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Love me, love my iTunes (Meat Loaf and all)

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When Laura Tisdel first discovered that her boyfriend's iTunes library was filled with music by Air Supply, Wham and Meat Loaf, the 26-year-old "went through a moment of mourning." (Photo courtesy of Laura Tisdel)

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When Laura Tisdel first discovered that her boyfriend's iTunes library was filled with music by Air Supply, Wham and Meat Loaf, the 26-year-old "went through a moment of mourning." (Photo courtesy of Laura Tisdel)

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While a decade ago we had no real idea of what people listened to in private, today, we can assume if something's on someone's iPod, they're listening to it. (Photo courtesy of Apple)

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On iTunes, we can now see how many times a significant other has listened to a song, how he or she "rates" it, and what's on his or her "most played" list, granting a level of insight and awareness into his or her life that we might not otherwise have. (Screen shot of iTunes)

Things were going so well for Laura Tisdel and her boyfriend, Matt. After just a few dates, filled with penetrating conversations and intense chemistry, the couple had decided to become exclusive. Tisdel, who is now 26 and an assistant editor for Viking Press, had never been happier.

Then one day, while hanging out at Matt’s apartment in midtown Manhattan, Tisdel sat down at her boyfriend’s computer and caught her first glimpse of his iTunes. There, amidst Bruce Springsteen and Rolling Stones albums, were ones by Air Supply. Wham. Meat Loaf.

“Not their greatest hits,” Tisdel said with a sigh. “All of them.”

Were the albums an attempt at irony? That’s what Tisdel told herself, at first. Matt, who is now 28, read Proust, after all, and worked as a technology consultant for the government. It couldn’t be. Then she noticed the carefully organized playlists—labeled “working,” “cleaning,” “Sunday morning”—filled with these and similarly embarrassing artists. Embarrassing, at least, to Tisdel, who prefers indie rock. If she had any doubts that he actually listened to this music, there was the data: iTunes tracks the last time a song was played and how many times it had been played.

“I went through a moment of mourning,” Tisdel said.

For as long as people have owned music, their libraries have provided friends and family and lovers with clues about their personalities. Yet—while a decade ago we had no real idea of what people listened to in private—today, we can assume if something’s on someone’s iPod, they’re listening to it. On iTunes, we can even see what’s on someone’s “most played” list, how each person “rates” songs (on a scale of one to five stars), and how each one organizes his music. Indeed, technology has granted a level of insight and awareness into significant others’ lives that we wouldn’t otherwise have.

Tisdel confronted Matt about his library, and he confirmed her worst suspicions. The albums weren’t guilty pleasures; they were, simply, pleasures. “It’s just so disappointing to me, because he’s so smart,” says Tisdel. Yet somehow their relationship continued, and two years later, the couple is now convinced they want to spend the rest of their lives together, so long as they never ride together in a car.

With the advent of iTunes, there’s no more hiding from the painful truth that you’ve just listened to Britney Spears’s “Gimme More” or Barbra Streisand’s “People,” or that you have an ongoing weakness for Andrew Lloyd Webber. Just as the information contained in a cell phone can expose someone’s darkest secrets, so can an iPod screen. And so, when we do expose our listening habits to others, we indeed make ourselves vulnerable.

We may even find ourselves the victims of “playlistism,” which urbandictionary.com defines as “discrimination based not on race, gender, or religion, but rather on a disturbingly horrible iTunes music library discovered through a school or job network.”

For these reasons, Adam Aziz, 28, who lives in Toronto and works in hip-hop—yet proudly listens to Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel—says he treads carefully when it comes to his iTunes. “If I’m dating a girl,” Aziz says, “she doesn’t get control of the iPod in the car—not until date No. 3, maybe.”

Letting a date peruse your library can amount to a relationship milestone, says Abbey Simmons, a 28-year-old TV and music critic in Seattle.

“It’s a pretty ultimate sign of trust,” Simmons says. “You see the good the bad and the Kelly Clarkson.”

Simmons boasts a robust iTunes library, holding more than 20,000 songs, many by local bands. Music is her passion—she was named after the legendary Beatles album—and her iTunes account unquestionably offers a snapshot of what’s been going on in her life.

Her most-played list, in particular, is revealing: “You can tell that there was a little heartbreak in the last year,” she says. Her second most played song—a country ballad called “The Weight of Lies” by bluegrass-rock trio The Avett Brothers—sums the situation up. “I really listened to those sad songs a lot.”

Yet as our iTunes libraries play an increasingly significant role in relationships, they can also play a deceptive one.

For Jill Filipovic, a 25-year-old lawyer in Manhattan, maintaining her relationship with her ex-boyfriend meant also maintaining her iTunes. While she respected her ex in many ways, he had what she considered horrible taste—and he constantly sent her songs by Hilary Duff, JoJo and Jordin Sparks.

She often couldn’t bring herself to listen to what he sent. His taste “just made me absolutely want to die,” she said. “He was like a 14-year-old girl.”

Still, she didn’t want to offend him, so she’d graciously accept his musical gifts, pretending to like them. And just to be safe, on the chance that he examined her iTunes account, she developed a strategy: She’d set the songs on repeat, then mute the volume—so it would look like she’d listened to them endlessly. “I wanted to back up the lie, just in case,” she said.

Of course, despite the intimacy now associated with iTunes libraries, we also have the power to share all or part of them with strangers, through the program’s “shared network” feature—and in turn, tap into our anonymous neighbors’ libraries, too. Yet while an Apple spokesman describes the feature as “popular,” it seems to have generated little buzz since shortly after it was introduced in 2003. Then again, this might be because few people want to admit to the musical equivalent of scrolling through their neighbors’ cell phone call lists.

Last month, iTunes introduced a new feature: iTunes DJ. The basic idea is that, during a party, iPhone and iPod Touch owners can access the party host’s iTunes library remotely and “request” songs using their devices, adding them to a queue. The feature allows guests a glimpse into the host’s collection—but also, of course, reveals their own musical preferences.

Guests would be wise to request carefully. No one wants to be the guy that queues up Ace of Base.

E-mail: daf2132@columbia.edu