Pandora, you don’t know me

So I am experimenting with Pandora Radio, because people told me I should, and it’s on my newfangled Droid thingy, so I figured, why not.

It has its good points.  For one, I actually listen to music outside of my car now, which before recently was something I almost never did.  It was just how I treated music — it was compartmentalized to car rides, and usually longer drives when I couldn’t just listen to NPR the whole way.  And since I spent a lot of time in choirs, making music, it just never seemed to be something I lacked or needed to fill space with.  (I also spent waaaay too much time filling the space with video games, but that’s another story.)

Despite this pleasant addition of more sound to my daily life, however, I have a severe beef with Pandora Radio.  Namely, it doesn’t have a clue who I am.  Consider the alternate title of this post “In Defense of the Eclectic.”

When I first started Pandora, it asked me to make a station by entering my favorite music.  Well, my favorite music depends on the day you ask me.  That day, it happened to be Ralph Vaughan Williams.  So I put that in, and enjoyed a variety of different tunes, largely 20th-century, plus a smattering of Romantic styles and the occasional Holst (for some reason, Pandora really, really likes playing me selections from the The Planets).  And I did my part, telling it no when it played Mozart at his most glittery or Wagner at his most…Wagnerian.

But I got bored, so I added a new station, this one based on another song I like — “Consequence,” by The Notwist.  I liked that station a lot.  I tried another station, this time based on “Sons and Daughters” by the Decemberists, but it ended up playing more music that was like the generic Decemberists, who I find boring, rather than that particular song, which I find exciting and lyrically interesting.  I also made a station for hymns, based on a Vaughan Williams tune “Sine Nomine,” but instead of giving me more hymns in that grand old Anglican style I got a lot of terrifyingly bad devotional music, and no amount of “thumbs down” votes seemed to be changing that trend.  So I tried again, this time based on “Dear Lord (sic) and Father (sic) of Mankind (sic).”  It was a little bit better, although it tended to play the hymns straight, which gets boring after a while.  Half of a good hymn, at least for extended listening, is in its arrangement.  Four unchanging stanzas gets old fast, especially if you’re not familiar enough with the hymn in question to stay with the music.

And then I decided to make a station for another favorite band, the New Pornographers.  That was good stuff.  And I made a few more for John Rutter-style medioclassical choral music, and a few more that I think I eventually deleted.  But here’s my problem:

I like all this music.

I do, I really do.

But I do not like it when it goes on and on and on without a break in style.  I want my music to play eclectically. I find meaning and substance in the way a classical symphony can pair with a more recent electronica-influenced song, or a folk melody can be followed by a rock ballad.  These connections, while seemingly incongruous and nonsensical, produce for me important resonances that help me think in different ways, to combine, to include and connect notions that I would previously have held in opposition.

That is what eclecticism does, for me: it helps model, in my musical life, a sense of the surprise that comes when previously distant notions suddenly juxtapose themselves to produce new and unexpected meaning.

(And yes, I tried using Quickmix to blend the stations.  Doesn’t work.  I get music that I think is a tad more interesting, but to date it just seems like Vaughan Williams with a very, very slight coloration — I have yet to get a single piece outside the “classical” subdivision, and even construing that subdivision broadly, there’s nothing “mixed” about that station.  Nothing.)

And yet Pandora is not designed in a way that supports my eclecticism: it is, in a very real sense, a capitalist endeavor, designed to introduce people to music they wouldn’t have listened to otherwise as it advertises products.  And if that sounds too Marxist for you, let me just state that I’m not necessarily knocking what Pandora does for people, how it can introduce them to music they wouldn’t have heard otherwise.

But this music they wouldn’t have heard otherwise they are hearing because it fits a profile, a box into which Pandora has slotted and construed their taste.  In my case, the eclecticism of my taste has posed a unique problem that Pandora can’t solve, but even for me Pandora has served not only to reflect the music I like, but also strive to shape and direct my musical life.

I’m just not sure I trust it — I don’t know that I’m prepared to say it’s a good thing that a computer algorithm is slicing and dicing our notions of music.  It seems to serve merely to compartmentalize us further into categories of people who like “rock” or “country” or “quirky” music.

So that’s my problem with Pandora.  It’s the allegory of the cave, basically, so word to Plato.

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One comment on “Pandora, you don’t know me

  1. I tried Pandora when it first came out several years ago and I didn’t like it (I didn’t think it understood the kind of music I actually liked.) Last.fm is pretty good, though. Or at least it used to be — I haven’t used it in about a year. I don’t know if that’s compatible with your little phone, though.

    To me, I wonder if it might actually be worse if Pandora or Last.fm COULD figure out the exact variety of music that you want to listen to. To be honest, if that ever happened to me I’d be pretty weirded out.

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