Thursday, August 11, 2011

Hang the DJ (8 June 2010)

How can this possibly be true?
“Of the twenty hours a week that an average American spends listening to music, only three of it is stuff you own. The rest is radio,” Tim Westergren told me.

That's from Sasha Frere-Jones's New Yorker article about Pandora. I suppose I am blinkered by my own habits. The amount of time I listen to the radio is generally limited to the time I am trapped in environments playing the radio (e.g., the supermarket on the corner near my apartment, the barber shop, etc.). I don't spend much time in cars, which is where I once listened to the radio, mainly on car trips back and forth from Tucson to Phoenix and Las Vegas. That was mainly to alleviate boredom while traveling alone; trying to find a listenable song is a way to stay awake. All of that has made me feel somewhat alienated from the culture in which I live.

What songs DJs play on the radio are the result of a variety of institutional forces -- playlists, payola, personal preferences, radio station formats -- which is what makes those songs listenable, I think. They encode the zeitgeist, balancing various social pressures and contextual factors, expressing market forces as well as advancing certain trends while leaving a window of theoretical possibility for individual expression and taste. The medium of radio posits a collective audience that can be pleasurable to join or judge, or both. It allows for passive participation in something beyond oneself.

Frere-Jones lauds an online music service: "In some ways, it’s an improvement on the radio model: the number of potentially appealing d.j.s here dwarfs what you might have once found on radio." But that seems backwards -- his assumption that we want more options to suit our individual niche when we listen to the radio seems wrong. I don't think we care as much about hearing something we like than we do about exposing ourselves to what's going on in the world. Listening to the radio feels like cultural participation precisely because the options are limited. If one can choose from a huge number of stations, one doesn't end up with the feeling of participating in culture -- instead one seems to be escaping from it (to where?). The limited number of stations mimics the limits our cultural context puts on our identity. The boundaries are necessary to create a sense of belonging to something, of being something in particular. If "what's on the radio nowadays" becomes an unbounded set of songs, the radio becomes useless as a cultural barometer. And music itself becomes less intrinsic to social life, the more choices there are about what to listen to.

So I am skeptical that DJs will ever be replaced by computer-generated, Pandora-like applications that try to play what you as an individual really want and like. Listening to music is only partially about expressing an individual taste. It also about reading the collective mind, belonging to it, participating in a cultural conversation that one needs DJs (or perhaps other consumers that the Internet could connect us with) to moderate to believe that they exist. The iTunes autofill playlists put me into a conversation with an opaque algorithm that tends to infuriate more than anything else. (Hey, "Genius": Please stop playing Three Dog Night.)

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