Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Best Best Way To Listen To Music


Even as we speak, I am engaging in one of the few hobbies that I still engage in.

Or do I have only a few hobbies left? I'm not sure, since I'm not sure what counts as a hobby and since I don't keep track of all my 'hobbies.' I went running at the club last night -- well, jogging, on the treadmill -- but that doesn't count as a hobby because I don't like to do it, and a hobby is supposed to be something I like, isn't it? The only thing I like about running is when it's done. Specifically, I like to raise my hands in victory as I complete my goal, which may look silly if I'm running on a treadmill, but when else am I going to get to raise my hands in victory as I complete something?

Actually, I do that quite a bit. Among the many things I try to factor into my life are the rules 1. Treat life like a vacation: take lots of pictures and enjoy a snack now and then, and 2. Raise your arms in victory when you reach a goal. It works, too: As un-enjoyable as it may ordinarily be to have to vacuum up the torn-up newspaper and cookie crumbs that litter our living room after dinner, it becomes slightly more enjoyable if, after completing the vacuuming, I lift up my arms in victory. Try it yourself. Whatever you're working on right now -- or whatever you should be working on while you read this, when you're done with it, raise your arms up in victory as though you've just crossed the finish line in the 100-yard dash. I bet you'll feel a little better about yourself.

So: Hobbies. My hobbies these days are generally writing, running (I guess), occasionally cooking pizza, and playing various versions of what is essentially the same game with Mr F and Mr Bunches. But to those hobbies, I can now add:

Trying to turn one Pandora Station Into Another.

"Pandora" is the internet music service that lets you customize your music listening by putting in a song you like or an artist you like, and it then plays a lot of songs by that artist and other songs that it decides are musically or thematically similar to the song/artist you chose.

Which is to say: If you type "Christmas Is A Time To Say I Love You" into the box that tells you to choose an artist or song, you'll be creating a random playlist that will give you a lot of rockin' Christmas songs and will generally avoid the whole "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire" style of song.

So that's good, good enough to have Pandora be The Best Way To Listen To Music, but Pandora goes a little further, and I go a little further yet.

Pandora lets you vote on the songs you hear then, after you create your "station." By clicking thumbs up or thumbs down, you can shape the radio station yourself, make it better and more focused by getting rid of, say, every single version of "Jingle Bell Rock" off of your "Billy Squier Christmas Song" playlist, while adding in songs that you like even though you didn't think that you'd like them.

And that's better, because just simply typing in a song on Pandora is good -- is the best, in fact, way to listen to music because you can spend all day listening to music that's going to be pretty close to what you want to hear that day. If you like, for example, "Noah & The Whale," and create a radio station based on them, you get a lot of "Noah & The Whale" and you get a lot of "Noah & The Whale" type music. But you'll have some stuff, inevitably, slip through and irritate you, jog you out of your "Noah & The Whale-ish" bliss, so the ability to thumbs-down that song and get rid of it and its ilk is an improvement, making Pandora actually The Best Better Way To Listen To Music.

But even with that, even with Pandora being better than your own iPod because you'll get to hear new music that's similar to what you like without having to sit through DJs and songs by Jason Mraz like you would if you ever listened to radio that wasn't talk radio, even with all of that, Pandora can and has been gone one better, because with Pandora you can actually toy around with music and see if you can combine genotypes and cross-pollinate your music and hone it down to the perfect slice of music , the musical equivalent of cold Rocky Rococo's sausage and onion pizza -- trying to create a playlist of songs each of which is perfect.

Which is what I spend a lot of time doing these days, or did spend a lot of time doing these days before I found something even more fun and more challenging. I'd start up my computer in the morning and create a station and then throughout the day try to hone that station on Pandora so that I never ever heard a song that in any way jarred me out of the mood I was trying to create with that station -- while still letting me hear new music mixed in with familiar music.

I got good at that, too -- thereby creating a skill for the 21st century, a skill that has never existed before but which someday might actually be part of the criteria for a job, that skill being the honing of music: I became able to tell, within a few seconds, whether a song would fit into a given station or playlist and what the effect of thumbs-upping or thumbs-downing that song would be -- whether it would further perfect the playlist in the same way that butter perfects popcorn, or whether it would throw it into chaos the way left turns destroy traffic patterns.

