It's a distinct and painful memory shared by music lovers of a certain age. You spend a couple hours recording a wicked awesome mix tape for a friend, or a lover, or (most often) someone in the uncertain terrain between. You fill it with songs cunningly chosen to simultaneously bare your heart and play it cool. You nervously hand it over—"Yeah, no big deal, but I made you this." Two weeks later, you ask how much she loved it, and when she shrugs, you feel a hot flush of shame. Face it: Your mix tape sucks.
Now celebrities and musicians—from Beyoncé Knowles to Avril Lavigne to Sting—can feel that same hot flush of shame, on a much grander scale. Since October, Apple has been collecting playlists from musicians and celebrities at its iTunes music store. For Apple, of course, these celebrity playlists are another way to package their 99-cent songs. They help Apple maintain its position as the musician-friendly computer company—an image they've successfully cultivated since their first music-based ads in 2001. But for musicians, iTunes celebrity playlists offer a unique form of public humiliation. Just as UsWeekly's feature "Stars—They're Just Like Us!" presents schadenfreude-laced shots of a makeup-free J. Lo chowing down on a Filet-O-Fish, iTunes celebrity playlists call forth visions of Matchbox 20's Rob Thomas nervously offering you a mix tape. A mix tape that sucks.
Many of the artists involved play it snoozingly safe. For instance: There's an obscure little ditty out there called "Hey Ya!" Avril Lavigneand the Flaming Lipsand Alice Cooperand Mischa Barton, star of The O.C., think you ought to give it a listen. (To view these playlists, iTunes software must be installed and open. To download the software, click here. Otherwise, just keep reading, and we'll summarize them for you.) You know what other music celebrities love? U2. Dylan. Clapton. Nirvana. Hendrix. It turns out musicians pretty much like the same music as everyone else.
It comes as no surprise, of course, that Sheryl Crow's music taste is boring, or that Sleater-Kinney's is impeccably hip, or that Damon Dash, CEO of Roc-A-Fella Records, enjoys songs by Roc-A-Fella artists. And it'll be news to no one that Ruben Studdard really, really likes Luther Vandross. With music selections as predictable as these, it's often only in the liner notes accompanying each playlist that a celebrity's personality is revealed. Even famous people can make you wince when they write from the heart.
Alice Cooper, for example, wistfully cites Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as "one of those songs that I kick myself for not writing." Michael Stipe's modest side helps him admit, "I'm a terrible DJ, but I worked to make it ebb and flow," but I guess it's his pompous side that adds, "so that you get up, then down, then bitchslapped then discovery then epiphany, then up then down and all over again." The liner notes to wild-eyed rawker Andrew W.K.'s playlist sport a delightful exclamation-point-to-sentence ratio of 1.27-to-1. And I can't think of a better summation of Avril Lavigne than her exegesis of Alanis Morissette's "Ironic": "I love how this song was written with all the different examples Alanis uses of things being ironic."
Missy Elliott, on the other hand, reveals little. Her liner notes, like her playlist itself, are pure hippity-hop boilerplate: "From ol' skool to new skool, these are some of the hottest songs on the sickest beats ever. Holla!!!" For the most part, iTunes celebrity playlists are unlikely to make anyone holla back. The worst of the bunch are those celebrity playlists padded with the celebrity's own songs, epitomized by the queen of the craven playlist, Beyoncé Knowles. Eight of the 14 songs on Beyoncé's playlist are performed by her thin-voiced sister, Solange, by her former bandmates in Destiny's Child, or by Beyoncé herself. It's enough to make you grateful for the honesty of Barry Manilow, whose well-crafted and classy playlist features just one of his own songs—"because," he notes, "I am shamelessly promoting my new 2-CD set."
The true and rare delights of the iTunes celebrity playlists are those few artists whose musical choices catch you completely off guard. I'm no big fan of the Washington, D.C., groove duo Thievery Corporation, whose music I've always found loungey and dull. But Thievery Corporation's playlist is fantastic, the mix tape you always wished someone would give you: globe-spanning, genre-hopping, with just enough familiar stuff to recapture your attention when it starts to wane. A Serge Gainsbourg standard is followed by a lively Talking Heads song that isn't on their greatest-hits record, so who's heard it in years? The Flaming Lips' gleefully overblown "Suddenly Everything Has Changed" leads into a short and sharp dub-reggae version of "Ain't No Sunshine" by Horace Andy. Add classic hip-hop from the Jungle Brothers, a 12-minute Fela Kuti Afrobeat classic, and the Stone Roses' Manchester-pop "Fools Gold," and this is a mix that makes me want to dance, to drive, to sing ... and to download a couple of Thievery Corporation songs. Well played, iTunes music store.