[11 August 2009]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
I was a mile away from finishing a tough run, desperate for a musical jolt to push me to the finish, when my iPod pulled a dirty trick on me.
I had set it to “shuffle,” the mode that serves up songs at random, and in my moment of need what did it choose? An inferno of drums and guitars? A pounding dose of techno? Some delightfully malevolent gangsta rap?
Why, no. My iPod dribbled out something my wife had downloaded — “Castle on a Cloud,” a mawkish ballad from the soundtrack of “Les Miserables.”
Now, I’ve seen Les Miz. I kind of liked Les Miz. Les Miz is a decent Broadway musical.
But Les Miz, you’re no Flo Rida.
Even as my heart rate tumbled, though, I let the song play. I was almost glad for the intrusion, because it reminded me of a strangely endearing phenomenon that is on its way to extinction: the inadvertent consumption of culture.
Like a lot of Gen Xers, I grew up in a house that had only one television. If my older brother was watching “Doctor Who” when I was in the mood for cartoons, I could only sit with arms crossed and hope that the TARDIS exploded.
It never did, alas, so I had no choice but to absorb the good doctor’s adventures (what, you expect a kid to just walk away from a TV set?) until I begrudgingly understood why my brother enjoyed them.
A similar thing happened with music. Radio stations buried the awesome (“Mr. Roboto”) beneath an avalanche of the lame (the complete works of the Thompson Twins). Hearing one meant enduring the other.
This must sound bizarre to younger people accustomed to on-demand entertainment, but like everything else we geezers babble on about — walking barefoot to school in a blizzard, plowing the back 40 with a three-legged mule named Buttercup — I maintain that it built character.
Our preferences were indulged only occasionally, so we had to learn to coexist with all that we scorned. That created a sense of patience and tolerance.
But with the rise of digital media personalized to a nearly atomic level, that sufferance has gone the way of leg warmers and Nagel prints. The tyrant these days isn’t a remote-hogging older brother or a despotic DJ — it’s us.
Bored by the first minute of the show you’re watching on Hulu? Thousands more await in cyberspace. Not feeling the intro of the reggae tune that popped up on Rhapsody? Click the “forward” button and say goodbye.
An Internet music service called Pandora is at the vanguard of this change. Its analysts have coded 750,000 songs based on 400 attributes, from rhythm to structure to vocal style.
When you type in a favorite song, an algorithm selects another with similar values. Tell the service whether you like that tune and it hones the formula even more. The process repeats, over and over, until your computer or cell phone arrives at Pandora’s goal: “To play only music you’ll love.”
That would theoretically shield me from all those tacky slow jams, screechy polka numbers and batter-fried country tunes. With a tight algorithm, every genre I dislike would vanish.
And that’s the problem.
When we can so easily climb into our silos and shut out the rest of the world, there’s no need to accommodate other people’s cultural tastes — let alone their social perspectives or political opinions or even any facts that challenge our worldview.
Tim Westergren, the founder of Pandora, disagreed. He told me that when people hear something new and exciting on his service, they don’t keep it to themselves. They tell their friends (or, if they have a blog or Twitter account, perfect strangers), and that fosters connection, not isolation.
But that connection, I think, exists only among birds of a feather. The other birds — the ones who, perhaps, think Celine Dion has the voice of an angel — remain in ever more distant trees, out of earshot and out of mind.
That’s why I keep my wife’s show tunes on my iPod, and why the ear-splitting stereo of a passing car doesn’t bother me too much. They’re reminders that the world is infinitely varied, that my preferences have no more validity than anyone else’s.
They’re nothing more, you might say, than a castle on a cloud.