Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pandora is chafing my ass

If you are reading this on a computer or other electronic device rather than a papyrus scroll, chances are you are familiar with the "internet radio" website, Pandora.  The premise of this site is that you type in a number of your favorite musical artists or songs, and then the secret algorithm of its "Music Genome Project" pinpoints the commonalities of those artists or songs and finds others that share similar elements, creating a playlist that is scientifically formulated to blow your mind.

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
Peter Himmelman
The Great Lakes Swimmers
Imagination Movers
Groovy Ruby
Andy Mason
Van Oodles
Mr. Mocos

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.

Just because I like Squirrel Nut Zippers doesn't mean I like every cheesy swing revival act like Bill Wyman's Boring Old Geezer Band or whatever it's called.

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.  





  1. My husband is a fan of Pandora, I am not. I think I have a control issue over what songs I am in the mood to listen to.

  2. I have never been able to stick with Pandora for myself but I am going to try it for the kids! Never even thought of that.

  3. I've never tried Pandora and I doubt I will, but this was quite amusing.

    If I put that much thought into musical choices, I doubt I'd ever listen to anything. I listen to a little of everything and I love music in general. I think people that are too picky probably don't get near as much enjoyment out of it as I do.

  4. Just "met" Pandora over the weekend and was (easily) impressed, although I have to admit that I, too, would rather quickly why it's not pointing out anything truly new to me...


  5. @Nubian--At least you can pass on the songs you hate. Otherwise it's kinda like radio.

    @Carebear--It really is great for the kids! I'm so glad I started using it for them.

    @OTO--I'm not really as much of a music snob as I made myself out to be in this post. I only get weird about it because it's supposedly tailor-made for my taste. If I'm listening to the radio, or at a bar, I'll say, "Phht. This music sucks." And then I'll sing along with it.

    @Pearl--I hope if I keep tweaking it, it will start feeding me some new stuff.

  6. If Pandora plays for me "Cold Play" one more time I may lose a gasket. How many times do I have to do the thumbs down on that band? Why "Cold Play" Why?

  7. Pandora lost me they decided: "If you like THE SMITHS, then you'll probably like AIR SUPPLY! Enjoy!!!"

    (Ok, that's a slight exaggeration. I forget what their actual recommended next artist was, but I'm not far off.)

  8. Wait a minute--"Beta Dad" comes in papyrus? How do I subscribe?

  9. Try this alternative to Pandora: Songza Sets
    (founded by my former student/still current new music guru).

    Real sets compiled by real people (one of whom is said student).

  10. Other "kids' music that doesn't suck" (that's the genre name we came up with for it):

    "For The Kids" is a *great* compilation that includes some of those you named (Cake does "Mahna Mahna," for example; and Guster's "Got to be Clean" is a favorite).

    Other artists:
    Jessica Harper ("Rhythm in My Shoes" album)
    Renee & Jeremy ("It's A Big World"--quiet duets recorded in their home)
    The Terrible Twos ("If You See An Owl")
    Steve Songs ("Marvelous Day" and "Flying Guitar" albums; also great live shows)
    Dan Zanes, most of his stuff.
    Trout Fishing in America ("Family Music Party," a live album, is one of our favorites)

    "Songs from the Neighborhood" is a mixed bag of Mister Rogers songs by pop artists.

    Also try:
    Shrek 2 soundtrack
    Frog & Toad broadway musical soundtrack

    And for the best lullabies ever:
    Bejing Angelic Choir (their 1995 album, not the later one). This album was my best friend for two long years. Its melodies still run deep in my blood....

  11. Pandora is not available in Canada but I probably wouldn't have a problem with its annoying recommendations. As a teen growing up in the 1980s and despite having a university degree I pretty much have no musical taste. I love a really cheesy one-hit wonder such as "I Ran" by A Flock of Seagulls just as much as I do a classic Neil Young song. Yeah. I know. It's tragic.

  12. A clarification:
    The Beijing Angelic Choir you want is called "Chinese Lullabies" (Wind Records, 1996, ASIN: B000005AS1).

    You might also try their album "Lullabies from Around the World" (most of the clips online sound pretty good, w/ the exception of some cheesy talking--"Hushabye, don't you cry..."--in one of them). Both these albums are choral music w/ strings etc.

    You do not want any of their other eight(!) albums, which are synth-driven "ethnic"/"traditional" pap and cannot be called Kids' Music That Doesn't Suck.

  13. Also: re: Flock of Seaguls: Don't forget about "Space Age Love Song." That's two hits.

  14. I have a love/hate relationship with Pandora. Once in a while they'll offer up a new band/song that interests me, but more times than not they just play the same suggestions over and over. Most aggravating though, I don't feel like I can listen to Pandora casually. What if let a horrid song slip by without down-thumbing it?! Oh god, it could ruin all the voting I've worked so hard at thus far!

  15. It's always very hit or miss. I seem to find that no matter what I seed my stations with, eventually they all get narrowed down to playing the same 4 or 5 bands. And I have a *very* open taste in music with very little guilt-driven decisions being made. I dunno. It's usually okay when I don't want to have to pay attention.

  16. I haven't tried Pandora. Not sure I want to, now. The iTunes "Genius" is annoying enough for me.

    Also, I think that in a blog post, "air quotes", can just be rendered as "".

  17. @troutfang ~ just checked out songza ~ the choices must make sense to them, but to me it doesn't. Maybe they need to beta test on brunettes that were born blond and in the 40-45 age group ;~) (and before anyone starts yelling I was born blond, but am now a brunette)

  18. great post!

    And I love that you love(d) Prince. I definitely wore a raspberry beret to Cox arena when he toured a few years back. And now that raspberry beret lives at Buffalo Exchange on Garnet Avenue, where it certainly has not been purchased yet.

  19. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I also find Pandora to be oddly gender based. You like Kristin Hersh? Why then you're sure to like Alanis Morrissett. Cause, you know, she has boobs. You say you like Paul Simon? Have you heard of Neil Young? He pees standing up too.


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