Showtunes. I like musicals. Shut up.

3) The artist with the most songs on my iPod came as a surprise since it wasn't either of the two that I guessed. I assumed it would be the cast of "Glee" or it would be Greenday, but it turned out to be Fountains of Wayne. They have 38 songs out of the 923 on the iPod. "Glee" and Greenday are both in the mid-twenties, and I can list Blink 182, Blue October, the Killers, Cake, and Weezer as honorable mentions.

4) My playcounts are off, since my computer is only a few years old, but the song with the highest playcount is "Poker Face" by Lady GaGa. When that one comes up on shuffle I usually replay it a couple of times. There's a three way tie for second between "The Ballad of Michael Valentine" by the Killers, "Super Trouper" from the "Mamma Mia!" soundtrack, and "Now We Can See" by the Thermals. If the playcounts were tracked over the life of the iPod a lot of other songs would be much higher, and songs like Kim Zolciak's "Tardy for the Party" might not be quite so high. The song in dead last, with zero complete plays (the playcount only registers if you let the song go all the way to the end and let the iPod move to the next song itself) is the "Glee" cast version of "Baby, One More Time", mostly because mine has a few seconds of silence at the end and I always skip the iPod ahead to the next song rather than wait it out.

5) The genre listed most often on the iPod, over half of the 923 song playlist, is "Alternative", followed by "Soundtrack", then "Rock", then "Pop", and then a bunch of little ones. I'm not sure how Apple picks what genre a song or group goes in, since I don't really consider Natalie Merchant or Michelle Branch to be "Rock". Tori Amos doesn't seem like "Pop" to me, and I don't understand why "My Apology", by the Get Up Kids, is the only song on the whole iPod listed as "Punk" while their other songs fell under "Alternative". More than anything, though, I cannot imagine why Harvey Fierstein singing "I Am What I Am" is classified as "Rock". Was someone at iTunes smoking something that day?

What does all of this tell us about my taste in music? I dunno, but it does answer the question of what I'm listening to.


Sean said...

I love my iPod as well, however, I do tend to listen to the radio more as I need the traffic updates. But it is great for long road trips... and my iPod is the 1st Gen video one that the folks at the Apple Store call a "brick", start laughing, and ask how it still works...

Thanks for the shout-out, bud! We need another vacation together!

Miggsy said...


If you want to shorten the end of your Glee version of "Baby One More Time," right click the file in iTunes, hit Get Info, then in the Options tab you can back up the stop time so it doesn't play that silence.

Liz said...

*sighs* This is another of your wonderful blogs that makes me wonder if we were separated at birth.

If you haven't yet, bookmark the Covers Project. It's a database of covers and the people who perform them:

I used to wonder who this Gaga person was too. Now I always listen to Pokerface twice in a row as well.

Best cover EVER: Stairway to Heaven by Leningrad Cowboys and the Red Star Red Army Chorus. I know. Shut up:

Your friends are wonderful for keeping you relevant. But no Pet Shop Boys? I have their entire discography!

stanford said...

I also required 'education' embarresingly well past her rise to popularity. In our defense...Lady Gaga sounds like it could be anything from a British royalty scandal to a baby care or breast feeding product.

Thanks for the music post Joel. Bands are funny because you know that there are several out there that you would love if someone just talked you into giving them a chance. I always like to hear what people are listening to.