3.16.2010

The Nature of Taste

Last year, I started using Pandora when I am listening to random-music (iTunes is mostly for songs I want to listen to on repeat for hours at a time *cough Radiohead*, or if I want to listen to an album *cough Miss Saigon*). I have to admit that there is little part of my brain, that agonized every time I pushed a button on Pandora. If you've never used it, the interface is pretty simple: you choose a seed song or artist, and Pandora plays a song, and you mark it with a thumbs up or thumbs down, so Pandora can slowly learn your taste. Everytime I put a thumbs down, I felt this little twinge. What if Pandora thinks I don't like this whole genre? What if this artist has, like, lots of songs I'd totally love? What if the Pandora software thinks I'm a snob, or I'm being mean? Yes, my friends, I am aware that it would require a feat of programming currently beyond modern science to produce a computer that could resent you for your choice in music, but sense and reasoning aren't always part of my thought process.

So, I've had the same station for a long time, and I felt quite proud of myself. The music I was listening was about 80% people I'd never listened to before. This is it, I thought, I have become one of those cool people like Amanda and Nymeth and Chris and Debi who have distinct, individual taste, taste that they have cultivated so that they can feel excited about concerts and music and new albums and stuff! I have arrived!

So, this is great, right? Jason is diverse! Jason is creative! And then the other day I had a revelation. In tarot terms, I don't mean one of those shining, glorious, Sun revelations. I mean more like a falling tower revelation. The one where your imagination of how things are is dispelled. Where listening to Pandora, I realized that I actually could reduce my newfound taste into three simple rules:

1) I like sad or angry people, especially girls, playing the piano or guitar
2) I like Jack White, but hate everyone who sounds like Jack White
3) There is no rule 3

If you add to these rules that I like musicals, scat singing, and things that make me look cool, this actually explains at least 85% of my music collection. The remaining 15% is stuff Amanda likes that I've inherited out of sheer respect for her good taste.

No, this is not going to be a complaining post. Promise.

This is a Jason-philosophizes blindly post (hurrah! the crowd shouts sarcastically. That's much better!).

Now, the question here, as to how my taste could be distilled quite so simply into such easy, oddly specific rules is an interesting one to me academically. There's really two possibilities in my mind, either of which is intriguing. The first would be that I like these things because they are what Pandora plays for me. From a a human history standpoint, this is a remarkably complex consideration - because the world of marketing, and therefore the world of disseminated taste, is built on a Pandora model. Sometimes, of course, this is obvious. Look at, for instance, the recommendations that Amazon, or Goodreads, or any other search service hands over to you. With varying degrees of accuracy and complexity (but with a slowly increasing level of both, most of your internet browsing gently, invisibly makes assumptions about you, and uses those assumptions to guide your behaviours - targeted ads, suggested content, recommendations, even blogs like Daring Fireball that take one of your interests (Macintosh Computers) and connect them to other interests (design, Stanley Kubrick, writing). Nor is this ONLY a big brother-ish conspiracy. In the last example, Josh Gruber writes about those other topics because they are the things that interest him. The interesting thing is, however, that these create strange, trended cultures-within-a-culture, where our affetion for something slowly, slowly narrows and is reinforced into the particulars that an algorithm can derive about us. It is easy to at this point have a luddite reaction, but really, while the breadth may change, the depth of experience is intense and powerful this way - It is a tradeoff, but not necessarily a negative one.

But it DOES have ramifications, ones that are already slowly showing. There is, once business and government learn how, the ability to manipulate opinion (though it's notably more difficult to do this on a mass scale than it was with, say, 1950's television, or 40's radio). Additionally, it tends to segmentize society. Book blogging is a perfect example of this - it is very easy to find bloggers with very precisely similar interests - and in knowing those persons, your opinions become even MORE similar over time, as a group, on the trend. This makes these pockets of culture that at times can clash. Use cable news as an example: each year passes, and broadens the gulf between what it is that the news says on CNN versus Fox News, to where someone who watches one channel begins to find it difficult to have a conversation with the other - because the channels are built to encourage argument and righteous indignation instead of mutuality.

