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Charlie Hatton
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Howdy, friendly reading person!
I'm on a bit of a hiatus right now, but only to work on other projects -- one incredibly exciting example being the newly-released kids' science book series Things That Make You Go Yuck!
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Boxing with Pandora

Recently, I rediscovered Pandora.

In case you’ve been hiding under an internet rock for the past four years or so, Pandora is a web site that aims to replace that snotty artsy kid you knew back in high school. The one who used to say, ‘Oh, well, if you like R.E.M., then you’d probably get into this other band I know, because they sound a lot alike‘. Or ‘Sure, “Jeremy” is your favorite song now. But I can name six obscure songs you’ll like even better, for all the same reasons.

Luckily, Pandora manages to do this without the obligatory, ‘Of course, you have the musical taste of a retarded house plant. But if that’s what you want to waste your life listening to…

The way I understand it, somebody has dumped a truckload of artists and songs into Pandora’s database thingy, and listed a bunch of musical attributes for each song. These might be things like ‘Well-Articulated Electric Guitar Solo’, ‘Use of Horn Accents’, or ‘Whacked-Out Frontman Screaming Like a Neutered Banshee’.

Okay, I made that last one up. Though it might fall somewhere between ‘Emotional Male Lead Vocal Performance’ and ‘Breathy Male Lead Vocalist’, both of which are actual Pandora attributes. Steven Tyler can rest easy tonight.

“I’m not saying it’s unpossible for one person to be a fan of Cake, Johnny Cash and a CSNY alum. All I’m saying is that person would probably be highly mentally unstable and prone to violent mood swings.”

That’s where you come in, and tell Pandora to play you music that sounds like Camper van Beethoven or Soul Coughing or the Replacements. Or even something that was written in the current millennium — if that’s what you want to waste your life listening to, I guess. Pandora then matches up the attributes in the stuff you like, beeps and boops through the database of other songs with the same qualities, and pops ’em out for you one by one, like a parade of freshly baked musical pies to be savored and enjoyed.

That’s how it works in theory, anyway. In practice, it takes just a little bit of tweaking.

Take Cake, for instance. Sort of a quirky, sometimes staccato, offbeat pop outfit. I fed a couple of their songs to Pandora a while back. And, for about half the songs it spat back, it gave me what I wanted. Some downtempo Cracker. A Robyn Hitchcock tune. Something by a band called Spinning Jennies. More Cake. Good stuff.

But in the first dozen or so songs, I also got Neil Young, Extreme, and Johnny Cash. Not what I wanted, so much. I’m not saying it’s unpossible for one person to be a fan of Cake, Johnny Cash and a CSNY alum. All I’m saying is that person would probably be highly mentally unstable and prone to violent mood swings. I wouldn’t sit next to them at a concert. That’s all I’m getting at.

Luckily, Pandora offers a way to remove these unwanted songs — and that’s both its greatest strength and glaring weakness, in my mind. For each song, you’re given the opportunity to vote ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’. Give it the former, and the system might key in on the attributes in that song just a little more in future. Decide the latter, and the song will stop playing immediately, and never darken the aural door of your music channel again.

It’s a nice system, in that you can encourage Pandora — or slap it on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper — when a song makes a strong impression. Only, it’s not an all or nothing world out there. Of all the musical pies sliding by on the windowsill, precious few are flavored white or black; most are somewhere in between. The only current option for these is to let them lilt past, making no comment or judgment whatsoever. Boooo-ring.

(Actually, I lie, just a little bit. You actually can do two other things to the song: tell Pandora not to play it again for a month — effectively relegating it to radio purgatory for a while — or you can move the song to a different station. So if your Mozart keeps playing on your Beethoven station, and your Beethoven keeps playing on your Brahms station, you can swap concertos around until everyone’s in their proper place.

I don’t know if this ever happens, frankly. There’s definitely no Cake going on in my Beat Farmers station, and they both stay far the hell away from my Juno Reactor mix. I think it helps to have wildly varying musical preferences, and to keep them all partitioned off from each other.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Mentally unstable, violent mood swings, don’t sit next to, yadda yadda yadda. Smartass.)

Anyway, I often find songs moving me not to an ‘Ooooh, play me more!‘ nor a ‘Begone, foul clatter!‘ So in addition to the ‘thumbs up’ and ‘thumbs down’, I’d like to see the following options added to the interface:

Play at double speed‘: It’s a fine song, but it’s kind of slow and boring. Even with Chipmunk lyrics, I think it would improve.

Translate into Swedish‘: Sometimes the music rocks, but the lyrics are just crap. In a language I can’t understand, maybe it’d sound mysterious. Or at least remind me I need to run to Ikea.

Fade out after the first four minutes‘: Some songs just need to get through the second chorus and stop there. I’m happy for your tambourine player that he can solo for forty-eight measures while the rest of you take a break. Just keep that crap out of the recording studio, and we’ll get along fine.

Play with pretentious filter on‘: The music’s fine, the lyrics are fine… but does the singer have to sound so frigging smug all the time? I might as well be listening to that artsy jackass from high school. Or Sinead O’Connor. Amp it down for me, computer whizzes.

Play again tomorrow afternoon when the Goth chick at work is around‘: I’m not after the girl or anything. I just need some street cred from the whippersnappers at my office is all. I’m pretty sure they think I listen to Lawrence Welk. On a Sony Walkman. That plays LPs. In mono. Snarky little punks.

Buy from Amazon, then erase from history‘: Look, nobody but me and my credit card company need to know about the Thompson Twins, all right? Just be cool, for crissakes.

Burn the artist’s studio‘: Reserved for boy bands and bubblegum pop divas only. Could also use a ‘Administer thermonuclear wedgie(s)‘ option, for borderline cases.

Loop continuously at seven thirty in the morning‘: Might be something really loud. Might be something really awful. Might be something featuring a whacked-out frontman screaming like a neutered banshee. But there are precious few songs in the world that will compel me to get out of bed before eight am to make them stop. I’d kind of like to keep track of those.

I think that about covers it. I mean, I like Pandora now, but just a couple of quick new functions like these would put it over the top. Where’s that ‘Web 2.0’ stuff when you really need it?

Permalink  |  3 Comments

3 Responses to “Boxing with Pandora”

  1. Monkey says:

    Well, I like CSNY AND Cake AND Johnny Cash AND I’ll cut your face. Isn’t it just so very lovely to be right?

  2. ettarose says:

    I am so out there as far as location. Yes I will admit it to you and you only I “sob” am on dial up. I can only listen to a play list on media player stolen from others. I featured you in Sunday Silliness by the way.

  3. Charlie says:

    Monkey: Yes, but I’m not entirely right. Because you know I would totally sit next to you at a concert.

    Unless it was Neil Young. Or Johnny Cash. But still. I’d totally wait in the car for you.

    Etta: Say it ain’t so! Dialup in this day and age? We’ve got to get you a satellite uplink or highspeed carrier pigeon feed or something.

    And thanks for the Sunday Silliness mention! Sublimely superlative, as suspected. Slainte!

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