Have you seen Louis CK’s mini-monologue on The Conan O’Brien show, generally known as “Everything is amazing and nobody’s happy“? I am not prone to hyperbole, but I think it’s the most important four-minutes of television of the 21st century. In a humorous and curmudgeonly way, he lambastes the modern entitlement mentality and all that we take for granted. I’m 45 years old, and I couldn’t agree more.
I think of Louis’ rant whenever I listen to music on Pandora. If you aren’t familiar (and you are forgiven if one of the overwhelming number of web services and apps got past you,) it’s a program that lets you create a “radio station” based on specific music you select. Not like regular radio which offers a few stations that may or may not maintain the mood you’re in; instead, you type in a song title or a band and it customizes an endless playlist of songs by using musical algorithms to parse your selection (“basic rock song structures, a subtle use of vocal harmony, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation, and major key tonality”) and then finds other music that fits that description. For example, type in Portishead and it creates a stream of trip-hop deliciousness. Songs you know, songs you don’t know, but almost without fail, it serenades you with a string of similarly themed music that you would never have enough time to find and investigate on your own. It doesn’t matter where you start — Nick Drake, Prince, obscure Boston-band O Positive — it’s like having an instant mix-tape of that style of music.
Frankly, it is nothing short of amazing — and I’m happy. Science fiction Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That’s how I feel about Pandora. My daughter thinks that Pandora is the norm, that immediate access to a personalized music stream is how you listen to music; but I know better — because I have known a reality other than this one.
I grew up sitting in front of the Realistic stereo (purchased from the leading technology outlet of the era, Radio Shack) patiently waiting for a song I loved to get it’s slot in the radio rotation. (That patience was often tested.) When the DJ’s blather seemed to be coming to an end and they promised a coveted song was coming up, I had my finger ready on the record button of the 8-track. Those early 8-track mixes were technically horrible (I had no understanding of what the “record level” knob did) and aesthetic train wrecks: intros to songs missing due to slow reaction time, many songs rudely interrupted by the alarming “kachunk” of the 8-track player switching to the next program. When I tell this to my 9-year old, she looks at me like I must have been dating Laura Ingalls at the time.
A few years later, the cassette tape came into vogue – and no wonder! The cassette was so efficient, the pinnacle of human achievement. Half the size of an 8-track, and without that violent lurch of the program change. Sure, it had to be flipped over at the halfway mark, but so did an LP record, and the LP had to be handled like a museum piece to make sure you didn’t scratch it. Not true of the cassette — you could toss 30 tapes into a shoe box and they were impervious to destruction. (Unless you left that shoebox on the seat of the car on a sunny day.)(Cue sad trombone sound.)
At risk of channeling my inner-Wilfred-Brimley, that’s what I had and I liked it. So what if I missed the first 18 seconds of Freebird and there was a 12-second gap when the 8-track clunked over to Program 3 — I could listen to Freebird whenever I wanted! It was amazing.
Of course, as Louis CK said, there are still people who find fault with Pandora. They respond to this stunning technology by bitching that it doesn’t fully utilize the music genome logarithms, and that there are other applications that more accurately synthesize the central musical theme and produce better playlists. I suspect they’re right, because Pandora isn’t perfect — last week I heard The Time immediately followed by 38 Special, and I assure you, that’s far from perfect. But to me, that’s like complaining that the guy who instantly makes you an unlimited number of mix tapes based on any genre of music sometimes includes a song that you wish you could skip. (By the way, there’s a skip button.) When I hear someone make this complaint, I try very hard to conjure Louis CK into existence so he can punch the malcontent in the face.
If I could travel back in time and tell that kid laying on the floor by the 8-track about Pandora, he would never believe it. “A steady stream of music, new and familiar, custom-selected for my mood, all for free? And all I have to do is listen to a 15 second ad every 15 minutes? You are bullshitting me, future Bill.” That version of me would hear about Pandora and assume it was only possible with magic.
And he’d be exactly right.