So I’ve been messing with Pandora, a new music service.
It’s interesting. Not foolproof, but interesting.The theory goes like this: Have highly experienced musicians overanalyze pop music, identifying its tonal qualities, and based on the qualities you find in a song that the masses (or any given individual) like, predict other songs that will have the same appeal because they share the same tonal qualities.
So I signed on, and it asked me for the name of a band or a song that I liked. So I picked “City of Blinding Lights” by U2 out of the air.
Two songs later, it played “Read ‘Em and Weep” by Meat Loaf.
I gave it a chance. I thought more of Meat Loaf when he was a one-hit wonder than I did after he made that comeback in the ’90s. And this song is the epitome of why.
Let the record state that I don’t like over-the-hill wanna-be hard rockers singing songs that were originally written by Barry Manilow!
Note that I’m emphatic enough on that point to break out the italics and the exclamation point. I’m almost emphatic enough to break out the blink tag.
If I lose coolness points for not liking Meat Loaf-sung Barry Manilow cover tunes, then so be it.
I suppose it did have somewhat similar musical qualities to U2’s City of Blinding Lights. But this just goes to show there’s more to music than just, uh, the music.
To its credit, it did pick out a song by Delirious? that I liked.
But I guess U2 isn’t exactly the best experiment for something like this. While U2 has a reputation for all of its songs sounding the same, any serious U2 fan will point out that it’s several of U2’s hits that sound similar. But if I were to whip out a few of U2’s lesser hits, like, say, “A Day Without Me” off Boy and “The Fly” off Achtung Baby, to name two of the better songs off their two best albums, you might be hard-pressed to identify the band.
And since that’s one of the things I really like about the band, I abandoned the experiment. Tonal qualities alone won’t find another U2.
I forgot about the first time I ever heard “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The reaction? “U2 records albums?” Yes, when I was 13, I thought U2 just toured and put on political demonstrations and that making records was an afterthought.
Sometimes the appeal isn’t just the music and how it’s played. Need another example? Anyone care to do a survey of how many people watch Jessica Simpson music videos with the volume muted?
So now that I’ve talked about why Pandora can’t work, let’s talk about when it does work.
After the Meat Loaf indignity, I typed in “What About Everything, Carbon Leaf” into Pandora. And it came back and said it didn’t know that song. So I just typed in “Carbon Leaf.” It came back and described Carbon Leaf as a band that uses subtle harmonies, electric instruments up front, a mixture of acoustic and electric in back, and prominent percussion.
I’d never thought about it that way, but that was what made the band catch my ear in the first place. The line “What about aeroplanes?” had a lot to do with it too, but Pandora’s technical description tells how the band said, “What about aeroplanes?” Had it been Pantera asking “What about aeroplanes?” I probably wouldn’t have liked it as much.
But when I think about the alt-rock that was being recorded in the early 1990s, before it became all-grunge-all-the-time, that description of Carbon Leaf pretty much could apply to the songs by Sugar, Material Issue, Aimee Mann, The Connells, and, for that matter, even Weezer, that I liked.
So out of curiosity, I punched in “The Sisters of Mercy.” It came back and asked if that was a song or a band. I had the band in mind, rather than the Leonard Cohen song. Leonard Cohen is an example of someone whose lyrics I like, even when I often don’t like the music.
It identified the Sisters of Mercy as having hard rock roots, electronica influences, and an emphasis on minor key tones. Fair enough.
Problem is, it gave me Pig Society by Dope, Loco by Coal Chamber, and Set Me Free by Velvet Revolver, followed by Big Truck by Coal Chamber (which sounded like a monster truck rally).
How much does Andrew Eldritch know about monster trucks, anyway?
Once I gave it enough thumbs-downs, it tried Sonic Youth on me. Sonic Youth isn’t very goth, but it’s a much better fit than something called “Big Truck.”
So I decided to see what it said about Joy Division. “Punk influences, mild rhythmic syncopation, extensive vamping, electronica influences, and minor key tonality,” it said. OK, basically Sisters of Mercy minus the heavy metal with a little punk instead? I’ll buy that. I let it play. So far, no songs about monster trucks, but the songs it did play were songs I wouldn’t mind hearing again. Tactic learned: If you punch in one band and don’t like what it finds you, punch in the name of a somewhat similar band and see what it finds.
For entertainment value, I have to give Pandora some props. Sometimes the entertainment value is unintentional. But hey, even Babe Ruth only hit a home run 8.5% of the time. There are worse ways to discover new music than this.
Like turning on the radio, for instance.