What remains in Pandora’s site? Just the racism
By Phreddy Wischusen
Special to the Michigan Citizen
A few years ago my friend Dan asked me if I had heard of Pandora. Halfway through my pedantic and pretentious one, man reenactment of the Greek myth, Dan graciously interrupted me and said, “It’s an Internet radio site.” He went on to describe how the site builds playlists to a listeners’ musical taste. I was excited to check it out.
Here’s how Pandora.com describes their service:
“Since … 2000, we have been hard at work on the Music Genome Project®. It’s the most comprehensive analysis of music ever undertaken. Together, our team of musician-analysts has been listening to music, one song at a time, studying and collecting literally hundreds of musical details on every track — melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, lyrics … and more!”
Just drop the name of one of your favorite songs, artists or genres into Pandora and let the Music Genome Project go. It will quickly scan its entire world of analyzed music, almost a century of popular recordings — new and old, well-known and completely obscure — to find songs with interesting musical similarities to your choice.
Wow! What a great idea. For years, I had been looking for a way to listen to new/new-to-me music beyond the boundaries of the 40 songs blessed by major corporations currently in hypnotizing rotation on the radio or the forgettable albums momentarily beatified by some snarky Pitchfork writer who’d rather be working at Vice. This site promised to be scientific. Finally, I would get a real and thorough musical education.
I had to test myself. I wanted to try and pick out a single artist that would “seed” the most diverse, exciting Pandora station possible. A station that would introduce me to songs, maybe even genres, I’d never heard before. An artist that had been influenced by so many styles and had influenced so much that I’d be essentially “beating the system,” and I’d have every song in Pandora’s box playing special for me.
Of course, I chose the artist formerly and currently known as Prince.
Maybe the only man in my mind who could possibly outshred Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, who didn’t simply write all of The Time’s songs, he also taught them how to play their instruments, the man who not only created Purple Rain but wrote the songs “Manic Monday” for the Bangles and Sinead O’Connor’s hit “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
A Prince Pandora station had to be the only way for a music lover to stay energized whilst cleaning a Cass Corridor bar from 2-5 a.m.
And this is what I got:
n “1999,” Prince
n “Gotta Give it Up,” Marvin Gaye
n “Rock with You,” Michael Jackson
n “Diamonds and Pearls,” Prince
n “Let’s Get it On,” Marvin Gaye
n “Wanna be Starting Something,” Michael Jackson
n “When Doves Cry,” Prince
n “Dirty Diana,” Michael Jackson
n “Gotta Give it Up,” Marvin Gaye
n “Jungle Love,” The Time
n “Kiss,” Prince
n “ABC” (stripped version mix), Michael Jackson
n “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground,” The Jacksons
Thirteen songs. Only three different artists. No David Bowie or Joni Mitchell. No Jimi Hendrix. No Damon Albarn projects. No Roxy Music. No Parliament. No Rufus or Chaka Khan. Where was Atmosphere or Murs? Thirteen songs deep and Sheila E. hadn’t even shown up to the party. Calling that diverse or scientific or obscure was pure bull—-.
Maybe it was a fluke — I wanted to try one more band, equally influenced by Motown acts, Indian classical music, British theatre songs and so much more.
Here’s the songs Pandora chose for Beatles fans:
n “All my Loving,” The Beatles
n “Yesterday” (Live at NYC), Paul McCartney
n “House of the Rising Sun,” The Animals
n “Stuck in the Middle With You,” Stealers Wheel
n “Fortunate Son,” CCR
n “Long Cool Woman,” The Hollies
n “Help,” The Beatles
n “What is Life,” George Harrison
n “Brown Eyed Girl,” Van Morrison
n “Drive My Car” (Live) Paul McCartney
n “A Day in the Life,” The Beatles
n “California Dreamin’,” The Mamas and the Papas
n “Time of the Season,” The Zombies
For a band that got famous singing the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” and Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” and had Count Basie and Herbie Hancock amongst others cover their work frequently, how was it possible that not only were those artists not represented, but in fact, there were no artists of color represented in any of the first 13 songs (or the next eight for that matter)?
Music is one of the few areas in our society where we seem to be able to transcend race, occasionally. From the use of spirituals performed by every color of musician for every color of ear during the Civil Rights movement and the integration of Benny Goodman’s band touring allwhite clubs in the segregated South 10 years before Jackie Robinson’s major league debut, to Paul Simon’s collaborations with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the first time you heard Dr. Dre and Eminem rapping together on the radio, musicians and music seems to have a magical way of bringing people together across all kinds of boundaries, both real and imagined.
Looking back at Pandora’s description of itself seemed much more ominous, especially the use of the word “genome.” By creating playlists based more on race than style or influence, Pandora marginalizes the extent that Black artists have shaped modern music and subtly reinforces the concept that critically revered artists like the Beatles owe no debts of influence beyond their own genius.
Although Pandora doesn’t spell this out specifically, they are intrinsically playing into that already ubiquitous narrative.
Use of the terms “musical genome” and “comprehensive analysis” makes this obviously biased DJ software sound eerily similar to the pseudo-scientific practice of Eugenics, which white racists used to justify oftentimes deceptive and sometimes forcible sterilization of Native American women in the United States until the 1970s and inspired the Nazis to commence the Holocaust.
As recent as this year, the Israeli government had to open up about its own “Eugenic” policy of sterilizing Ethiopian-born Jews.
I’m not sure how Pandora benefits from this audio-apartheid. Do the record and publishing companies encourage this in order to make oversimplified assumptions about user demographics to sell to advertisers? Or do its analysts simply have an unconscious bias themselves?
What I am sure of is that Pandora’s process silently reinforces the color line within each of us, tragically exploiting music, the language of our hearts and souls, to do so.
It is as important to remain critical of emerging cultural phenomena as it is to vote. Although it may seem trite to try and determine whether or not Pandora is racist, whatever song we are listening to usually has more influence on how we feel at any given moment than the seemingly abstract/distant decisions of our governments.
We are our environment, and the music that comes into our ears is every bit as material and real as the air we breathe and the food we eat. A rich varied diet of music can make our spirits strong and healthy just as mono-musical marketing can leave us spiritually anemic and prejudiced.