I said there were two possible reasons. The second is even more intriguing to me: perhaps, there is a reason I'm attracted to this very narrow band of musicians, independent of the medium that I find them through. Maybe there simply is something about sad female voices, or about an uncluttered piano, or (for whatever reason) Jack White, that speaks something to me. The INTERESTING thing then is, on the one hand, we normally discuss music in the same way as literature: we spend a great deal of time talking about the lyrics, or in trying to relate the music to a hard, verbal idea (or at least, I guess, I do). But, when I strip away to the shallowest level of the subconscious selection, I select on something that has nothing to do with the verbal world, I am attracted to certain aspects of the music itself, certain frequencies, certain qualities of sound and interplay of vibration. The question then becomes why don't we have a better vocabulary to talk about this? One can discuss it scientifically or clinically, discussing this or that scale or harmonic break, or whatever. But this is something like discussing the musicality of a poem by discussing linguistic theory - it's obtuse and useful for analysis but not expression.

The other interesting thing is that it's even POSSIBLE for me, someone who is very much a casual amateur, to even discover something this specific. 100 years ago, the music I heard would be the music that was available, the same music everyone around me heard. If I lived in a small town in the midwest, in middle class comfort, for instance, I'd hear whatever the latest popular sheet music, a small selection maybe fo gramaphone records, and the one or two concerts that travel through the town per year. Perhaps a calliope at the circus. I would hear the popular music of my particular culture, basically. Well, if there is, let's say, 3 girls in my town who play piano and sing, and the only sheet music they have has perhaps 15 out of 100 songs that are sad (and none of them are Jack White) I'm not very likely to discover something so specific - I may be attracted to particular songs, but in my MIND I will process this as an attraction to these specific songs, and will not be ABLE to analyze further and understand what it is about the songs that attracts me, as easily. Even 20 years ago, I was likely to choose some particular genre of music organically, that most closely fit my interests, and then I would simply hear whatever the radio station played. From there I would be able to pick out the bands I liked, and buy their albums, and I would become deeply attached to certain particular bands, through their good and bad (or suited to me and unsuited to me moments). To an extent, this is now changing. Where I 100 years ago would have liked particular songs, and 20 years ago particular bands, I now like particular sounds or modes. So there are certainly particular songs I like - but I like these because they express the sound I like. A band is the same way, or more so for me, an album. If I, for instance, heard one particular song off of Miss Saigon on the radio, I would probably not have been particularly fond of it. But, having partiuclar sounds and modes, I could pick out the echoes of that mode in the overall album, and then use that to understand the foreign things, that interact with it.

Music industry executives bemoan this - because generally what this means is that if a band doesn't change my life, I'll buy one of their songs, and be done with it. They speak darkly abuot the death of the album and a day of empty singles-driven music. I disagree - again, having an intimate relationships with the particular connects us deeply enough to a particular sensual self, that it DOES allow us, in the context of a 'true' album - one that tells a story, and explores the interplay between different themes - to understand things we WOULDN'T normally understand, and to form a relationship with music, rather than using an album, a band, a musician as a benchmark for our taste. And, again, this grows more and more so with every passing year, and musicians are beginning (I think) to pick up on this) - a Dresden Dolls album, for instance, is cautiously planned (at least it feels that way to me) and has pieces that wildly disparate from each other, and Palmer uses this as a tool to draw the listener's mind into directions that they wouldn't normally expect - so, where I would normally only like particular songs of hers, I can begin to understand a song like 'Girl Anachronism' which, the first time that I heard it as a single, I thought was... well, kind of awful, to be honest.

Isn't the future wonderful?

7 comments:

Amanda said...

I wish i liked Pandora, and I wish it worked well for me, but sadly it just doesn't. :(

And I"m not one of those people you mentioned. I was, 10 years ago, but I've stagnated and rutted in music since. I never was very inovative. I found my music from friends who were far more talented at finding stuff than me. It's the same now. and now, usually I don't find anything I like anyway.

Emily said...

This is a fascinating post, Jason. It reminds me of a conversation my friend Alan & I had, about meta-tastes in the relationship we prefer to have with music. He will meet a new person and burn their entire music library onto a hard drive - he possesses hundreds of thousands of songs, many of which he doesn't know. Although there's a fair likelihood he will like them, because he usually burns libraries from people whose musical taste is similar to his own. Still, though, he probably has thousands of songs he still has never listened to. He wants to dwell in this kind of unlimited, unarticulated musical cloud, that is geared to his general tastes in sound & genre.

I, on the other hand, desire a more particular relationship with music. I want to know all the music I possess intimately. I want to know the cover art & spend time assessing the transitions between each song and the one that follows it. I want to learn new music (for which Pandora is great!), but when I find a song I love, I go into great depth, seeking out albums & reading Wikipedia articles, even full-length bios, then seeking out the music of all the musicians who played with the person whose song/album I loved, etc. Trying to understand the cultural context.

