Magic iPod

Everyone has been passing around the Magic iPod this month. First Deep Blue beat Kasparov, then AlphaGo beat Lee Se-dol, and now we have Magic iPod taking down Girl Talk.

When you read stories about how artists come up with mashups (finding works with compatible BPM and keys, among other things), or how the Swedish pop factory mad scientists like Max Martin conjure pop hits, it seems inevitable that in our lifetime we'll have algorithms creating real pop hits.

How such work is received by a human audience is about more than its intrinsic qualities, however. In an objective competition like a game of Go, or when considering a mashup which is simply the synthesis of existing creative works, I suspect humans will be comfortable with acknowledging the achievements of an algorithm.

With original creative works, however, like music, novels, movies, I suspect humans will recoil from even intrinsically appealing creation if it was written by a computer program. Call it some variant of the uncanny valley effect.

We have a romantic attachment to human creation, and it may take a generation of people passing on before we overcome that cultural aversion. When a waiter places a beautiful dish in front of you at a restaurant, we like to imagine that a chef toiled over the plate in the kitchen, conjuring that beautiful, delicious entree from raw ingredients, fire, and ingenuity. When we read an engrossing novel, we picture a tortured writer banging on an old typewriter in a cabin by the sea, stopping from time to time to put out a cigarette and gaze out the window at the ocean waves trying to claw up the gentle slope of the beach.

When Beyonce drops Lemonade or any one of her jaw dropping awards show performances on an unprepared world, I like to believe the work was birthed from what is surely a vagina with mystic powers, belonging as it does to our modern icon of feminism and black empowerment.

It's not quite as appealing if the truth was that an algorithm finished processing in some computer lab somewhere. A progress bar on a monitor finally reaches 100%, and a file is deposited into a directory.

That's why if humans ever comes up with algorithms that are capable of creating popular works of culture, it's financially wise for the creators to claim the credit themselves, at least until many years of critical and popular embrace have accumulated. Then, and only then, spring the truth on the world.

We live in a Skinner box, and it was of our own making.

Nico Muhly on Beyoncé

Then, last Thursday night, I was asleep in a very, very rural hotel in Iceland when the phone made the Noise again. I was almost too scared to check it, but then, in my benighted fumbling, my computer and iPad turned on, and they started making sonic ejaculations too, which they hadn’t made for Michael or Whitney. What is it, I thought, the President? My mother? Of course the answer was that the internet wanted to send me many gigabytes of Beyoncé’s new unannounced album and its attendant videos, and of course I moved heaven, earth, ice, and lava to have my computer in the one square metre of the hotel that could actually make this happen, because I am an homosexual and these Knowlesian dispatches are treated, by cultural necessity, as oracular and as gospel: gnomic, poetic, abstract, and very, very relevant.

At first I was anxious about the description of it as a “visual album,” because these days, which albums aren’t? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Lady Gaga video, but I know that her appeal — even to me, not ever having beheld her on purpose — is partially to do with her Visual Presentation. Beyoncé’s songs, on this album, connect to one another not just musically, but via a seemingly personal, almost Forrest Gump-like time-traveling woman’s journey through various eras and — I shudder to say the word — styles. It’s unbelievably ambitious and through-composed; where the music can feel unrelated from one song to the next, the video is especially and carefully elided, and where the video is stylistically at variance from one song to the next, the music itself creates an emulsion between all the various incarnations of Beyoncé, our tour-guide through heaven and hell. Her voice feels, here, stretched in all the best ways, and she is experimenting with various modes of vocal production, vibrato, enunciation, and textual stylization. She is relishing the individual words of her lyrics, and savoring the shapes of the phrases the songs demand of her. When she freaks, as is her wont, a bridge or a second chorus, it is an insane and welcome delight.

Can we start with the statement that I basically loved this album? And then I will go song by song and talk about what, for me, felt like a reinforcement of this love, and where, in places, my love was challenged? I am going to talk, interchangeably, about the music and the videos, as that is how this thing was presented to me, as well as to the poor taxed wi-fi of the rural hotel and its staff. So if you’ve only heard the music, you should probably watch the videos, and if you’ve only watched the videos, you’re probably fine?

Continue on from there to read the rest of Nico Muhly's epic-length, never dull walkthrough of Beyoncé by Beyoncé.


Anytime she wants to remind herself of all that work—or almost anything else that's ever happened in her life—all she has to do is walk down the hall. There, across from the narrow conference room in which you are interviewing her, is another long, narrow room that contains the official Beyoncé archive, a temperature-controlled digital-storage facility that contains virtually every existing photograph of her, starting with the very first frames taken of Destiny's Child, the '90s girl group she once fronted; every interview she's ever done; every video of every show she's ever performed; every diary entry she's ever recorded while looking into the unblinking eye of her laptop. 

"Stop pretending that I have it all together," she tells herself in a particularly revealing video clip, looking straight into the camera. "If I'm scared, be scared, allow it, release it, move on. I think I need to go listen to 'Make Love to Me' and make love to my husband." 

