2 Sep 2010 7:25 am   //   Filed under: Music, No right to be good, Technology

The joy of uncool

Yesterday Apple announced some new social networking features for iTunes as part of a new service called Ping. If you choose, you can show your friends what music you’re listening to.

Bad idea.

One thing I love about digital music is the freedom to find and play insipid novelty songs. This dates to college, when we figured out how to share MP3s on the LAN, and somebody dug up a recording of “New Age Girl” by Deadeye Dick. This is an achingly stupid song, and everyone played it constantly. I still play it. Shouldn’t I have the right to listen to tasteless music in my own home without everyone knowing? Do I really want to feel like I’m expending social capital when I put on a Roxette song? Do I want my friends seeing a notice that says, “Your friend Daryl enjoys music by Genesis.”?

Online radio program Pandora integrated some of its features with Facebook recently, enabling a little box that shows what artists your Facebook friends like. I swiftly disabled it after a message appeared saying “Your former girlfriend also enjoys the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.” I imagined a reciprocal message announcing, “Daryl is currently listening to Ke$ha” and decided to put a lid on that.

To be sure, my most-played list in iTunes isn’t particularly shameful. It’s a lot of power pop and catchy music by indie singers like Neko Case and Ben Folds. Entirely appropriate to my branding as a geeky writer in Brooklyn. But scroll down and there’s “Skipper Dan” by Weird Al Yankovic, played 48 times. There’s “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes,” by Edison Lighthouse, played 44 times. Below that are “That’s Not My Name” by the Ting Tings, and “High School Never Ends” by Bowling for Soup. For these songs, I offer no explanation. I just say, “Mind your own business.” On the blog, I can do this, but on iTunes Ping, I might not have that luxury of context. Is it acceptable to announce that I’m a Brad Paisley fan?

I don’t want to worry about what people think of me when I load up my iPod. I need the small joy of listening to totally uncool music. That’s my message to Apple and Pandora and everyone else working to encode word-of-mouth marketing into a software program that extracts our money $1.29 at a time.

Come to think of it, this isn’t an Apple problem or even a music problem. It’s a social media problem. Quite often, what we share doesn’t reflect our actual behavior. It reflects whom we aspire to be, or whom we want our friends to think we are. As we get used to sharing things—what we watch, what we listen to, where we go out to eat—I’m worried that social media is pressuring us to pretend to be things we’re not. In the future, we will all listen to Grizzly Bear for 15 minutes. Then we’ll disconnect from the Internet and crank up some Steve Winwood, tapping our toes in delicious secrecy.