Obviously, I only end up exposing myself to a tiny fraction of the music Alan does. But I think it's interesting that modern technology enables both of us to pursue our meta-tastes. Without Wikipedia, Powell's and other online bookstores, Pandora, etc., I wouldn't be able to focus in as efficiently and satisfyingly. And without digital technology & terrabyte hard drives, he wouldn't be able to amass his personal music cloud. And without such a diversity of choices, we would (as you point out) never have the opportunity to develop those meta-tastes to begin with. Fascinating!

I wonder what it is about Jack White? :-)

Your points about micro-communities becoming more segmented is an interesting one, too, and makes me think about readalongs...one of the best things about them is that one starts to have a shared repertory of literary references with this group of people, but that might also make it more difficult for someone who hasn't participated all along to understand where one is coming from. Food for thought.

Aarti said...

I have only used Pandora a few times. I enjoy music, but I don't seek it out, if that makes sense. My brother just introduced me to K'Naan, and I really like that music! (But I guess he's no longer indie as he's in the World Cup.) But I don't go to concerts or follow bands or anything like that. I just kind of... listen and enjoy.

Your comments on the marketing of music and how it's similar to book blogging really hit home for me because I AM SO TIRED of hearing the same songs on every radio station, and being told that that is the kind of music I must like if I'm this age, or live in this city, or like some other particular song. It's exhausting to try to be out of the box all the time! I also realized that I was going that way with my reading- getting more and more pigeon-holed, and I didn't like it. So now I read in a wider variety, though it's possible no one really notices :-)

Jason Gignac said...

Amanda - I don't think that's a fault in you, I think, HONESTLY, it's because you expect more of your music than I do. I'm kind of the wandering type, in a conscious emotional way, I have never really made strong, lasting relationships with ANYTHING, art, music and books included. There are occaisional glimpses that I cling to, but even these things are often sort of posthumous searches for meaning for a period, and notoriously more attached to storytelling than to truth. I think it would be BETTER for you to have PEOPLE to talk about music with, particularly if you could find people who have your taste, because the best of music to you has been, I think, when you share it (probably why it's frustrating, musically, ot be married to me, and more fun to go to concerts without me :D). Music makes sense to you, and it takes more work, and more community, to make sense of a thing than it does to just wander mindlessly through it. I DO admire your relationship with music, even if you haven't had a chance to update it in a very long time, because it's sincere and sweet - otherwise it wouldn't bother you that you haven't been able to keep it going for a few years. IT certainly doesn't bother most people.

Ms Emily - I think that community is a double edged sword, because the very shared culture that creates tight-knit, menaingful bonds creates a difficult barrier for entry for a new member. Of course, classically, people simply inducted their children into the communities they lived in, and that was that, but now that's more difficult. I think communities are adapting slowly, to where either they are abel to form and disperse more ephemerally (so, your children will form a strong community that never existed when you were alive, and that will dissolve eventually, before their children come along), or to where they develop their own means of induction. Sometimes this simply means lowering the barriers of entry, and sacrificing community integrity, sometimes it means allowing a means for an acolyte to fight their way into a community, and either way, the resemblances anthropologically to older human induction/coming of age rituals is interesting and beautiful. But, it's very much a cultural work in progress, and one that we as humans, I don't think, have fully made our peace with yet.

I have no idea what it is about Jack White. I don't like guitar rock, I don't like the particular vocal quality he uses, I don't like the swagger (even if it's more playful and self deprecating than, say, Mick Jagger), but I just like the guy. He just seems like such a fun guy. I don't know. It's baffling.

It is interesting, because the very flexibility of non-physical data lets people, subconsciously create their own world, you know? Honestly, this was how I made peace with being a computer person. If all I do is just fix things, and maintain the status quo, I hate my work, but the idea of being part of the process of helping people create an identity and reality in the new world is something that feels (as stupid as sounds) almost spiritual to me.

Ms Aarti - That's interesting - I have a tendency to want to feel that I'm unique, that I'm above any sort of profiling, which is somewhat paradoxical since I have a sort of aching awareness of being sort of out of place with most people at the same time. Music and books both are strange in that they sort of worm themselves into us and become integral to our identity - and one does not like to feel as if one's identity has been sold to them. At the same time, there are people subtly selling the 'I don't let people sell me my identity' countercultural identity too, so it's always difficult for me to tell whether I'm rebelling, or letting a marketer sell me happy 'you are unique, you're better than the rest of us' pills, you know?

