Musical Eugenics

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.


  1. first off, the second indiana jones did not suck.

    secondly, i think Pandora is not nearly so much to blame for the loss of context given to music by its format as is the iPod culture combined with the other methods of breaking up releases that you mentioned. that whole mentality is killing the appreciation for a good album, or even a good EP or a good 12". hell, even a single sided one song 12" SAYS something by presenting that track in that particular format.

    what pandora is doing is the logical next step in the "evolution" of those radio stations that have a computer generated random playlist. why limit it to random when you can simple enter all new and old music into a database that can then be arranged so you have a "rock" station and a "soul" station? and they take it even further than that obviously, but the idea is not dissimilar. it is radio which has never been about preserving or even recognizing formats. hell, you can probably get way more "album cuts" if you listen to pandora than you would from almost any commercial radio station. based on my expectations for commercial radio, pandora blows them out of the water.

    for me, context of a song is the most important thing. i was an avid mixtape maker when i was younger, and then i started deejaying when i was 17. at this point, i get paid to recontextualize songs in a way that makes sense to listeners when i deejay. maybe that takes away a lot of the novelty of "random" or "shuffle" functions, or really even of playlists. i want albums and EPs that make sense on their own for my listening purposes, i want them to be complete statements. it takes skill to make a good mix, and mindlessly clicking "shuffle" on your iPod to play tracks that have already been removed from their original context anyway through the methods of acquiring them only creates a complete mess to my ears.

    creating an album that flows or a mixtape that flows is a seriously difficult thing to do. the problem is that i dont think most people even think that way in 2008. theyre so used to the typical major label album with "filler" alongside the hot singles that theyve never experienced the emotional journey of listening to something like John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme". can you imagine the individual tracks from that popping up randomly on your ipod?!?! it doesnt make sense seperately!

  2. to each his own, i suppose, regarding temple of doom; seems clear to me that it is not only poorly produced, but stinks of blatantly colonialist ideology.

    but to the point. first, you are right to bring up the dj mix as a contextualizing form, one that also subverts album-hegemony. i left it out because i talk about that all the time and i didn't want to seem like i was already beating a dead horse. hey does anyone else think that sounds like a way to say jerking off? i just noticed that.

    anyway, i quoted that extract from john corbett's book (which, by the way, contains one of the first formulations of musical afrofuturism, in the essay "brothers from another planet") because pandora epitomizes the "worst of postmodernism" he describes. the categorizing fixation of pandora is nothing like the randomness of a the shuffle function on home listening equipment/software, nor is it anything like the contextualized particularity of the dj mix.

    perhaps you are right though to say it is the "evolution" of radio. i am reluctant to say this only because if you take a look at the top 40 you'll see plenty of different styles and approaches to making music (country, hip-hop, r&b, latin, synth-pop-ish stuff, etc.). the reason i brought up the brian wilson example is because radio still seems like a viable avenue for rewarding listening experiences to me; it must necessarily be pluralistic (even if in a cynical way) rather than homogenize itself to reinforce one person's taste. it still has the capacity to surprise, even if it does so only rarely.

    but what i've been trying to get at mainly is that the album as a "complete statement" is a relatively new historical form in music, at a fraction of the age of the verse-chorus-verse song form. it was only with the advent of the long-playing record, and with people like frank sinatra and miles davis presenting 45-minute programs of music on it, that the "complete statement" idea could make any sense at all for recorded music. you can't apply the album "flow" criterion to say, charlie parker, and maybe we shouldn't expect to apply it to contemporary music all the time either.

  3. shuja can you delete the previous post? it got formmated weird because i wrote it in notepad...

    here it is again:
    Another great post, Shuja.

    To comment on a few things:

    I think we can both agree that the album and the tracklist are outdated vestiges of the vinyl record. And I think we can both agree that as a veritable institution, they have been exploited to the maximum degree by the music industry, and as a culture of consumes we haeat up whatever is dished out, a sort of universal cultural pattern/language.

    However, it the standard album has two kinds of advantages - firstly, as a DJ I see the supreme value in storytelling, and secondly, I think that the standard album is also a practical and ecological way of producing music.

    Storytelling/programming, (i know you know this), is the substance of deejaying. The placement of one track next to another in an album is just as much part of the musical art as blowing a horn or opening a filter, in my opinion.

    As far as pratice goes, musicians and producers work in many ways. Often, however, a musical idea is restricted to one piece of music and developed to a smart extent. As such, a musician tends to end up with several separate individual works that may or may not be related. In creating an album, a musician can make sense of his work through the order, he can tell a story. In some cases, this larger story is the impetus for the whole project. (eg the album I am working on) I would compare this with a painter designing his own exhibition - the installation of the paintings is critical to the artist's intentions.

    So for this reason, I think shuffle mode has little intrinsic artistic value. It might create interesting juxtapositions, but they are not intelligent.

    As far as a person creating his own intelligent juxtapositions goes, I think this is valuable - I mean, this is the essence of the mixtape.

    I don't buy the postmodern bullshit. In architecture, this has resulting in the fragmentation and degradation of powerful pattern languages/archetypes which affect man at his most basic level. The same pattern language is to be found in music, I think - for example, the idea of 'beginning-middle-end' or 'exposition-rising action-climax-falling action-resolution'. These are born out of intrisincally human intuitions of the life cycle. The golden calf of postmodernism, that is 'collage' may result in something interesting, but like its result, the success is fragmentary, and more often than not results in something of much less power and value than the alternative.

    And onto pandora. First of all, let me declare that I despise pandora for the exact reason you mentioned - it is a placebo syndrome.

    Like representative democracy in corporate america, pandora creates the illusion of choice, individuality, and freedom. In many ways pandora epitomizes the twisted manipulation of the american people by those who govern/capitalize. One listens to music he thinks he likes, but this is more often than not already a conditioned preference, consciously or unconsciously affected by marketing, the desire to conform/belong, or other ideological positions (eg christian rock). So here we already have one layer of illusion. Now, add pandora to the mix, and we have another layer of illusion. These people who tag pandora tracks also operate under similar conditioning, so they themselves have a bias. Then, they possibly have an additional bias because of corporate policy or marketing agreements with major record labels, etc. (conspiratorial, but likely)

    In the end, this leads to everyone being stuck in some kind of giant closed, circular simulation (some people call this fashion or circle-jerk).

    In this age, everyone wants to be told what to do, what to like, how to think, how to act, how to listen, how to dance. I believe any simulation of choice is the worst kind of slavery.

    And now, I suppose I have to quote Orwell.
    "War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength."

  4. But I LIKE "She's Leaving Home," dangit!

    In seriousness, though, while I'd agree that it's good that the album's "hegemony" is ending and people are looking at different formats for music, I don't see the album as necessarily finished. It's great that I can create my own mix and listen to Beatles tracks in whatever order I want to, but that doesn't mean that I'll never feel like listening to "Abbey Road" from start to finish. (I can only imagine what listening to the second-side montage would be like on shuffle.) What I like about mp3 music and the like is that I get a choice, and that means that rather than losing an option (e.g. the album is dead), I gain one. So I can listen to an album or a custom playlist or a DJ mix without excluding one or the other.
    You're right that the concept of the album is a fairly recent one, but let's not forget that the concept of recorded music is also a new one. We can find forms analogous to the album or EP in the suites and symphonies that classical composers often used, for example (along with preludes, etudes, and the like, which were often intended to be appreciated individually).