8 April 02005

Radio David Byrne and Celebrity Playlists

Following the thread of my last-but-one posting, about sharing music in an office, it's interesting to see how David Byrne introduces his Radio DavidByrne.com:

A friend who relocated to California from NY said she missed hearing all the odd variety of music that was played around the office here.  "I miss hearing what you all are listening to," she wrote. This "radio" is my response.

But, as the research I mentioned implies, sharing music with an anonymous public carries different weight and nuance from sharing it with a small group you have eye contact with on a day-to-day basis. In the same way, the relationship between writer and reader of a published article is not the same as writer and reader of a daily stream of office emails.

What Byrne is doing is closer to the emerging format of 'celebrity playlist' as promoted by iTunes and others — with the extra feature that you can hear the full tracks instead of 30-second samples. Last year Dan Kois slated the poverty of imagination, and occasional shamelessness, of many celebrity playlists. (Surprisingly, Byrne's playlist turns out also to be short on surprises.) As Thurston Moore wrote in Wired this week, "iTunes has become the Hallmark card of mix tapes — all you gotta do is sign your name to personalize it". Only, when celebrity culture is involved, a signature has different value from the friends or family signing their name in a card.

Anyone can make an iTunes playlist for sharing, and anyone can programme a three-hour stream of music over the web, as David Byrne has done (either by paying Live365 a modest monthly fee, or, for free, using Webjay). Apparently Yahoo! thinks the playlist is the "killer app" in music.

But I think it would be misguided to think that the lesson of High Fidelity is that lists are intrinsically interesting or valuable. Connoisseurs and festishists of lists, like Peter Greenaway, have always made their lists more than just lists, by imbuing with them with mystique and elements of narrative.

Celebrity is one simple way of adding these elements to a list: a celebrity playlist encourages the listener to project the music back onto what they already know about the personality behind it. It promises (faithfully or otherwise) to add some light and colour to what you know about the celebrity's life and thoughts, and these in turn reflect back on the music, making it seem more special.

Might the concept of an 'imaginary celebrity playlist' be more interesting than a celebrity playlist? I'm thinking of examples like

  • the Roots of… collections issued by Catfish Records that featured the archive blues, country and folk recordings that Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Ry Cooder might have grown up with;
  • the Original Seeds collections of music that inspired Nick Cave;
  • Ernest Paik's evolving Stephinsources blog, which catalogues, in weekly installments, selections of music that Stephin Merritt has referenced in different ways.

The curators of these examples take the opportunity to produce essay, collages, narratives and even reviews with their lists. They are unencumbered by anyone worrying about "how is this list going to make me look".

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cultural Calendar, Future of Music, Music and Multimedia, Playlists, Radio on 8 April 02005 | TrackBack
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