Beyoncé's inner sanctum also contains thousands of hours of private footage, compiled by a "visual director" Beyoncé employs who has shot practically her every waking moment, up to sixteen hours a day, since 2005. In this footage, Beyoncé wears her hair up, down, with bangs, and without. In full makeup and makeup-free, she can be found shaking her famous ass onstage, lounging in her dressing room, singing Coldplay's "Yellow" to Jay-Z over an intimate dinner, and rolling over sleepy-eyed in bed. This digital database, modeled loosely on NBC's library, is a work in progress—the labeling, date-stamping, and cross-referencing has been under way for two years, and it'll be several months before that process is complete. But already, blinking lights signal that the product that is Beyoncé is safe and sound and ready to be summoned— and monetized—at the push of a button. 

From a profile of Beyonce in the latest issue of GQ. This has to make Beyonce the world's most prominent lifelogger. Someone should try booking her for the next Quantified Self conference.

That revelation in the article is also a clue to the core of what her detractors have always found wanting. Namely, she feels more like a pristine construction of a pop icon than an actual flesh and blood human being.

The most entertaining of the Beyonce contrarians is Jay Caspian Kang of Grantland. In his counterpoint on Beyonce's widely lauded Super Bowl halftime performance, Kang writes:

The Super Bowl halftime show is ALWAYS huge and ridiculous, and although Beyoncé certainly took advantage of both the scale and the combustibility of the occasion, what did she really do other than give America a big-as-hell tour of why everyone loves Beyoncé? Maybe this is the point. But if all a musical act produces is evidence of her own popularity, she, by definition, has no soul. Her job, it seems, is to remind people that they should love her, but not to provide evidence as to why.

Not that she doesn't work extremely hard at it. Also from the GQ profile:

It stands to reason that when a girl owns her every likeness, as Beyoncé does, it can make her even more determined to be perfect. (Beyoncé isn't just selling Beyoncé's music, of course; she's selling her iconic stature: a careful melding of the aspirational and the unattainable.) So when she's on tour, every night she heads back to her hotel room with a DVD of the show she's just performed. Before going to sleep, she watches that show, critiquing herself, her dancers, her cameramen. The next morning, everyone receives pages of notes. 

It's enough to make Peyton Manning proud (Manning's legend being built in no small part on his habit for watching hours of game film like a conspiracy theorist poring over the Zapruder film).

Michael Jackson was a perfectionist, too, the footage from the documentary This Is It revealing a man who'd lost his God-given face but not his impossibly high standards for performance and showmanship. By then, however, he'd already survived many falls from grace that the scales of luck in the universe still felt balanced: the musical genius had come to us trapped in such a flawed human vessel.

Beyonce seems to have no flaws, or at least none that are perceivable by the human eye. Her Tumblr looks like a high end fashion catalog. The photos in her Instagram feed do not look like selfies snapped on the fly with an iPhone, they resemble photos shot by Italian fashion photographers named Massimo and curated by a team of Grace Coddington-esque editors.

She performs at Presidential Inaugurations, and when it was revealed she sang along to a pre-recorded track at the event this year, she had to restore order to the Force by singing the National Anthem a capella at her Super Bowl press conference, an entire gaggle of reporters holding up their cell phones to record some shaky footage like teenage girls at a Taylor Swift concert.

It doesn't hurt that she's married to perhaps the only other performer who could be her equal or superior in self-assurance. In late 2011 I went to the Watch the Throne concert in San Jose, a show remarkable for the sharp contrast between the personas of Jay-Z and Kanye. In his lyrics, in the subject matter of his music, one senses that Kanye's bravado comes from some deep sensitivity or insecurity. When he sings of heartbreak on 808's and Heartbreak, the emotions leak out of the containers he pours them into: auto-tuned melodies and rhymed lyrics.

[After his concert at Staples Center many years back, I was handed a small bound booklet on the way out. It was a long manifesto testifying to his own methods and greatness, but the words read like a plea for sympathy. I wish I still had that book.]

Jay-Z on stage was pure swagger. It didn't come from anywhere like Kanye's attitudes. It came from itself, like a self-referential loop. I'm not sure he's ever cried once in his entire life. If you were to take normal human confidence, then have Walter White work his magic in the lab to distill it into something even more pure and lethal, you'd get whatever it is that powers Mr. Carter (blue ivy meth?). His Twitter profile description consists of a single word: Genius. The way he carries himself on stage, the way he enunciates, the way his baseball cap sat on his head (comfortable rests the crown) — his poise was palpable.

Every girl I've spoken to who've seen him in concert has mentioned his charisma to me. On the ride back to San Francisco, Marie said it felt as if Jay-Z was letting us all know, "My seed is in Beyonce!" (she was pregnant at the time). I'm hesitant to read his memoir Decoded for fear it would dissipate some of the energy I feed on when I'm out running and one of his tracks comes piping through my earbuds.

And so they reign, modern royalty, hanging out with the Obama's one minute, courtside at a Nets game the next. Perhaps because Beyonce seems to have sprung into the world fully formed, perhaps because she makes even her high effort dancing seem effortless, her music feels emotionally opaque. She could sing of something more relatable, like heartbreak or addiction or poverty, but it wouldn't square with the images we see of her day to day life. Fair or not, we prefer our music about the underbelly of the American Dream to come from people who look like they might have some dirt under their fingernails.

The GQ profile ends thus:

"I now know that, yes, I am powerful," she says. "I'm more powerful than my mind can even digest and understand."

I'm not sure anyone else can either.