Thursday, February 14, 2008

Seems we never know - do we? - who we're going to find

On this great feast of love, I would like to introduce you to one of the great loves of my life. This faithful companion, this source of continual delight, came into my life a little more than two years ago, and I have been falling deeper and deeper in love ever since. I refer, of course, to Pandora, your source for free internet radio that plays only what you tell it to. Pandora has kept me company during many tedious hours of data entry. She has introduced me to new artists, reacquainted me with old ones, and allowed me to hear familiar favorites in new and unexpected contexts. The World Wide Web does many wonderful things for me every day, but I think Pandora is my favorite reason for having internet access.

If this is your first encounter with Pandora: you’re welcome. Here’s how it works: you sign up for an account (free!). You create a personalized “station” by entering the name of a song or artist you like. If, for example, you enter “the Beatles,” Pandora will do a quick search and then launch your Beatles station, beginning with a Beatles song and then branching out from there to play other artists and songs you might like. (If you name a song, instead of an artist, you won’t hear it right away -- they can’t just call up specific songs on request, for legal reasons -- but you will probably hear it eventually.) The really cool part is how the musical connections are made: each song is catalogued not by genre or record-store labels, but according to its basic musical elements, e.g., “acoustic instrumentation,” “prominent percussion” or “female vocalist.” And if you click on “Why did you play this song?” Pandora will explain which elements she thought you would enjoy. You can give a song a thumbs-up (“Play more like this!”) or a thumbs-down (“Never play this song again!”), and the station will adjust accordingly.

That’s a basic sketch of what Pandora was like when I first found it; since then many bells and whistles have been added. You can now pay for an account, which will eliminate the advertising from your experience. You can access all sorts of information about songs, artists and albums; you can maintain many stations at once and keep a list of favorite songs for reference’s sake. You can head over to iTunes or to purchase a song or an album you like. And you can share your stations with friends, or hear a station they’ve created. The only downside I have found is that Pandora is a bandwidth hog -- or at least she was a year and a half ago, when the IT guy in the office where I was working traced the network’s sluggishness back to me and my all-day Pandora habit. So that was a bummer. But in my own home, I’m happy to give her all the bandwidth she wants. I get so much in return!

There’s an art to maintaining a Pandora station -- with some trial and error you learn to exercise restraint in your power of thumbs-up and thumbs-down, because too-liberal use can send a station off in an unexpected direction. For example, if you thumbs-down multiple songs that feature “acoustic instrumentation,” Pandora might assume you hate acoustic guitars and ban them from your playlist, when you really just hate those three particular songs. Stations can always be scrapped and restarted, however. And in the process you’ll learn a lot about your musical tastes. I never realized how much I liked America or the Kinks until multiple songs of theirs started popping up with frequency on my Pandora stations (not on the same station, I should note). Meanwhile, Pandora has decided I have an affinity for “breathy male vocalists” and “acoustic rhythmic piano” -- and by Jove, she’s right!

Back when I used to listen to my Pandora stations all day -- before I got busted by the IT guy at work -- I found that she had certain songs she loved to play for me, despite my failure to give positive feedback. It would always start out amusing and grow gradually more unsettling -- Why this song? I would wonder. For a while I heard a Peter, Paul and Mary song called "I Dig Rock and Roll Music" at least once a day on a folk-influenced station I'd put together. I didn’t ask Pandora to play PP&M, mind you, but they overlapped with some of the artists I liked. In this song, they sing about various contemporary pop artists in the style of said artists. So there's a "Beatles" verse and a "Mamas and the Papas" verse and a "Donovan" verse. Vintage dorky folk-group humor. The first time I heard it, I was like, Heh, that's kind of clever. And the next few times I heard it, I was like, Yes, yes, very cute, Peter, Paul and Mary, your little Beatles accents are so gear, ha ha. But after a while I started resenting it, like, Who the hell are you to make fun of the Mamas and the Papas? And finally one day I reached my breaking point, and when I heard Peter-or-Paul insist, "I dig! Rock-and-roll music, uh-huh..." I said, THUMBS DOWN. NEVER play this song again. I hope you're happy, Pandora.

Sometimes, however, Pandora made wonderful connections between artists that I never would have made on my own. (Your iPod can do this, too, but Pandora has a more truly random library to choose from.) For example, one day I heard Extreme’s “More Than Words” followed immediately by the Beatles’ “I Will.” Quite similar songs, when you think about it, and if it hadn’t been for Pandora I am certain I never would have thought about it. The husband and I describe these moments of discovery as “Pandoradipity.” Pandoradipity is how I learned that there is a Rick Springfield song called “What Kind of Fool Am I,” which is (sad to say) not the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse hit (from the musical Stop the World, I Want To Get Off), but rather a mid-80s throwaway with the same weird, obsessive, "she can't be going out with him, she should be with me" lyrical focus as “Jessie’s Girl,” and a middle-eight stripped directly from "The Greatest Love of All." Meanwhile, the Rick Springfield song “Love Is the Key” features, in addition to “political lyrics,” a chorus ripped off from Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” and embellished with a few bars of George Harrison’s “Awaiting on You All.” How about that. (Before Pandora, I didn’t even realize Rick Springfield had any songs other than “Jessie’s Girl.”)

Though I tend to use Pandora to listen to artists other than the Beatles, Pandoradipity has given many gifts to the Beatles fan in me: I’ve heard an extremely likeable cover of the Wings song “Listen to What the Man Said,” called simply “L.T.W.T.M.S.” and recorded by a band called The Trouble With Sweeney. I learned Ella Fitzgerald did a great version of “Got to Get You Into My Life.” (Pandora is great for finding awesome, little-known covers of all sorts of stuff. I think I like Evan Olson’s version of “Tin Man” better than the America original, and I can’t even find it on iTunes!) And believe it or not, Pandora has been known to play selections from George Harrison’s Wonderwall Music. How awesome is that? What makes this really cool is that Pandora doesn't play Beatles covers for me because she knows I like the Beatles. She plays these songs because I like "mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation" or "subtle use of vocal harmonies," or whatever. And Beatle stuff comes up eventually anyway. It gives me a whole new way to think about how I listen to music.

Sometimes Pandora displays an eerie prescience that goes beyond just knowing what I like. Last week, I was listening to one or another of my many “breathy male vocalist”-heavy stations to keep me company while I edited our many honeymoon photos. I wasn’t paying much attention to the song that was playing -- "Fade Me In,” by one Danny Scherr -- until I opened this photo…

…and at that very moment, Mr. Scherr sang, "The sun is in my eyes, and I'm looking out to sea." Whoa. (It was a nice song, too. Pandora thought I'd like its subtle use of vocal harmony, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation and major key tonality.) I am always amazed at what Pandora knows. But sometimes I wonder if perhaps she knows too much…


SY said...


I totally have a girl crush on, and thought that I was more or less in the loop about her wonderous abilities, but somehow I completely missed the "Why Did You Play This?" feature! I feel so much more confident as a music listener now that I know for certain that I prefer "down tempo imfluences, laid back male vocals, ambiguous lyrics and a knack for catchy hooks." (And, really, who DOESN'T love ambiguous lyrics and catchy hooks?)

j said...

That was a GREAT article on Pandora. Yes, Pandora rocks. And you state this so well!