Since the sixties, the Album-artwork-commodity (on LP, cassette, CD) has become something like Format as Big Other. You must not only listen to every song, in order, says the Media Father, you must like them all. Even “She’s Leaving Home.” Its primary injunction: NEVER SKIP.
That this plays into both high-modernist Art-capital-“A” ideology and the demands of the market should come as no surprise--can anyone really argue there’s a difference anymore? But what is equally important is its technological determination. This Idolator post laments the conflation of music criticism with reporting on technology, but is that really something new? When critics talk about an album’s cohesiveness it’s as much a discourse on the demands of a format as it is on “Art.” In the mp3 era, the Album’s hegemony begins to dissipate, leaving us in a single-based musical environment more like the years before the 12-inch record.
The question is, what replaces the Album, with radio all but outmoded and intangible media ubiquitous? Consumer challenges to the Album are not entirely new either. Consider the opening paragraphs of John Corbett’s brilliant book Extended Play:
At last, I have a CD machine with shuffle mode. It’s a miraculous button, “shuffle.” In an instant it does away with the logic behind decades of music industry packaging, the kind of logic that works with A-sides and B-sides (the soon-to-be-obscure domain of records and tapes), the same logic that sequences a release in a particular way so that cuts are preceded and followed by appropriate others. For instance, think about how many hit singles are positioned as the first cut on the second side of an album; that’s well known as the LP sweet-spot. In the place of this sequential logic, shuffle offers a random number generator, an exciting turn of events. Now a disc can renew itself virtually every time it’s played, putting together unforeseeable combinations, segues, connections, and leaps of faith.
As I see it, this is one of the great possibilities of musical postmodernity. In the process of shuffling, the activity of making connections and creating meaning is somehow thrust back into the lap of the listener. Naturally, shuffle mode doesn’t eradicate the old logic; more often than not, a listener will probably just press “play” and let the disc run its course. But that’s part and parcel of the postmodern: it makes a multitude of systems possible. At its worst, postmodernism manifests itself as an empty form of eclecticism in which, as Jean-Françcois Lyotard suggests, the bottom line is still the buck. At its best, the postmodern is about the opening up of options, the acceptance of incompatibility, the irreducibility of all forms of discourse to the logic of one.
Corbett’s (pre-Napster) enthusiasm for a function that I suspect is rarely used may seem quaint, but his insight into its potential, as some kind of digital-sonic Exquisite Corpse game, is prophetic. The very channels we necessarily use to access music today often don’t even allow us to experience the intended form of content at all (being able to download only half the tracks on a CD, or hear a couple on youtube, or catch some on television, through a blog, etc.). The resulting jumble forces us into being much more active consumers than a bunch of stoner rock fans in the mid-70’s sitting around listening to Pink Floyd’s entire oeuvre in chronological order.
A decidedly not random rejection of the Album’s sanctity is the homemade mix, a possibility that’s been around since the cassette tape, and has been made many times simpler with personal computers. Not to get all Nick Hornby here, but for many music people, making a mix CD/tape is a meticulous, deeply personal process, and receiving one is a profound pleasure. I can’t see any reason to be cynical about it.
On the other hand, the mix form has now evolved into an online application that’s like something out of The Matrix: Pandora Radio. According to their FAQ, Pandora is “a music discovery service designed to help you enjoy music you already know, and to help you discover new music you'll love.”
There’s a bit more to it than that. Apparently they use “vectors,” “complex mathematical algorithms,” and “distance functions” to recommend music to listeners based on a single artist or song selection, employing a system that Pandora founders Tim Westergren, Will Glaser, and John Kraft call the “Music Genome Project”: a list of “attributes” that attempt to quantify and categorize everything about all music. Westergren is quoted in this article in business journal Fast Company on the initial idea for his venture:
"I thought, if I could do a kind of Myers-Briggs [personality map] for music and tell people what songs they'd probably like based on musical similarities, the Internet could solve the problem of access," Westergren recalls. "It would be like what eBay did for pink flamingos."Pandora’s self-described points of reference--genetics and psychology--make it difficult not to see its aim as manipulative in some grand conspiratorial way. Who knows why they thought it was a good idea to name their service after the mythical figure responsible for all the disease in the world, but as long as they were going for the whole revealingly disconcerting thing, “Panopticon” might have been more to the point.
An explanatory page sums up Pandora’s analytic method:
Together we set out to capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level. We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or "genes" into a very large Music Genome. Taken together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song--everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony. It's not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records--it's about what each individual song sounds like.Never mind the reductive, self-righteous dismissal of affiliation, context, and reception; the danger runs deeper than that. Pandora can tell you that the Meat Puppets and Mötley Crüe both possess “Basic Rock Song Structure” and “Dirty Electric Guitar Riffs,” while completely missing the point, but it can’t tell you what Mobb Deep shares with Merle Haggard. You know the story about how Brian Wilson first heard “Be My Baby” while driving, and became so enraptured he had to swerve over to the side of the road, fearing he’d crash his car? It’s safe to say that this kind of experience is impossible on Pandora. These are not minor complaints.
In that same Fast Company article, we’re treated to a peek into Pandora’s “boiler room”:
There, five days a week, 32 music-addicted miners pick apart stack after stack of CDs, analyzing each track against a digitized checklist of characteristics. They are all professional musicians--most moonlight in Bay Area bands--and all have studied music theory and been put through an initial 40-hour genome training session (there are training updates as new genomes launch).Wow, sounds kind of like that second Indiana Jones movie. You know, the one that sucked.
Pandora doesn’t just yank the still-beating heart out of the chest of the listening public, it also cages us in and lowers us down a fiery pit of consumer obligation. You may not be able to repeat a track, but you can definitely buy it instantly on Amazon or iTunes. In the end, we’re left with a dazzlingly naked instance of the most sinister machinations of the culture industry, tricking us into thinking it liberates us through choice when in reality it restricts us by choosing in advance. This is something a smart theorist called repressive desublimation, and a smarter theorist called placebo syndrome.
Technology is not just a part of culture, it is culture. That’s why something like Pandora isn’t just a benign diversion, and why media and format are worth as much critical interrogation as texts themselves.
In other words, when the syndrome is around, don’t let your guard down.