The hijacker usually strikes without warning. He has an iPod stacked with examples of his discerning musical tastes burning a hole in his pocket, and he’s in the mood to impress. Perhaps imagining he has just flown back from a gig at a club in Ibiza, he slinks toward the iPod dock. One moment your party guests are enjoying tracks from the new Air record, and the next—yoink, and on comes a laborious Middle Eastern fiddly jazz number with a sudden extended Strokes-style rock section, which the hijacker—let’s say he’s the bearded fellow in the corner drinking port—is conspicuously alone in savouring. “Well, I kind of liked it,” allows Chris Church, a violinist and singer-songwriter from Halifax, who witnessed this precise act of musical terrorism at a recent house party. “It was interesting. But I looked over at these women with kids who were sipping Chardonnay, and I wondered what they were thinking.”
Hijacking may not be an entirely recent invention—one woman who works in publishing recalls a traumatic operation from years ago when a well-meaning friend pressed the eject button on the painstakingly assembled mixed tape she and her husband were playing—at their wedding. But it’s a plot line that’s become increasingly commonplace at parties, weekends at the cottage, the car, even some workplaces. It has never been easier, or more tempting, to foist our musical sensitivities on our fellow men. In an era of unprecedented musical portability, we walk around, most of us, with our preferred soundtracks to our lives—not to mention our entire record collections—in our pockets. We’re used to turning any public space into our own private universe, courtesy of a single pair of earbuds. Is it any wonder that when we find ourselves on the wrong side—this seems to play a part sometimes—of several jiggers of booze, near an iPod dock that’s playing some tripe that’s definitely not our taste, some of us can no longer resist the urge to intervene?
Chris Bilton, a young songwriter and composer, has had his best-laid plans foiled thus. Bilton recently hosted a party for which he prepared a playlist. “It was all classics: Peter Gabriel, the Beatles, Sting,” he says—songs he thought everyone would enjoy. But not long after the revelry began, one guest excused himself to run out to his car. He returned with his iPod, and before long, they were all listening to the new Fleet Foxes record—“which I liked,” says Bilton. But then the party soon turned into an iTunes free-for-all, with guests signing on to their accounts and downloading songs they liked on to his computer. The party mix was entirely forgotten.
What drives the hijacker? Sometimes it’s necessity, of sorts. “You have to—if you want to avoid the Latin invasion,” insists Samira Viswanathan, a self-confessed “iPirate” based in Toronto. “The Latin music goes on and doesn’t come off. Everyone loves it.” Viswanathan, who recently spent a couple of years studying in Sweden, where the international language of party soundtracks seemed to be Latin hits, unfortunately doesn’t share that love. “I hate salsa,” she says. So she’d show up at parties with her laptop in tow—yes, that sometimes earned her dirty looks—and hijack away. “Sometimes you’d have to physically unplug their Mac and plug in yours, so there’s that ‘eee’ sound. It’s very noticeable.” Also noticeable was the whiplash switch from salsa to her list: “I would put on Justin Timberlake, cheesy top 40, crunk rap—that doesn’t go over so well. A couple of times I put on Phil Collins: Easy Lover, Can’t Hurry Love. People love Phil Collins . . . Well, I do.”
There has always been an art to playing music for a group of people, the job that Walter Winchell back in 1935 dubbed “disc jockey.” From the earliest prototypes—like Martin Block, who spun records on the radio and made them sound as if they were being played live by bands in a ballroom—to today’s crate-diggers, DJs must be discerning collectors and curators of music as well as canny social barometers, not to mention all that fancy turntablist work with beat-matching. Physical skill was part of it; and so was hunter-gatherer prowess. A good DJ, says Frank Broughton, author of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life and creator of DJhistory.com, “will wow you with things you’ve never heard anywhere else.” Veterans of Montreal’s club scene in the 1990s recall legendary parties to which DJs lugged their crates, each a collection of obscurities and a reflection of a highly individual taste.
But physical skill is no longer a requisite. Many serious DJs now use software like Ableton that sets aside the technical (in favour of the truly creative—the professional studio program allows a DJ to completely remix a song live). And the MP3 player, holding thousands of songs, has proved a great democrat, giving the rest of us a chance to play at DJ. (Nowadays even some DJs—though not serious ones—rely on two iPods.) As for personal taste, surely no past era has been more comfortable, no, enamoured, with the notion than ours. There are elaborate projects like Pandora, the “music genome project,” devoted to figuring just out we like.
