Pandora’s Music Box

In 2015, when my friends were curating Spotify playlists to listen to on their smartphones, I still listened to CDs and the same three Pandora stations I created when I registered in 2009 and could only seed channels with musical concepts. One of my stations was exclusively for classical and modernist instrumentals–study music. One featured the torch songs of the blues and jazz singers I listened to growing up. The third station was seeded with everything I loved from the radio: trip hop from the 90s; melancholy folk tunes; nearly everything retrospectively labeled “indie” from the early aughts; performative concept albums by the kind of musicians who give concerts in costume. The station was called “Eclectic” and despite its mismatched medley of genres, it never played a song I didn’t like.

Also in 2015, when my friends were falling in love and getting promotions, I quit my full-time job to finish a graduate degree. I picked up two part-time jobs clerking in small niche shops where I could write and revise when there were no customers in the store. One was an upscale grocery store that opened in a fashionable neighborhood, down the street from a vintage furniture store and a bar with kombucha on tap. The owners dropped off a wireless speaker and charged me with choosing a Pandora station on the same tablet I used to tally up single-source chocolate and raw milk. On my first day alone in the shop, I browsed the pre-made stations and saw one called Hipster Cocktail Party. That sounds about right, I thought–admittedly with a hint of contempt. A self-consciously trendy station for a self-consciously trendy shop.

The joke is on me: after a pleasant hour of listening, I realized that all of the tracks playing on Hipster Cocktail Party sounded familiar. The playlist was nearly identical to Eclectic.

Pandora’s music platform uses the Music Genome Project, which aims to identify a song’s genes–not only genre but also instrumentation, major or minor key, and many other characteristics. When you create a station from your own seeds by adding artists or songs that you like, the platform analyzes the attributes of your selections and serves up songs that share some similarities. You can get a glimpse into this algorithm by selecting “Why this song?” from a menu attached to each track.

My Eclectic station is now ten years old and I’ve moved on in many ways–got rid of my 2015 flip phone, for example, and got another job. But I still tell this story now and then, perhaps to poke fun at my technological and musical naivete, or perhaps to make light of the invisible math that tracks and influences taste for us all. In the telling, I start to wonder: what attributes are shared by the music classified as “hipster” and the music selected for my pleasure by the unseen, unseeing algorithm? For curiosity’s sake I played a few tracks on each station and noted of the four or five attributes assigned to each–a miniscule sample size, given the hundreds of identified “genes” and thousands of tracks available, but enough to reflect on what makes my music “mine” in any appreciable way.

Eclectic

Devon Sproule, ”Plea for a Good Night’s Rest”

  • major key tonality
  • folk roots
  • extensive vamping
  • acoustic sonority

I had to look up “vamping”: my first thought was of the Old Hollywood vamps, women in furs lounging on pianos, which is not at all the tone. Devon Sproule sings with seemingly guileless sweetness of her friends and loves and home in Virginia; her songs are made for strumming around a fire or outside on a soft summer night.

Portishead, “Mysterons”

  • tonal harmonies
  • use of electric pianos
  • unsyncopated ensemble rhythms
  • trippy soundscapes
  • thin orchestration

I’m not sure that thin orchestration is a technical term in musicology but it is the perfect word for Portishead’s tight, restrained instrumentation, which always sounds to me like it is both muffled in closet and drawn out into a tense wire.

Feist, “How My Heart Behaves”

  • mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation
  • mellow rock instrumentation
  • major key tonality
  • acoustic rhythm piano

I wonder what it was at the turn of the century that turned so much of the new music mellow. Even in a major key, the soft smooth vocals of Feist sound mournful, as though she sings an elegy for something wished for but unreachable.

Hipster Cocktail Party

Orsten, “Flèche D’or”

  • thin orchestration
  • the use of chordal patterning
  • mellow sounds
  • layered electric guitar riffs
  • jazz influences

If I were the music geneticist, I might have included the prominent piano melody which takes the place of vocalization; the only human sound is wordless crooning layered into the background.

The Lumineers, “Angela”

  • major key tonality
  • folk influences
  • acoustic sonority
  • acoustic rhythm piano

To my mind, nothing exemplifies the “Hipster” in a Hipster Cocktail Party playlist like The Lumineers. Like the raw but homogenized milk my shop sold in returnable glass jugs, the acoustic instrumentation and balladic storytelling offers an appealing vintage aesthetic smoothed down for wider consumption. It works; I know the words, I sing along.

Portishead, “Glory Box”

  • repetitive melodic phrasing
  • prominent synth drums
  • minor key tonality
  • hip-hop influences
  • extensive vamping

As if to illustrate the common ground between playlists: nothing sounds like Portishead, except that everything sort of does.

What I learn from this exercise is that the technical terms don’t really describe what appeals to me about a song–what makes me want to hear it again, to learn it and participate in it–but the musical attributes listed above can, to a certain extent, measure and predict my listening habits. For example: I listen to Hipster Cocktail Party in my own home now, because it introduces me to music more recently made than my old Eclectic station usually shuffles up. It took me five years or more to cultivate a playlist that could easily be mimicked and ultimately replaced by a machine algorithm.

I have the sense that, once again, the joke is on me. Naive, once again, to imagine myself in the role of curator or elector of my own aesthetic pleasure. But Pandora’s box famously catches one hope under its lid, and I have to imagine that I must be more than the amalgamation of my personal tastes, and there is still some animating force of the mind that cannot be measured and monetized.


This post was created to fulfill a writing course assignment. 

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