Sadie Dupuis (Speedy Ortiz) Talks Beats Music and the Art of Music Discovery

I know, I know: I am going to love The Wire, some day, when I open my heart and let go of my pride. I’ve sorta-kinda-maybe tried to like it.

I know, I know: I am going to love The Wire, some day, when I open my heart and let go of my pride. I’ve sorta-kinda-maybe tried to like it: I have seen its pilot at least three times, and S01E02 got a pair of plays. But no matter how many friends, boyfriends, moms, boyfriends’ moms’ boyfriends, and estranged track coaches promise me that I will love it for its intricacy, for its “Shakespearean dialogue,” for whatever other promising reason, I cannot be freaking bothered to get into an LTR with The Wire.

It’s not that I don’t believe everybody’s got my best interests at heart when they start talking about Bubbles out of context from the Powerpuff Girls reboot. It’s that, deep down, I’m not really interested in listening to recommendations at all. From anyone. About anything. If I were to psychologically trace this aversion, I might place my cultural crotchetiness’ roots somewhere in my tweens, when I had to deflect all kinds of peer assertions about how I “might actually really like” Good Charlotte if I “tried.” Being told I “might actually really like” something became a terrifying signifier, leading me to avoid that special something in question like geriatric scabies.

Sometimes the best sell is a non-sell. But other than harmful exposure to Madden twins, most well-intentioned tips from friends are troublesome only when I disagree with their selection. In that event, if I’m honest, I’m not just dismissing a friend’s taste, I’m dismissing that friend’s understanding of my own taste — kind of a dick move, y’know? And who wants to make a dick move?

I don’t spend a tremendous amount of time listening to music on my computer, but I imagine that one Objectively Nice thing about recommendation engines like Pandora is that if you’re so inclined, you can have music suggested to you, supposedly based on your preferences, but there are no hurt feelings if you trash that proposal. So if I decide, again and again, that I don’t feel like listening to a certain Jawbreaker song, Pandora (unlike my friends) isn’t going to call me a hater when I skip the track. (Jawbreaker, for whatever reason, is my The Wire of emo.) But I think getting a free pass on my Jawbreaker-indifference is perhaps the only Objectively Nice thing about Pandora. Within a few skipped tracks, I usually find I’ve outsmarted the cyborg DJ, and am hearing a radio station seemingly curated by my abandoned high school birthday present 250-disc CD wallet. And yet, despite its predictability, Pandora is massively popular. Are most people so boring that they only want to hear music they already know and care about? Or do most people just not really know or care about very much music?

It was with this general suspicion towards algorithmic tastemaking that I wound up, counterintuitively, trial subscribing to Beats Music’s new streaming service. It was partially for kicks, partially because the Talkhouse editors seem to know I delight in writing about things I don’t trust or enjoy. In the interest of transparency, they also wanted me to use a mood-based playlist generation feature in the hopes that I would find my own band’s music and reveal something about how I perceived our own songs. Spoiler alert: we are not really famous enough (or at all) for that.

Mostly, though, I was excited, for once in my life, to be an early adopter of an application; I was so late on the Spotify train that I practically had to pay an on-board ticket surcharge. At first glance, Beats is not much different from other pay-per-listen platforms, although it’s dolled up into the OKCupid-looking-est app I’ve ever seen (despite offering almost no chances of me getting laid this week). Ostensibly, once you’ve signed up for this ish, your first step is to “tell [Beats] what music you’re into and [they]’ll find stuff that’s right for you.” In smartphone world, this means either tapping or holding onto little pink balloons signifying different musical genres. Apart from feeling like you’re playing Angry Birds, doing so will let Beats know that you really espouse “musica tropical” or totally eschew “vintage soul & funk.” Choose wisely, young Beater: as far as I can tell, you’re unable to revisit these little pink balloons, and if you change your mind about your love for old-school hip-hop, you’ll be hard pressed to inform Beats of this life transition.

Next up, you gotta tell Beats which artists you dig, also from a pre-selected assortment of floating pink balloons. Somehow, I wound up having to choose from a dozen spheres as scattered and predictable as Big Daddy Kane, Foo Fighters, and Ludacris. I told Beats I liked Blur; on the next screen, Beats generated an introductory Britpop playlist for me. Not exactly a bastion of left-field creative thinking.

But wait: with one swipe, I’ve gotten to the sentence feature, perhaps the most (or the only?) intriguing aspect of the entire platform. The concept of this feature relies pretty heavily on Mad Libs; you’re meant to key in some pre-selected nouns, verbs, and locations, and Beats will spit out a playlist catered to your mood and setting, apparently using suggestions from “anonymous experts.” (Shady? Shady.) The formula is sorta like so: I’m in [mood/location] & feel like [activity] with [noun] & [music genre]. There’s at least a handful of snark-saturated multiple-choice selections for each variable, slim and yet comprehensive enough to somewhat accurately describe most of the nonsense I’ve done for the past three days. (Disclaimer: I have not really left my couch since Monday.)

I wound up scoping out a playlist in which I was, truthfully, “sick of being cold & feel like being blue with tons of junk food to indie.” (Sample yield: Real Estate, Camera Obscura, the Delgados.) “I’m under the weather & feel like punching walls with my haters to alt rock” dragged me to Sinéad O’Connor and Los Campesinos! in surprisingly quick succession. I never expected Fugazi or Silkworm to soundtrack my moment of “in bed & feel like taking a selfie with no pants on,” (“Cashout” and say cheese, amirite?) but Beats was a step ahead of me there. “Underpaid” and “texting with your ex” got me to Deerhoof. I heard like six Mountain Goats songs once I told Beats I was in the shower. (To be fair, I shower, like, once a week, so it takes me a full hour to detangle my kitchen. Lots of opportunities to hear a Darnielle tune).

So, these few days listening to Beats were sort of fun and charming and tee-hee. I took more screenshots than a man should really take. But really, every time I spent any time with Beats, I started to feel I’d be better off hanging out with my own seven-inches for an hour. And then I started to wonder who, exactly, should find Beats appealing. As far as I can tell, the answer is not me. I don’t think the answer is non-casual music fans, either. And for that reason, the answer is probably not you.

I’m willing to bet that if you’re the kind of person who’s scouring the Talkhouse to see what the dude from Lamb of God has to say about King Push’s latest LP, you’re also the kind of person who’s gonna get no itches scratched from a Britpop 101 playlist. Streaming services are nice if you know what you’re looking for, but if you’re blindly chasing any path the algorithm leads you down, you’re gonna wind up trampling on a lot of crap. In that case, might as well just hit up a friend for a mixtape (or a, whatevz). You might as well watch The Wire, while you’re at it. And you might as well like it, because you’re sick of making dick moves. Aren’t we all?

Sadie Dupuis is the guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter of rock band Speedy Ortiz. She’s also the producer & multi-instrumentalist behind pop project Sad13. Sadie heads the record label Wax Nine, has written for outlets including Spin, Nylon, and Playboy, and holds an MFA in poetry from UMass Amherst. Mouthguard, her first book, was published in 2018.

(Photo Credit: Jordan Edwards)