Editor's Choice

Pandora and authentic taste

Rob Walker's NYT Magazine article about Pandora, the online music-recommendation service, sets up an opposition between musical taste that is grounded in our social context (what our friends like and the siganling aspects of publicly liking certain genres and so forth) and taste that is presumed to be intrinsic to a particular piece's qualities. Pandora's business model relies on its ability to analyze and assign numbers to those taxonomized categories and use that to play music that will keep consumers listening.

Pandora’s approach more or less ignores the crowd. It is indifferent to the possibility that any given piece of music in its system might become a hit. The idea is to figure out what you like, not what a market might like. More interesting, the idea is that the taste of your cool friends, your peers, the traditional music critics, big-label talent scouts and the latest influential music blog are all equally irrelevant. That’s all cultural information, not musical information. And theoretically at least, Pandora’s approach distances music-liking from the cultural information that generally attaches to it.

But as Walker asks, "Is it really possible to separate musical taste from such social factors, online or off, and make it purely about the raw stuff of the music itself?" One possibility is that these two ways of conceiving musical taste are incommensurable, irreconcilable, what Žižek calls a parallax. It's not that one explanation is an ideological cover-up for the other, real reason -- these are two separate explanations that are perhaps operating simultaneously, and we oscillate between them in comprehending ourselves, forming our consciousness of what we want to appeal to us. In The Parallax View Žižek is very concerned about the gap between them, which he thinks captures the Lacanian "real" that can't be articulated directly. Parallax structures, if I'm getting what he is saying, allow a socially constructed self co-exist within us with a uniquely particular, individual, biological self. It allows us to believe our taste is unique and personal while at the same time developing it consciously to achieve social goals. So we can persuade ourselves that we like Lightning Bolt and not Black-Eyed Peas and find this to be an absolutely authentic expression of who we "really are."

Pandora's founder, in Walker's depiction, is stubbornly determined to reject the authenticity of socially mediated taste.

Westergren maintains “a personal aversion” to collaborative filtering or anything like it. “It’s still a popularity contest,” he complains, meaning that for any song to get recommended on a socially driven site, it has to be somewhat known already, by your friends or by other consumers. Westergren is similarly unimpressed by hipster blogs or other theoretically grass-roots influencers of musical taste, for their tendency to turn on artists who commit the crime of being too popular; in his view that’s just snobbery, based on social jockeying that has nothing to do with music. In various conversations, he defended Coldplay and Rob Thomas, among others, as victims of cool-taste prejudice.

I can relate to this attitude. It's hard not to be cynical about musical taste and snobbery and hype if you have spent any extended period of time taking what the music press has to say seriously. It seems like the inevitable social concerns that spring up out of pop music aren't inherent in it but are instead a barrier to our simply being in touch with our pleasures. I would think that if I could simply detach from the conversation about music, I would be able to enjoy it in a more sincere way. This took me toward older music (big-band music, 60s sunshine pop), into deliberately square music (Doris Day, the Fifth Dimension). But I was just involving myself in different conversations, even if they were only theoretical. I was still contriving a narrative about my tastes, even if I didn't necessarily share it with anyone. Still it is a very seductive idea, that our taste is like a fingerprint, a snowflake, and that when we find out fully what it really is, we see at last, concretely, how ineffable our soul is. We listen to Pandora, click the thumbs up or down to approve songs, let the formulas work their magic, and continue to attenuate our authentic self in pure isolation.

That seems like ideological fiction; it fits too well with the romanticizing of individuality that is endemic in consumerism. (What seems parallax about taste may be ideological -- there is no intrinsic taste, just the useful pretense of it.) It's more plausible that our musical-taste acquisition is like language acquisition -- inherently social from the get-go. Walker cites Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist who has written extensively about music.

Just as we’re hard-wired to learn a language, but not to speak English or French, our specific musical understanding, and thus taste, depends on context. If a piece of music sounds dissonant to you, it probably has to do with what sort of music you were exposed to growing up, because you were probably an “expert listener” in your culture’s music by about age 6, Levitin writes.

Walker ends by pointing out that Pandora is ultimately curated. Only certain songs are added, and this process is a bit arbitrary.

Westergren maintains that catalog size receded as a problem at around the 300,000-song mark. Since passing that, he says, the number of “missed” searches has declined markedly, so the great majority of people who come to the site and type in an artist or song name get a proper introduction to the Pandora system. But the more surprising part of Westergren’s response is his claim that he isn’t worried about compiling the biggest possible catalog. “This may seem counterintuitive,” he told me, “but we struggle more with making sure we’re adding really good stuff.” That sounds like a rather subjective, cultural judgment — shouldn’t the listener decide what’s good, based purely on the genome’s intrinsics-of-music guidance? Well, there’s no question that Westergren is a champion of the unheard music that gets marginalized by sociocultural judgments. But even he has standards.

So Pandora is revealed as an elaborate apparatus for masking with technology and mathematical mumbo jumbo the way tastes can be shaped from above and without. Pandora presents a limited set and invites us to see it as infinite. WHat we make of it is wholly are own and true.That's not so different from the way our opportunities are in practice curtailed by social context while we are raised to believe that anything is possible if we tap into our innate ability.

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