I messed around with Pandora a little bit when it first came out, but I only really started taking advantage of it once we had kids. Friends had given us some CD's of kids' music--some of it was okay, and some of it was vomit-inducing. To me anyway. The kids may have loved it. Who knows. They were pretty much rag-dolls at that point anyway.
But I read an article in Time a while ago about bands that play kid music that's tolerable for parents, and I typed some of their names into Pandora's musical matchmaking machine. The results were quite pleasing. Most of the music has enough hooky, funky, and crunchy sounds to entice my ear, and enough adult-directed irony to suppress my gag reflex. And if a song pops up whose lyrics are too sincere, or whose vocals are too pitch-perfect, I can hit the "I don't like this song" button, and Pandora apologizes and promises to never play that song again. This is important to me, since I currently listen to way more kids' music than adult music. And it's very gratifying on a visceral level: "Fuck off and die, Chipmunks! [or Elmo, Celine Dion, Disney Princess du jour]," I hiss as I throw the killswitch.
I started compiling a list of kids' music artists that I like, thinking that I would buy (or otherwise procure) their albums so the girls and I could listen to them in their entirety; but I soon realized that simply listening to them professionally shuffled on Pandora, gratis save for the occasional commercial interruption, was perfectly acceptable. After all, when I play grownup music on my iPod, I put it on shuffle mode more often than not.
Nonetheless, as a public service, I have included a list of some bitchin' kids' rock artists you might want to type into your own Pandora station, or listen to in some other, more primitive, way. You're welcome.
Cool kids' music artists (in no particular order):
The Recess Monkeys
The Sippy Cups
The Great Lakes Swimmers
Artists with grown-up cred (more or less) who make kids' music, presumably because they have kids. Or because they saw a way to make a quick buck, for which I can't really blame them:
They Might Be Giants
Barenaked Ladies [guilty pleasure as adult rock, guilt-free when it's "for the kids"]
Jack Johnson [see above bracketed qualification]
Jonathan Richman [brilliantly angsty American proto-punk poet, and pretty okay kid rocker]
Farmer Jason [a.k.a Jason Ringenberg, of Jason and the Scorchers, beloved by me and maybe 250 other people during the period of 1984-1986, during which time we were convinced that "cowpunk," a hybrid of country and punk, was the wave of the future.]
Okay. So Pandora is pretty kickass for kids' rock. But how is it for grownup music? That's where it gets complicated.
If, like me, you are old as hell, you have probably enjoyed many different musical artists at different times in your life. You may not have loved every phase of these artists' careers, but rather have obsessed over them in the context of an era or moment of your own life experience. Bruce Springsteen is one of those artists for me. And Queen. Also Pink Floyd, Led Zepplin, Aerosmith, Lou Reed, Prince, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, etc., etc. You can make reasonable arguments for the or against the oeuvre of these artists over the span of their careers, but there is no denying in retrospect that they all had some embarrassingly bad moments.
By the same token, you may have loved a particular song or album that was an icon of an era--because it happened to be great despite its mainstream appeal--even though every other artifact of that era or moment makes you want to hurl. The Fine Young Cannibals' She Drives me Crazy, for example. Joan Jett's I Love Rock 'n' Roll. Prince's Purple Rain (album, movie, and tour). You know what I mean.
I had great hope, when I started entering a diverse sampling of musical acts I love, that the "Music Genome Project" would hook me up with exciting new music to explore. Instead, it seemed to select obvious records based on artists from the same era or (*open air-quotes*) genre (*close air-quotes*). I had hoped that the super-secret algorithm would cross-reference tempos, melodies, instrumentation, modalities, vocal timbre, lyrical themes, personnel, and so forth. But instead, it assumed I would like artists with similar haircuts who were in heavy rotation on the radio at the same time.
Just because I like The Cars and Adam and the Ants, Pandora, does not mean that I love all kitschy eighties one-hit-wonders. So enough already with The Fixx, Asia, Tommy Tutone, and The Hooters.
And Pandora doesn't really seem to know what to do with stuff like Iggy and the Stooges, Velvet Underground, and T-Rex, except for play exactly those artists. The influence of those bands has resounded across the decades--across generations! C'mon, Pandora, get with it! Play some stuff by the guys who grew up listening to The Stooges! I've already heard everything Iggy's done.
Of course it does play a lot of music that I like. Unfortunately, most of it is stuff I already have--stuff I already know I like. I entered "Cake," and Pandora started playing a lot of Beck and Weezer. I know I like them, Pandora--give me something that I haven't heard.
So I entered some newer bands that young hipsters are listening to these days (I know this from hearing about them on NPR), like Arcade Fire and The Hold Steady. And I guess it is on those artists that I can place the blame for the sets of noodling dirges and rehashed synth-pop Pandora proffers me.
Maybe I'm just being too demanding. Maybe I should be more open-minded. Maybe I should trust the technology to tell me what music I like.
Maybe I should listen to the adult music Pandora recommends with the same fresh ears I listen to the kids' music with. I don't immediately hate "Captain Bogg and Salty" just because pirate rock for kids is so cliched; so why can't I judge songs by Re-Flex and Scandal (or those new kids with their skinny jeans) solely on the basis of their musical merit?
I'm afraid that the answer is that, to some extent, I am a curmudgeon who can't let go of the bitterness of the past, or embrace the musical present. I spent so much time and energy between the ages of eleven and twenty-eight telling people why the crap they listened to on the radio sucked that I can't allow myself to enjoy anything that I felt was overrated and overplayed back in the day; and I'm suspicious of new music that either a), sounds a lot like stuff I liked in 1987 (Damn kids ripping off The Buzzcocks!); or b), doesn't sound like anything I have ever liked before (That's weird, therefore it sucks).
I have to admit though, that part of my resistance has to do with Pandora making me question my own taste. I find myself reaching for the "skip" button when a Third Eye Blind song comes on, thinking, "Really, Pandora? My carefully selected musical parameters leave room for a flash-in-the-pan pop band from the nineties? Is that really what you came up with when you divided the square root of David Bowie by the sum of Elvis Costello and The Pixies, and multiplied it by Beck? Because I think my highly developed musical palate demands something a little more substantial."
However, I can't quite bring myself to click the button. Because my toe is tapping, and I'm humming along. I look around as if some elder statesman of the eighties D.C. punk scene is lurking in the kitchen, just waiting for me to start rocking out to some pop trash, so he can quietly scoff as I redden with shame.
But there's no one in the kitchen but some babies who really like songs about shoes.