Music and You (and Everyone Else)

Music and You (and Everyone Else)

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Why do you like the music you like? It’s a hard question to answer, and it’s only getting harder as advanced suggestion algorithms show us anything and everything, relegating personal taste to a footnote. Is it all just random chance?

I’ve heard many variations of the statement “at any given time on a city street, you’re being recorded by X number of surveillance cameras without your knowledge.” It’s a sobering thought, and in terms of human obliviousness, it holds more weight than the spider-swallowing hypothesis. But on that very same city street you will also hear music you find horrid, bland, or simply “not your speed.” This raises fewer alarms, and the security implications are less urgent, but it should speak to your ego in much the same way. Once you realize the endless train of sounds coming from stores, offices, and public spaces, you may feel unfairly controlled. To make it worse, this broad environmental soundtrack is often put out of the hands of any decision maker and into the brain of a computer. In this moment of abundant choice and endless personal curation of art, brushes with other people’s algorithms remind us first of our own flawless taste, and then later of our great, common unexceptionalism. This forces us, kicking and screaming, to consider ourselves part of a broad “public.”

To digest this, it’s helpful to step off any street and into a workplace bathroom, where one music suggestion algorithm has carved out a cozy niche for itself. We, the living, know that there are plenty of good reasons we have little seasonal music for Halloween. Notably, there is no canon, and those songs which do exist (“The Monster Mash,” cuts from novelty CDs, etc.) do little to lubricate the shopping experience. So I was surprised to learn that a friend of mine had begun hearing Halloween music in the bathroom at work. The updates I received made me more and more concerned. First, it was the soundtrack from slasher film Halloween—surprising, but not downright objectionable. Then there was the Eraserhead score, best described as an extended, whooshing death rattle. And on October 23, I received word that “they’re just playing screaming voices.” Without overstating it, I think that is by far the worst noise to play in that or any setting. And while it’s odd for a buttoned-up corporation to allow itself to descend into this kind of madness, it’s odder still to think of the macro-level input that led to the moment of the screams. Splitting the middle of the entire populace ended up with an accurate interpretation of the holiday, but managed to reinforce the idea in every bathroom patron that they were not the intended audience.

Bus passengers in Russia, photo by Ilya Plekhanov

Backing up, we can examine the foundational feeling that comes along with hearing something you would prefer not to. It’s a familiar progression from righteousness to denial of the music’s merits to a tidy finishing touch of confirmation bias. Say someone is playing music on the bus. It’s a practice generally disliked and against the posted rules. Most passengers ignore it, but a few make their concerns known. They perk up at the violation of an unspoken agreement. The utter vitriol directed toward the person with the boombox is not random, and instead more symptomatic of the aggressor’s simmering unhappiness about being on the bus in the first place. Having given up their personal space through clenched teeth, they are looking for an outlet for their anger. A few weeks ago, I heard a woman yell to the bus driver to somehow punish the loud offender because they had been “at it for half an hour.” It had been two minutes, and everyone was perfectly aware of that, but it didn’t matter. All it takes is a slight push to activate a common anger.

The bus is a public place in which passengers shut themselves down to briefly foray into the company of strangers. And just as they all internally cling to their capacity to choose for themselves, consumers on the whole have long valued the same thing. Visualizing our own agency in the wider media landscape is a story of vacillating between two poles. When choice is abundant, choice will be limited. And when choice is limited, we should expect it again in spades. Following the explosion of broadcast media in the early 20th century, consumption choices were limited to certain frequencies, and what you picked up on your receiver was all you’d get. But as recorded music became cheaper and anyone could buy it, choice was regained. And years later, as television grew more and more centralized, along came cable to blow it all apart. Now, the viewer would see only what they wanted, bravely fighting back the expansion of top-down network decision making. Once folks were comfortable with cable, it relaxed into a familiar model and we were once again left with little choice. Now, television streaming services, originally billed on their a la carte design and radical envisioning of viewer choice, are consolidating into networks, which can then be bundled like cable. In this expanding/contracting narrative, our desire to choose is obvious to those in power, and this desire will forever be exploited.

Approximation of a suggestion algorithm, adapted from Spotify

With that in mind, we can apply the self-righteous reaction to the experience of listening to an in-store soundtrack. That music you hear is not your own. You’ve stepped into an unfamiliar place. But the pop is unavoidable because its methods are the same as those you use to listen to any other genre, be it alternative rock, jazz, or classical. When you hear the end product of the algorithm, you begin to realize the weakness of your own place in the chain of decision making. Yes, we’re at a point where we must live and die by the algorithm, and we’ve kicked out the uncompromising radio disc jockeys of days gone by. But it’s easy to misapply the value of choice when it comes to the consumption of art. We will always point to the general public before ourselves and our own basic tendencies which inevitably tend toward the norm. Our private behavior is a mystery to ourselves and is in fact what’s being picked up by the algorithm. Instead of bypassing our shame, coming to terms with our own mystifying conditions of choice is essential.

As for the screaming voices, it doesn’t seem so strange in this light. In fact, it’s a great example of one of the endless variations that are allowed. When everything is allowable, we flail in just the same way as the algorithm does, reaching vainly for something out of our reach. Contrary to its reputation as a top 40 aggregator, it thrives on being indiscriminate. Picking and choosing our “taste” for ourselves appears to mean little when we operate just like the automated suggestion algorithms we distrust. When we see a total abdication of choice producing similar results, we see it in ourselves as well. Not only are we then unhappy with our choices, we see the futility of escape. In a system that purposely makes provisions for everything, we are encouraged to collapse into the public. There’s a positive feedback loop of seeing the encroaching wave of automatic art selection, then joining it. With any luck, our firm-headed desire to express independence will dissolve and die off.

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