Then I got bored. It was too easy. I've got "Paul Simon" stations and "Mika" stations and "Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You Stations" and about 15 in all, each of which is perfectly tuned to reflect a given mood. If I come into work and it's a "The Shins" kind of day, I can click on my "Shins" playlist and know that all day long I'll be feeling Shin-ny and that nothing will jar me out of that. I have hit a level of station-shaping that will qualify me to serve as a consultant for that in the future.

(Wouldn't that be a phenomenal way to earn a living? Q: What do you do? A: Oh, I travel around to people's homes and offices and set up the perfect Pandora stations for them. I earn about $20,000,000 per year. Q: Is there any downside? A: Not really, unless you count the fact that I know EXACTLY how many people out there really like Justin Timberlake's music. That causes me to lose a little sleep at night.)

Since I don't yet have that job and therefore that mock interview has not yet taken place, I tried something new: crossing playlists. (Insert incredibly dated don't cross the streams joke here. Is it possible that joke is so dated that it's come back around and it's cool again?)(Also, if you don't get that joke, aren't you a little young to be reading a blog? Shouldn't you be texting people while driving dangerously, or pretending you're too old to watch Hannah Montana anymore, or whatever it is young people do today?)

Here's what I do: I put in an artist, like "Cloud Cult." I then listen to that playlist for a while and shape it a bit... then I put in a different artist, one that's not very similar to that artist, like, say, "The Housemartins," and listen to that for a while. I alternate back and forth, and try to turn one playlist into the other. Through choosing "Cloud Cult" type of songs, deliberately shaping the musical playlist, I try to get it to mutate to the point where it's also a Housemartin's playlist -- while still allowing me to like the playlist.

It's kind of like being a mad scientist creating new species, only instead of "mad scientist" I'm more of a "bored, music-loving lawyer" and instead of cool new species that I could set loose on my enemies and/or give to friends as pets, I get a cool new playlist of music to listen to in between phone calls that interrupt me and take me away from creating those cool new playlists... but otherwise, it's pretty much exactly like the "mad scientist" thing.

Which is one of the reasons why Mutating Pandora Stations is The Best Best Way To Listen To Music-- that mad scientist feel is what pushes it over the top. That, and it gives me a bizarre sense of accomplishment -- bizarre because there's really no point to it, when I think about it. There's no reason to try to turn my "New Pornographers" radio station into a "Queen" radio station, other than to see if I can do it. If I want a "Queen" radio station, I can just create one, but that's not the point. The point is to see if I can get there from here, and isn't that, actually, not bizarre? Isn't that a major part of existence for humans? To see if we can do something not because it benefits humanity or has a tangible result, but simply to challenge ourselves and see if it can be done? Isn't that why people climb mountains, run marathons, eat that entire bag of Skittles, to see if it can be done? Don't we want to be more than mere spectators, don't we want to feel that there is more to life than simply trading this for that, working to make money, cooking to have a meal? Isn't part of the nicer side of life the idea that as higher life forms, as sapient creatures who are self-aware, we can create art, we can sculpt, we can paint, we can sing -- we can do things for the simple pleasure of doing them, for the simple pleasure of realizing that we have done them?

Isn't life, in short, at least in part about raising my hands in victory because my "David Bowie Radio Station" is now identical to my "Bronski Beat" Radio Station? Or, if not that, then, isn't life at least in part about trying to conflate what we do in our spare time into something important, trying to ascribe significance to even the most minute action we take, trying to achieve something of significance even if we've never achieved anything of significance?

And haven't I done just that, here, by getting you thinking about whether you could mutate a Pandora station into a different Pandora station -- thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, taking my own downtime activity and transforming it into something that you'll now spend time wondering if you could do it, and if you are wondering if you could do it, doesn't that mean that you are both thinking about it and wondering whether you might not be able to do it? And doesn't that mean that you are acknowledging that my ... hobby... is in fact a challenging activity that is worthy of some level of respect? So haven't I won?

Hey, you have your victories, I have mine.



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1 comment:

Lisa said...

Being the sort of person who raises his hands in victory when he accomplishes a goal is a beautiful thing. Let's face it, it's why the Japanese guy is everyone's favorite on "Heroes." Come to think of it, a music-loving lawyer who could run really fast and would raise his hands in victory when he defeats a bad guy would be a cool superhero. Way cooler than that politician who can fly but almost never does. What was his name again? Oh yeah. Al Gore.