When your iPod reveals an unbearable truth

People fall in love on the basis of a playlist. An industry of etiquette gurus is being created
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The Independent Online

In a moment of geekish male companionship, my friend Geoff and I were comparing bootleg versions of "Tangled Up In Blue". Geoff has a collection of Dylan bootlegs so strange and fascinating, he claims, as to make the studio versions seem too clean and controlled. Listening to Bob's creative murdering of his own song supported the argument.

In a moment of geekish male companionship, my friend Geoff and I were comparing bootleg versions of "Tangled Up In Blue". Geoff has a collection of Dylan bootlegs so strange and fascinating, he claims, as to make the studio versions seem too clean and controlled. Listening to Bob's creative murdering of his own song supported the argument.

Later, post-Dylan, I put on some Rufus Wainwright. It was a mistake. Geoff listened with increasing distaste to the sophisticated arrangements, the faintly camp musical parodies, the voice as smooth and youthful as Dylan's is cracked, dusty and ancient. Defensively, I pointed out Wainwright's musical parentage, by Loudon Wainwright, out of Kate McGarrigle, but it was hopeless - music is not horse-racing and bloodlines count for nothing.

By the time, I put us both out of our agony by taking off the CD, something rather sad had happened. My musical taste had given me away. There was no right or wrong in this - Loudon's lad is still just fine by me - but my friendship with Geoff had suffered a severe dent.

Martin Amis once wrote that, when he wanted to know what made his fictional characters tick, he asked himself how they would behave "in the sack". In real life, where sack behaviour tends to be a relatively private matter, the best and purest indicator of character is a person's musical taste.

With the arrival of the iPod, the question takes on a scary social significance. Suddenly, the music you love is no longer represented by tapes, CDs and records scattered about the various places in which you live your life, the anarchy and confusion of their physical state reflecting the rich variety of your taste. It is gathered neatly and unavoidably in one place, a perfect snapshot of your inner life.

The hope is that this reflection of songs and singers who have inspired and comforted you down the years will be strikingly and unmistakeably you, as individual as a fingerprint. In fact, I suspect the opposite is true. I avoid buying an iPod because I fear that the wild landscape of my music, full of interesting features and provocative contrasts, will turn out to be a well-tended suburban garden, not unlike that of many other men of my generation.

When the playlist of George W Bush's iPod was recently revealed, it was striking how predictable it was. Of course, he would like George Jones, Alan Jackson, Blackie & the Rodeo Kings and John Fogerty. Naturally he would goose up the collection with some Van Morrison to remind him of his party-guy past. Poor old Joni Mitchell was a bit of a wild card (will her reputation ever recover?) but the suspicion is that one of the President's advisers included her to add a touch of sophistication.

Taste has become a public matter. These days you can put your playlist on-line, so others can browse through your musical library and assess your character. People have been known to fall in love on the basis of a playlist. An industry of shrinks and etiquette gurus is being created. Playlist guides, revealing which music will present an acceptably cool profile, are published. At the psychology department of the University of Texas, a Professor Rentfrow has pronounced upon the content's George Bush's iPod. It reveals him to be "extroverted and a bit relaxed, but not necessarily open to new experiences or unconventional by any means." There's a surprise.

Inevitably, musical taste has become part of the PR game, with image-conscious celebrities going public with their favourite songs. The career radical Michael Moore, for example, has established a profile of impeccable correctness with a list that includes Springsteen's "Chimes of Freedom", The Clash's "Know Your Rights" and, of course, Dylan's "With God on Our Side".

It is tempting to gather my gang - Bob, Ry, Gillian, Willie, Aimee, Randy, Bruce, Emmy Lou, Hoagy, Tom and the rest - and put them on an iPod, but somehow, I suspect, the process will reduce them. The fact that someone can look at my list and say "You play Jimmy Rodgers?" or "You can't still be listening to Brian Wilson's 'Love and Mercy'" will be a painful repetition of my Rufus Wainwright moment with Geoff.

It is all too personal. On balance, I prefer sack behaviour as an indicator of character.

Miles Kington is away

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