iTunes Gets Lost in Space

It’s been a pretty lousy summer here on Earth, what with the tragedies in Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge, Nice… the list goes on and on. But in outer space — in the orbit of Jupiter, to be exact — a happy and exciting series of events has transpired. On July 4, 2016, NASA's Juno spacecraft reached Jupiter after a five year journey. It's a mission intended to unlock the secrets of Jupiter's properties and origins as well as (hopefully) the beginnings of our entire solar system. I first learned about the endeavor from a story about iTunes's Destination Jupiter short film and quasi-EP. Artists ranging from Corrine Bailey Rae to Weezer contributed tracks inspired by the mission — a cheesy conceit, to be sure, but one that nonetheless fired up my imagination. Some of my favorite sci-fi over the years has involved space travel, from the goofy adventures of Lost in Space (1997) to the darker storyline of Prometheus (2012), also concerned with the origins of our universe. But this was a real-life space odyssey.

The Visions of Harmony short film is free to watch on iTunes, and one night my boyfriend and I projected it on the wall of our darkened bedroom. It was fun and extremely well produced, with some gorgeous images of astronauts and stars and planets. But I found myself wishing it concerned itself more with the actual science of the Juno expedition and less with the ruminations of the artists contributing to the EP. There's certainly a good deal of intersection between scientific and musical theory, and key investigator Scott Bolton comments that musical tones would be used to signal whether or not Juno successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit. (At the time the film was produced there was still a chance Juno would miss its opportunity to enter the orbit and thus abort a five-year, multi-billion dollar outfit; on Independence Day, the NASA team was elated to learn the spacecraft had succeeded.) However, the emphasis on music and musicians and space travel imagery without context made the whole thing seem like an extended "Think Different' commercial from the 90s. One thing I appreciated about the selection of artists represented, though, was that all of them, from Bailey Ray to Quin to Daye Jack, are people of color.

Perhaps the best aspect of the movie is the score composed by Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross, the duo responsible for the Oscar-winning The Social Network soundtrack as well as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Their 8 minute 40 second composition "Juno" is evocative, eerie, and perfectly suited to space travel. It was the first single I purchased from the Destination Jupiter page. The second was Weezer's "I Love the USA." I was a Weezer fan from their late 90s/early 00s heyday, and I liked the holiday tie-in with the Independence Day date. It's a decent enough ballad — Weezer always did have a melancholy softer side — but it's unlikely to convert any non-fans. I wish they’d weaved in some reference to the mission itself or the space program instead of just the USA theme (even fireworks would have been pretty appropriate and subtly evocative of outer space).

By contrast, "LMT" by Boots goes out of its way to nail the space travel theme by "subtly weaving resonant frequencies emitted by Jupiter, Saturn, and Earth" (according to the iTunes description). Too bad the song is so dull. A far superior alternative track comes from My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, who performs 'Everything (The Universe)" with Lydia Burrell. It's a moody, atmospheric ballad with appropriately trippy lyrics. I'm not really a country guy, but Brad Paisley's bouncy "Sister" is undeniably fun, with fitting lyrics like "show me this brave new world, usher in this brave new day." Yee haw. Corinne Bailey Rae remixes her "The Skies Will Break" with appropriately space-y production, and she has a good voice. But I wish she'd done something original — a "Juno remix" feels like a cheat, especially considering how fascinated Bailey Rae appears to be by the mission and science in general when interviewed in Visions.

Full disclosure: I'm not a hip hop fan, so I'm disinclined to like GZA's "The Spark," which sounds like what a PhD science candidate might come up with in a rap battle during a weekend study break. However, hip hop enthusiasts will probably appreciate the unique subject matter, and it's definitely an affront to any perception that rap isn’t capable of conveying intelligent ideas and concepts. Again, you can't say Apple didn't invite a pretty diverse array of talent to contribute. The Mexican rock band Zoe supplies "Panspermia." Unfortunately, this song comes off as pretty flat and not particularly rocking, although it does have an appropriately synthesizer-y, space-y vibe. Meanwhile, the lively "Lightspeed" by Quin is a solid pop track, and one of the catchier songs composed for Destination Jupiter.

I encourage you to sample the Destination Jupiter songs and watch the Visions of Harmony short. The decision to release the tracks as individual singles means it can be frustrating to search for them altogether on iTunes, so I suggest Googling "iTunes Destination Jupiter" and clicking on the Apple store link. The music and images provide a nice escape from the depressing realities of our own planet this summer, and a gentle reminder that the universe is much bigger than our petty hatred and strife.

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