“If you like X, then you’ll like Y,” is a blunt yet effective tool in the fight to spread great music. We engage in it from time to time, both on the internet and in person, and Internet radio services like Pandora have built their entire existence around it. But it usually doesn’t call into question what you know about your favorite musicians and one of our nation’s most notorious violent inmates.
Manson may never again walk this earth a free man, but somewhere in the cold, hard science of computer-generated music suggestions, he’s making a comeback.
According to a recent article by The Village Voice, if you set up a Bon Iver station on Pandora, eventually, inevitably, you will end up hearing the decidedly mediocre crooning of murderous cult-leader Charles Manson coming out of your speakers. Manson may never again walk this earth a free man, but somewhere in the cold, hard science of computer-generated music suggestions, he’s making a comeback.
At first glance, there might seem to be nothing that Justin Vernon and Charles Manson have in common. There was that one time Vernon made a kind of passive-aggressive Grammy speech, but it’s hardly smearing “Death to Pigs” on a wall in the blood of a murdered woman. But, as The Village Voice points out, to Pandora they’re both just “mellow rock instrumentation,” “folk influences,” and “mild rhythmic syncopation.” A computer won’t make the connection that one was written by a psychopath.
And to The Village Voice, herein lies the problem. They reached out to Rdio, whose spokesperson confirmed they don’t vet tracks because there is simply too much volume. Pandora responded by saying, “We build the collection from an inclusive point of view, considering long-term cultural and historical perspectives in addition to current popularity… In the specific case of Charles Manson’s music, it is historically relevant and we collect music like this deliberately.”
Though The Village Voice tiptoes around any direct criticism of Pandora and their ilk, their feelings are abundantly clear the tone of passages like this:
“These streaming sites are redefining the pastime of listening to music and in doing so they were delivering a convicted killer with megalomaniac tendencies more listeners than he could have ever received before. Any qualms about that?”
The implication is that there should at least be some discussion of censorship in suggestion-based streaming services like Pandora—that on some level it’s unnerving to think that the children could be just trying to listen to some nice Bon-Iver-esque jams and end up with an earful of cultish mumbo-jumbo. Now perhaps this is something that could be solved with just a bit more oversight, a bit more definition in Pandora’s algorithm, but the fundamental question itself runs deeper.
Maybe the ultimate lesson here is that if you trust a computer to dictate your choices, you might end up listening to the music of a serial killer.
In the era of unlimited everything online, there will always be space for a few kilobytes of inflammatory music. Moving on, should the goal of services like Spotify or Pandora eventually include becoming a repository for all music, no matter the content, as a way to preserve the entirety of the world’s musical legacy? As the norms for online music consumption become more defined, these are questions to be considered. Maybe the ultimate lesson here is that if you trust a computer to dictate your choices, you might end up listening to the music of a serial killer.
Read The Village Voice article in its entirety here.