Stars and Signification

It should come as no surprise that someone who loves popular music, semiotics, and digital media would have a fascination with the five-star “rating” system built into iTunes. I blogged about this more than a year ago, and in the intervening period I’ve had to reassess this minimalist six-category taxonomy of selections.

At the time I wrote, I was thinking of the stars mostly (not absolutely) as a way of describing my evaluation of a particular item. That worked pretty well for me, for a while, but it doesn’t adequately address two problems. First, I have a large array of selections that I just don’t know very well; friends send me a CD, or a music blog rhapsodizes about a new band, and these get added to my list without my having a strong basis for identifying them as one thing rather than another. I had been assigning them two stars (which in my former system meant “Baseline: good enough to enjoy, but not outstanding,” but that mixes songs I may never have heard with songs that I positively think are good (on the basis of repeated listening).

That touches on the second problem: iTunes’s intelligent shuffling can use the “star” rating as one of its criteria, which makes the stars very useful for categorizing the likelihood that I’ll want to hear X or Y any given day. Much as I enjoy learning about new performers and performances, though, sometimes I want to listen to “baseline” selections that I already know to be OK, rather than hearing three or four unfamiliar numbers followed by one that I know and appreciate, then two more unknowns. Assigning unknown selections two stars mixes known and unfamiliar in a way that helpfully mingles familiar with unfamiliar music when I’m casually listening to whatever comes up, but that thwarts my efforts to construct playlists to accommodate days I want to hear only familiar material (unless I inflate “known OK” to three stars).

I could assign “zero stars” to unknown material, but the category of zero stars serves very helpfully for items that I don’t want ever to appear on a music playlist — say, Chris Lydon interviewing Elaine Scarry or something. I think, then, that I’ll choose either to work toward identifying unfamiliar/uncertain material as one star, and then obliging myself to listen to my one-star playlist in order to get acquainted with them; or leaving two stars as my category for unfamiliar material, and limiting my range of stars for music I know well to three, four, or five.

But that’s all too much thinking about something that doesn’t matter much, and I have work to do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *