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In Defense of the Robo-DJ

Trust Me, I'm a Doctor
Trust Me, I'm a Doctor
Probing philistine cultural phenomena
In Defense of the Robo-DJ
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The other day I was driving home from work and I noticed one of my neighbors out in the driveway struggling with her garbage can.  I had never seen her before, but she looked pretty wobbly and definitely in trouble so I ran over to give her a hand.  As I slowly walked backwards down her driveway, pulling the garbage can with one hand and supporting her with the other, she whispered: “I’m 101.  It’s hell to get old.”

So next week I celebrate my 33rd birthday.  I like to flatter myself that I am entering my peak, my Christological and physical apex; that my early thirties are when everything comes together and I am firing on all cylinders.  I like to think that I’m only one third of the way through life. 

 

The author

 

Telling myself these things make me feel better about pissing away a good chunk of my twenties, and also take the sting off realizing that finally, officially, I need to give up my dream of playing in the NBA because I’ve reached retirement age.

 

Not the author, sadly

 

But the reality is that whether I’ve peaked or am about to peak (or will never peak), a lot of things probably aren’t getting better from here.  I will probably never dunk or have Bradley Cooper’s hair.  I will get shorter, heavier, weaker, slower, and both balder and hairier in all the wrong places.  I will get grouchier and more obtuse, and less likely to change my philosophical perspective on life.  If the studies are correct I will, sadly, get more liberal and probably less hilarious.  By the time I reach 101 I will either be dead or stranded in the middle of my driveway, holding onto my garbage can like a life raft.

 

Hopefully dead

 

In between now and then, I will also become more out of touch with fashion, arts, music, and culture.  Some day I will be playing space golf in a flannel shirt, jorts, and Doc Martens (you know, that hilarious 1990s apparel that all old people will wear), probably listening to Wilco and Smashing Pumpkins on the oldies space radio station while some young space punks roll their eyes as I nine-putt.  This cultural regression will be partly due to a lack of interest, but also partially due to limited resources and other time-consuming aspects of life.  And let’s face it – to an extent this is only normal.  Don’t you get weirded out by a middle-aged guy who loves teen pop?  Would you be impressed by a senior citizen who’s into hip hop?  Not normal, right?  Not appropriate.  I’m ok with that.

 

Lose the bling, Coolio

 

But I’m not that old yet, and there’s a lot of music left for me to discover in the meantime.  Thanks to the internet and advances in home recording technology, there has been an artistic Cambrian Explosion in the last 10 years.  As we all know, monolithic record labels are becoming irrelevant and artists are learning how to connect directly with fans online.  The fragmentation of the music industry has resulted in plenty of new good music for everyone, even old folks like me (and I don’t just mean the new Barry Manilow album).  There is a lot of music being made that does not depend on being youthful or rebellious to be compelling and engage people in my demographic.  The problem for me is that finding and sorting through this massive universe of music takes time and effort that I, for one, have not been willing or able to invest.

As has been discussed elsewhere on the Mule, we used to discover music by listening to the radio, reading music magazines, hanging out at record stores, going to shows, and talking to friends – all things that I basically no longer do.  These outlets ostensibly enabled us to both discover and focus on the best music out there.  They provided a finite, manageable stream of artists to check out.  But as I lost touch with these music discovery sources for one reason or another over the last decade, there was a period of about five years when I had virtually no knowledge of any new music.  I can count on my hands the number of new albums I owned during the middle of the 2000’s – almost none of which were purchased by me.  Most were gifts from friends whom I very rarely saw.  There were a few newer bands in there (Postal Service, Arcade Fire, The Shins, Sufjan Stevens, etc.), but my knowledge began and ended with these particular albums or songs.  Had I the time or the motivation, I suppose I could have researched the bands online and discovered similar artists and genres.  But I did not.

 

Wall Street is calling…. This “Fleet Foxes” fellow will have to wait

 

Everything began to change for me a couple years ago when I was introduced to Pandora.  I sowed the seeds of my few new favorites (Vampire Weekend, Phoenix, Youth Group, The Appleseed Cast, Regina Spektor) and reaped a bountiful harvest of bands like The Kooks, Feist, Mint, Bloc Party, Camera Obscura, Maritime, Minus the Bear, We Were Promised Jet Packs, Passion Pit, MGMT, Faunts, Coconut Records, Rogue Wave, The Submarines, and Arctic Monkeys.  I was thrilled to discover an entire universe of great bands doing their thing and making music that was delightfully accessible while also original and artistically credible.

 

Eureka!

 

Without Pandora I would never have discovered any of these artists.  Nonetheless, I occasionally experience an underlying feeling that there is something inauthentic about technology like Pandora.  It used to take work to discover obscure or unappreciated artists.  I remember schlepping around record stores in the Boston area in the late 90s searching in vain for a rare bootleg of The Meters.  And… it just took me two minutes to find it online.  I remember paying over $20 during the same era for a bootleg copy of the Traveling Wilburys’ Volume 1 after a similarly extensive search.  Again, download it here at your leisure.  (Why I was expending so much energy on these particular albums is an embarrassing question that I’m not sure I can answer).  But now, with a few clicks of a mouse, a few keystrokes – I am suddenly an indie scenester, a maven of obscure geniuses, an expert in the esoteric.  In five minutes I am as conversant in a band’s body of work as the fans that nurtured and loved them from their first shows.

 

Nobody cares if you were there, you tool

 

So despite its convenience and obvious utility, sometimes it feels like cheating to let a computer program – an algorithm – determine what I listen to.

But it isn’t.

Let’s face it – even in the days before the internet our music was filtered and fed to us.  Major labels determined which artists would record albums, and most of the rest went undiscovered and unknown; of the few bands with recording contracts, radio stations decided which ten to play and which 100 to ignore (often with the guiding influence of payola).  KROQ, Rolling Stone and Newbury Comics featured the bands they wanted to feature – and you would never hear of the rest. 

Instead of being fed ten or twenty of the “best” bands around, you now have access to thousands of bands that would never have existed in the good old days.  You are provided this music by an impersonal computer who isn’t being bribed or limited by management and corporate policies or trying to force its own ideological agenda on you – it’s just spinning tunes kind of like the ones you said you liked already.  And now it’s up to you to think for yourself and decide what is and is not worth listening to.  I think it’s irrelevant how music is delivered or discovered – whether Pandora, word of mouth, or Rolling Stone.  In this new organic, farm-to-table music industry, art is freely available and the only critic that matters is the consumer.

 

Hey kids, get a free rutabaga when you preorder Iron & Wine’s new limited edition vinyl EP

 

It’s undeniably a different paradigm, and one that causes a distinct sense of unease for those of us that came of age in an earlier time.  I suspect this is kind of how the typing pool felt about the word processor, how scribes felt about Gutenberg, and how horses felt about Henry Ford.  Those who champion doing things “the right way” or romanticize “how it used to be” are often really only saying that if something becomes easier, it must somehow be worth less.  But is this really true?  Is a novel any less compelling because it was typed in Microsoft Word rather than handwritten with a quill pen?  Is a picture any less moving simply because the photographer used autofocus?  Is California any less spectacular because I fly there rather than taking a wagon train?  Is my attachment to a band or a song any less powerful because I discovered them through Pandora rather than from a friend or on the radio or at a record store?  Does one need to “discover” a band the old-fashioned way to legitimately appreciate them?  (And if so, is there a “legitimacy continuum” ranging from personal discovery > word of mouth > record store > music magazine > radio station > music website > Pandora?)  I don’t think so.

All I know is that as I got older, embarked on a career, and started a family, I found myself listening to too much of the local 90s oldies station and careening headlong towards geriatric space golf.  I felt like I was too young to give up yet, but didn’t have the time or resources to stay on top of an exploding music scene.  Thanks to Pandora, iTunes Genius, and countless other online tools, I’ve been able to stay in the loop.  And I’ve found my life enriched by some pretty amazing music that would have otherwise passed me by.  And if you ask me, that’s a pretty good thing.

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