What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear

Pandora Internet Radio is a fantastic creation.[1] You enter a song or a band you like and they will play that band and then offer you other songs by similar sounding artists.  You can approve songs or outright reject them.  It’s a great way to hear new music and to listen to a radio station that plays music tailored to your tastes.  It chooses songs based on your preferences and selects similar songs according to what the song sounds like, supposedly taking into account “everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony.”  The “Music Genome Project” as they call it is actually quite ingenious.

It has, however, one tragic flaw.  It does not know why you like the songs you like.

Just because I like the sound of one folksy singer-songwriter does not mean I like every folksy singer-songwriter that sounds exactly the same.  Just because I like one album or even one song by an artist does not mean that I like their entire collection.  Take Coldplay, for instance.  I love “The Scientist” and I have a soft spot for “Yellow,” but even though every Coldplay song sounds exactly the same, I’m not a huge fan of their entire discography.[2] So I end up rejecting songs that, based on their sound, I should like.

This realization got me thinking about an article of Chuck Klosterman’s.  (He is one of my favorite writers, comical and poignant, but most importantly, unapologetically music-loving.)  He wrote this article about how ridiculous the question “What kind of music do you like?” is, and proceeded to dissect his own answer were he to take the question seriously.  And the answer to this question is precisely what Pandora tries to take into account, but fails to really get to the heart of.

Well, in Chuck fashion, here is my answer to the question:

My quick answer to the question would be that I like Bob Dylan and everyone influenced by Bob Dylan, which is incredibly vague but (likely) wildly accurate.

The more detailed, and very incomplete, answer would be that I like music that sounds like:

  • Jeff Lynne’s vocals in “Strange Magic” from 2:20 to 2:37.
  • The drums in “Fake Empire,” especially where they enter at 1:32.
  • The cowbell in “Lay Lady Lay,” much better than the cowbell in “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” but much less appreciated.
  • Nels Cline’s guitar solo in “You Are My Face” from 1:28 to 1:59 and Jeff Tweedy’s vocal entrance at 1:57.
  • The tone of Trent Reznor’s voice in “Hurt” from 2:01 to 2:22 and again from 3:49 to 4:10.
  • The bass line in Thin Lizzy’s “Dancing in the Moonlight.”  The bass opens the song and it just gets better.
  • Where Conor Oberst’s voice cracks in “Train Under Water” at 4:45, and generally all slight imperfections in an otherwise good vocal performance that someone using Auto-Tune would cover up.
  • George Martin’s “saloon” piano in Rocky Raccoon from 1:55 to 2:18.
  • The odd time signature changes in “Black Dog.”
  • Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performing “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” live, preferably in the 1970s.
  • The chord progression in “Fake Plastic Trees.”
  • Generally any point in a Belle and Sebastian song that I would never be able to sing with a straight face – i.e. “She’s got everything to gain/cause she’s a fat girl with a lisp.”  (The same goes for Pavement – i.e. “The Stone Temple Pilots they’re elegant bachelors/They’re foxy to me are they foxy to you?”).

Music that sounds like that.

Now, these all seem unrelated, and this is why Pandora will never be able to play the perfect mix of music for my tastes.  Other than the fact that I tend to like “rock” music, an ELO/Nine Inch Nails/Wilco fusion group probably (sadly) does not exist, so how is Pandora supposed to tailor to my tastes without offering up The Polyphonic Spree or Billy Joel?  What Pandora does not know is that I never really liked Bruce Springsteen until I heard his Live/1975-85 collection on vinyl.  It does not know that I actually prefer anything from Out of the Blue to Face the Music other than the vocals in “Strange Magic.”  Pandora would probably also never guess that my favorite Led Zeppelin song is actually “Fool in the Rain” for no good reason at all, or that when I was younger I preferred John songs to Paul songs, but find myself now favoring Paul songs, even though I’d probably take a George song over either any day.

The answer is, it can’t.  And that’s okay.  Because the reason why I love music is not because of the way it sounds, but because of how it feels, and if a computer program could capture the shiver that ran down my spine the first time I heard Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower,” well, I would want no part of it.  Predicting that experience would rob me precisely of that experience, and there could never be a substitute for it.

[1] That and the instant fail button may be the two best things the internet has to offer.
[2] Maybe because all of their songs do sound exactly the same.

3 thoughts on “What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear

  1. Thanks to your blog, the cowbell on Lay Lady Lay is ever so slightly more appreciated. I never noticed it before…and I never knew a cowbell could be used so effectively!

    • It’s much more subtle and intricate than BOC’s cowbell… though it probably wouldn’t have made a very funny SNL sketch…

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