Amy said...

This is one of those times when I'm not sure I actually have anything to say, but I'm commenting because I enjoyed this post so much. It really makes me think.

You know, it's funny because I don't think I have well cultivated taste and it frustrates me. I often wish I could identify as well as say, Ana does what I'll like or not like. And I actually feel comforted by Emily's statement that she listens intimately to music, because while I do try to learn some new music now and then, I am just as happy to listen to the same stuff again and again and seek comfort in the same artists music.

but then I also like what you say about how by loving songs and not artists we are able to actually experience and connect with music itself.

How interesting it would be if we didn't know how authored our books?? But there is something to be said for feeling like a piece of art connects you to an author or artist...it's why when something moves us, for whatever reason, we might google to learn more...and now I am TOTALLY rambling and off topic so I will conclude. ;)

nicole said...

First, let me just say I love this post.

I also love Pandora. One of the greatest things that ever happened to me was when Pandora opened up to classical as well as pop music; that made for an amazing discovery process for me and I am continually amazed by how well the service works for me. Now I am going to quote a very long excerpt of your post to explain why it works so well for me when it often doesn't for others:

perhaps, there is a reason I'm attracted to this very narrow band of musicians, independent of the medium that I find them through. Maybe there simply is something about sad female voices, or about an uncluttered piano, or (for whatever reason) Jack White, that speaks something to me. The INTERESTING thing then is, on the one hand, we normally discuss music in the same way as literature: we spend a great deal of time talking about the lyrics, or in trying to relate the music to a hard, verbal idea (or at least, I guess, I do). But, when I strip away to the shallowest level of the subconscious selection, I select on something that has nothing to do with the verbal world, I am attracted to certain aspects of the music itself, certain frequencies, certain qualities of sound and interplay of vibration. The question then becomes why don't we have a better vocabulary to talk about this? One can discuss it scientifically or clinically, discussing this or that scale or harmonic break, or whatever. But this is something like discussing the musicality of a poem by discussing linguistic theory - it's obtuse and useful for analysis but not expression.

This is a major interest of mine. I firmly believe this is the way I experience not only music but books as well, and movies, and probably other types of art and all sorts of other things that seem unrelated. I think in fact that Pandora is a breakthrough in that it has come up with a language to express these microqualities for music; Netflix has the same function for movies. It knows that I like “visually-striking cerebral independent movies” and “goofy movies starring Dan Aykroyd.” Pandora knows I care about "mild rhythmic syncopation" and "a strongly dramatic aesthetic."

It's simply the nature of my personality to want to break things down this way. I know I don't like books "about" things, or whatever. I want someone to do a literature genome project, and actually break the stuff down into component linguistic parts. Style, prosody, diction. The very left-brained person inside me wants to analyze it all in these terms and come up with a *real* algorithm, not one like Amazon and everyone else use that's based on liking things that other people liked. One based on these inherent microqualities that, as you say, are not useful for ourselves in expressing our love for a work, but would (I believe) be useful for actually determining whether we might like something.

But as I said, that is how I operate. I'm sure such ideas would be sacrilege to plenty of our fellow book-lovers. I just can't stop myself thinking that there's something inside of me that likes these certain microqualities, and that they are all interrelated in a way that can be used to predict who knows what. Perhaps my book+movie+music tastes could even tell me what new cocktail to try next. If I were inventing a fantasy universe, that is what it would be like.

This is long enough, so I won't get into the issues of marketing and audience fragmentation, except to say that I don't think either is a problem. On the contrary. But that is also not a terribly popular opinion.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Amy - Yes, honestly, in books, I've found the ones I have the most connection with have as much to do with a relationship with the author as the quality of the book. Emily Bronte or Emily Dickinson are people that I connect with on a personal level, and so there work has a certain meaning imbued into it that I'mnot capable of reading into the writing of someone I have no real connection to (Hemingway comes to mind). I'm not sure why I'm not the same way with music. Probably simply ignorance - I don't know anything about any of the musicians I like.

Ms Nicole - it is interesting, what I'd really like is a way to bridge that gap, a way to express the micro-tastes without it sounding like American Bandstand or a scientific paper, you know? I have a poorly exercised craving for the poetic, and i feel sterile writing "I like female vocal harmonics" even if it isn't any substantively different from the under-thing I WANT to be able to say. And, to some extent, it's still sort of a clumsy measurement, yoiu know?