Get SF Weekly Newsletters

Friday, December 3, 2010

Does Pandora Crush Your Soul, Or Free Your Mind?

Posted By on Fri, Dec 3, 2010 at 2:32 PM

click to enlarge It sees  everything you like.
  • It sees everything you like.
It sees everything you like.
That's the question asked today in a New York Times piece by Virgina Heffernan, a self-described non-music-buff who finds the ability of Internet radio station Pandora to predict her tastes unnerving -- and also exciting.

Her piece is a fascinating look into the philosophical ramifications of an algorithm -- the Pandora secret weapon -- that breaks music down into its constituent, quantitative aspects, and then learns what its users like and what they don't.

Heffernan compares the experience of having her tastes predicted by Pandora to chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov's 1997 defeat at the hands of an IBM-built computer:  "Pandora refuses to group songs on the basis of their being good, bad, cool or otherwise enshrouded in cultural auras,"  she writes. "Pandora explodes the aura. It turns music into math."

While at first Heffernan finds this alarming, she eventually comes to appreciate how shrewdly the station pulls her number:

I'm not a music buff, but having shunned music for years, I recently got tired of a life without it. My boycott of iTunes, Internet radio and headphones was hurting no one but me. I decided to try Pandora again. This time I conceded up front that it could never take the place of my old relationship with music -- with the college D.J.'s who didn't try to guess what I would like but rather showed me how to like what they liked. This time, Pandora worked. The experience doesn't give you the pleasure of tangling with other human minds. But having your own affinities spelled out and even dramatized has become another kind of amusement. I'm getting into it.
I don't use Pandora -- there are enough people telling me what to listen to, thank you very much -- and reading this doesn't make me want to give it a shot. I find the notion that a machine could break down what we like about music into "melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, singing, and vocal harmony" belittling, ridiculous, and, probably impossible.

I'm not disputing that Pandora works in a sense -- the success Heffernan describes is impressive. But breaking our tastes down can't be that easy, and if it can, I'd rather not know. I operate under the presumption that there is some z-factor or dark matter, if you will, that greatly influences whether we like music -- some ineffable quality that makes Radiohead great and Muse shitty. Would Pandora recognize a difference in those artists? I don't know, and I have no urge to find out. Keeping music enshrouded in a cultural aura works just fine for me.

Follow us on Twitter @SFAllShookDown and @iPORT

  • Pin It

Tags: , , ,

About The Author

Ian S. Port


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed

Like us on Facebook


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"