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The technical analysis of pop music—breaking down elements like the tone of a singer’s voice, the amount of distortion on an electric guitar, or the specific kind of rhythm—as a tool to inform marketing, understand popular taste, or create hit formulas has always seemed clueless to me. The People’s Choice Music, a 1997 album by conceptual artists Komar & Melamid, took the idea to an absurd extreme, using surveys to map what listeners liked and hated most in lyrics and instrumental style to create composites of “The Most Wanted Song” and “The Most Unwanted Song.”
But a new twist on the concept is actually taking root, as an article in Sunday’s New York Times details. The Web site Pandora uses a database of more than 500,000 songs and an algorithm it calls the Music Genome Project to create a sonic manifestation of the “recommended if you like” model. Type in a particular group or song and Pandora plays a string of tunes it thinks you'll like. (The songs stream for free; Pandora provides links to actually purchase the music from either iTunes or Amazon.com if you're so moved.) The program makes room for input by users—you can register your dislike for one of its suggestions, which in theory further refines the parameters. The Times article features interviews with a few average folks who’ve discovered new artists through the site, like 43-year-old Tara Smith, who runs a rescue-equipment sales company with her husband. She’s a big Jimmy Buffett fan, but she never thought she had a taste for country music. “But because Jimmy Buffett’s music has kind of a country bent, it’s just played Tim McGraw and Randy Travis," she says. "It really goes into some serious country, and I’m surprised I like it as much as I do.”
I tried the system out with a couple of personal favorites to see what it yielded. When I chose the soul singer Howard Tate, Pandora first played a tune by him, then an obscurity by Johnny K. Killens & the Dynamites (from one of the great compilations released by the great Chicago imprint Numero Group called Eccentric Soul: The Deep City Label), then a track by Wilson Pickett, followed by another rarity by the Moovers from the same Numero Group comp, another Tate track, followed by songs from George McCrae, James Brown, and Charles Wright. I liked everything I heard. Typing in Ornette Coleman yielded pieces by Freddie Hubbard, William Parker, and Keith Jarrett; again, all of them were satisfying to me.
But though Pandora served me well those two times, but it was hard for me not to laugh when the features of the Coleman tune were clinically listed as “an alto sax solo, a trumpet solo, light drumming, angular melodies, a brisk swing feel, an interesting song structure, quirky ideas, and mixed major and minor tonalities.” According to the Web site, “For pop songs we analyze approximately 200 distinct attributes. For jazz, hip-hop, Latin, and electronica the number is closer to 400 attributes.” And these criteria fail to make aesthetic judgments about the quality of a given performer. There are so many microspecific traits, both musical and non-musical, that make certain musicians appealing, and this system can't possibly translate them all into a formula.
Pandora seems to suggest some wonderful possibilities, especially at a time when radio is restrictive in its range and much of the print media tracks an narrow scope of what’s actually out there. But it still bothers me. Pandora exploits a few things that are good about the Internet—it allows people with specific interests to develop virtual communities and discover more sources of information about those interests. But the flip side is that it further eliminates the kind of happy accidents where you discover things outside of your preferences. You can now read news that's exclusively from a prescribed viewpoint or hear music only from a carefully honed niche, which cuts you off from the sort of informed opinions that are the product of understanding a multitude of perspectives. I may sound hyperbolic, but this kind of specialization portends a frighteningly segregated future, where it becomes easier and easier to avoid anything that doesn’t complement one’s worldview--musically, politically, socially, or otherwise.