United Kingdom

CRAIG BROWN: Alexa... play a song that I actually like! 

When friends drop by, they start asking Alexa to play long-forgotten favourites. But within a minute they grow bored with the particular song they have chosen and ask for another

As someone who doesn’t own a mobile phone, I am hardly at the forefront of the technological revolution.

Nevertheless, a few months ago I bought myself an Amazon Echo, more commonly known as Alexa.

For those less cutting-edge than I am, the Echo is a tube-shaped object, about twice the size of a can of Coke. 

It sits silently in the corner of the room until you bark an instruction at it.

‘Alexa,’ you say, and a blue circle lights up, as if Alexa is pricking up her ears. ‘Tell me a joke.’ 

In fact, this is the worst possible request, as Alexa has no sense of humour. 

Her stock of jokes is tired, her delivery is poor and her timing is terrible.

‘When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar,’ she said, when I asked her for a joke just now. 

I didn’t like to tell her that I first heard this joke when I was five years old, or that, even though I now know what ‘ajar’ means, it’s a joke that hasn’t got any funnier.

So I asked Alexa for another joke. 

She replied: ‘What did the something-something say to the psychiatrist? I think I’m growing nuts.’

Eh? I couldn’t hear what the ‘something-something’ was. 

I have now asked Alexa to repeat the joke three times, but I still can’t understand what she’s trying to say. 

Mary Hopkin was once in a band called Oasis, but I go blue in the face every time I try to explain to Alexa that this was years before the Gallagher brothers formed a band with the same name

The mumbled word sounds like ‘peckantry’, but it’s a word that doesn’t exist, so the joke remains elusive.

Generally, I ask Alexa to play music. Most of the time she finds even the most obscure song within a second. 

‘Alexa, play Son Of My Father by Chicory Tip,’ I asked her a minute ago and, sure enough, the catchy Seventies tune by the world’s worst-named band bubbled forth.

That’s not to say Alexa is infallible. For instance, she seems never to have heard of the album Post Card by Mary Hopkin. 

‘I can’t find Post Card by Mary Hopkin,’ she repeats over and over again, no matter how many times I ask her. 

Mary Hopkin was once in a band called Oasis, but I go blue in the face every time I try to explain to Alexa that this was years before the Gallagher brothers formed a band with the same name.

I’m sorry to say I’ve raised my voice to Alexa on more than one occasion.

For instance, this morning I had a sudden yearning to hear a song that was a favourite in 1977, during my brief time at university.

‘Alexa, play Radio On by Jonathan Richman And The Modern Lovers,’ I told her.

First she replied: ‘Here’s a station you might like — Smooth Jazz on Amazon Music.’

‘No, Alexa — off!’ I said, a touch of irritation creeping into my tone. I then repeated the request. 

‘Here’s a station you might like, Van Morrison on Amazon Music,’ she replied. 

‘NO, ALEXA,’ I barked. ‘Play Radio On by Jonathan Richman And The Modern Lovers!’

‘Here’s a station you might like,’ she replied. 

‘All Sixties on Amazon Music.’ 

‘No, Alexa — off!’ I said, a touch of irritation creeping into my tone. I then repeated the request. ‘Here’s a station you might like, Van Morrison on Amazon Music,’ she replied. ‘NO, ALEXA,’ I barked

It was only after I had started to scream and shout at Alexa that it dawned on me the fault might possibly be my own.

‘Radio on’ is the chorus, but was the song itself called something else?

I looked it up on Google, and it turned out to be called not Radio On but Roadrunner. So I sheepishly said: ‘Alexa, play Roadrunner’ — and on it came.

Sadly, within 30 seconds it dawned on me that it wasn’t as good as I remembered it. Before it was halfway through, I was wishing it would come to an end.

This seems to be a universal problem. When friends drop by, they start asking Alexa to play long-forgotten favourites. But within a minute they grow bored with the particular song they have chosen and ask for another.

Often, members of the same family will compete to ask Alexa to play this song or that. 

Once Alexa has started playing an edgy rap song requested by the teenager, the father will immediately ask for Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones.

Seconds into Gimme Shelter the mother will say: ‘No, Alexa, play Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell,’ and so on.

The effect is of a radio on the blink. No one really wants to hear any music: their pleasure lies only in asserting dominance.

I am beginning to think that, for all her virtues, Alexa may be more trouble than she is worth.