The iPod is essentially a very personal map of one person’s musical tastes. Only a tiny subset—perhaps a subset of just one—loves the Stanley Brothers and early Pink Floyd and Stockhausen and Yes. So when that playlist is broadcast, some ears are twitching. One employee at a Club Monaco store in Toronto says he’s actually grateful for the chain’s corporate-office CD mixes—it beats some of the music he endured at his old job, where staff were free to play what they liked. (Trance featured prominently.) “We would fight about the music all day,” he says.
The hijacker doesn’t have it easy, either. All but the most misanthropic take a big social risk in making the switch—after all, the self-appointed DJ is essentially making the party a referendum on his musical choices. That’s a feeling every DJ knows. “The biggest leap when you learn to DJ is that first time you play in front of a crowd,” says Broughton. “You might have your technical mixing skills down but you don’t really know how people are going to respond. You’re crossing the Rubicon.” You must gauge the mood, and choose wisely—or gird for humiliation. “There’s a good analogy between a selfish lover and a selfish DJ,” Broughton offers. “A generous DJ, like a generous lover, responds to the crowd and figures out what they want. There’s a sexual element to it, that responsiveness.”
The casual DJ, it must be said, has less leeway to surprise. Nostalgia is usually a hit—a forgotten gem from Loverboy or Platinum Blonde, say. Anything terribly adventurous won’t go over well—as Dan Corbett found. Corbett, who owned the record store Flash and Crash in Toronto and now works at Soundscapes, has, in his way, reconfigured the whole hijacking question. For years he played poker with a group of friends. Never a great fan of the soundtrack at those games, he stepped in with some alternatives. An agreeable muso type—he has discriminating but wide-ranging tastes, and isn’t snobbish—Corbett travels at all times with two iPods; one is 80 gigabytes’ worth of 20,000 up-tempo party-friendly songs, mostly rock, soul and reggae, and the other a 160-gig number containing 1,400 albums carefully culled from his mammoth collection. He attempted to share. “Nobody liked it. People complained,” he says. But the alternative—the anodyne repertoire of Stone Temple Pilots and other ’90s-era post-grunge alt rock—wasn’t palatable to him. “The worst are those female alterno-belters, like Sheryl Crow. I can’t stand them.” So now, when the music crosses the line, he quietly plugs in his own headphones and keeps playing.
Experts say there is a hijacker profile. It’s usually someone with a little music savvy. In Viswanathan’s experience, it’s more likely to be a woman. “Maybe because they’re more organized,” she says. “It involves downloading the music, and bringing it—you have to care enough.” Her brother Vijay, though, observes an alpha male component: “His No. 1 goal is control of the music, while others at the party have more pressing priorities” (all too easy to imagine). When two hijacker types meet, he says, “you essentially have two silverback gorillas battling for position. Pure entertainment as they pound their chests and trash talk each other’s musical tastes.”
IPod guerrillas, like gorillas, do follow the rules of the social order. Dinner parties are off-limits. “You can’t do it too early in the evening,” says Andrew Johnson, who works for a Calgary investment firm. “But after 11, it’s free game.” Indeed, past a certain hour at certain parties, there’s no one hijacker—everyone jumps in, sometimes veering from iTunes to Limewire or Acquisition and on to funny videos on YouTube. Johnson has awoken the morning after a party with Taylor Swift (blech) and the Arkells (“which I came to like”) downloaded on his computer. It’s all pretty amiable, though occasionally things get tense. His colleague, Kara Lilly, can recall an evening involving a fan of slow, drawn-out instrumentals—“music that sounded like it came from a spa”—that ended in an iPod getting dunked in a pint of beer.
At the other end of the spectrum, Umar Malik, a software consultant in his thirties, has turned the free-for-all into a social project. His stereo is a fully interactive modern jukebox, the focal point of the party, with the iPod hooked up to a large plasma-screen TV. The music, drawn from his library, is chosen entirely by his guests. Corbett and his serious music friends, similarly, have a “programmajam” on their weekends away at the cottage that’s wholly collaborative; they all take turns contributing songs from their iPods. “People talk about LPs, and the experience of interacting with the music,” says Corbett. “We’ve found a way to do that with iPods. It’s impromptu mixed-tape making on the go. You can’t do that with any other medium.”
Occasionally the self-appointed DJ actually takes up the mantle of the professional DJ—a most amusing musical encounter. A club in New York City played host to such a happening last year, when a club-goer and his friend, warm with a boozy flush, took over the DJ station. “People came up with requests and I would welcome them, and tell each of them the song they chose was a favourite song of mine,” brags the unrepentant hijacker. “Then I’d just play the Smiths or the Cure or Sisters of Mercy.” That’s a confidence that those DJs of yore might, in their way, have respected.