Bursting bubbles: the problem with playlists

As many of you may know, I regularly wax lyrical (or try to) about the benefits of musical diversity, especially when it comes to playlists. Hearing music from different decades and genres mixed intelligently together feels inspiring, entertaining, and rewarding to me, in some inscrutable and wonderful way.

The 21st century, however, doesn’t seem to agree. I mean, look around: we are in the Age of the Playlist, according to all accounts, but what kinds of playlists are we given? Sonically homogeneous ones, as far as I can see. Even Spotify’s lauded “Discover Weekly” playlists, ostensibly tailored to each listener’s individual tastes, while an improvement over mindless lists of predictable hits, are not terribly wide-ranging. And then there are the many and varied “mood” playlists around and about the internet, which seem to be populated almost exclusively with songs from the 21st century, and even then primarily from the last five or six years. There is no reason a playlist called “Rainy Day” should be built with songs only from the 2010s but on Spotify it is.

Rest assured: we have both the technical capacity and the intellectual curiosity to handle a much less reductive and more thoughtful musical landscape. And yet the powers that be at our mainstream music services seem not to care about being either less reductive or more thoughtful. It’s no doubt easier to offer formulaic playlists, and if people are clicking on and listening to such things, which they are, there becomes no financial motivation to fiddle with the model.

But like some out-of-sync Lorax, arriving not to speak for the trees but for the forest itself, I arrive to insist that this kind of musical segregation, as a default presentation, is not only unfortunate but maybe even harmful, culturally speaking. I mean, it’s okay (of course!) that EDM playlists and ’90s playlists and such exist—but I would like to help you see that it’s not okay that these playlists that separate songs into like-sounding silos are the default means by which people are encouraged to listen to music here in 2018.

Now then, I’ve long recognized this as an aesthetic/artistic problem: people should ideally be given more opportunity for diverse listening, I’ve insisted, if only because it’s fun and interesting and good for the spirit. Likewise, I’ve long since understood the problem to have sprung largely from technological and financial circumstances, in that segregated playlists featuring one genre or one decade are easier to automate than sensitively curated playlists that mix everything up. In this way, the segregated playlist is another side effect of our having handed control of music distribution over to the technologists.

But lately I’ve wondered whether there’s more going on here than a failure of taste, sensibility, or technology. In the face of wider cultural circumstances that have unfolded in recent years and have been coming to a noticeable, unhappy, and protracted climax since, oh, November 2016, I’ve begun to consider whether there isn’t some larger misfortune on display via the seemingly innocent problem of overly homogenized playlists.

Impenetrable filter bubbles

After all, thoughtful people have here in the 2010s come to identify the affliction of so-called “filter bubbles”—the damaging societal effects that can unspool from individuals being exposed only to a narrow range of information (and, often, misinformation), an idea introduced by the activist Eli Pariser in a widely-viewed 2011 Ted Talk. And yet in 2011 I’m not sure even Pariser anticipated the social poison that filter bubbles would release into our collective atmosphere, the harm that has come to us when large groups of people not only stay isolated among those others whose opinions validate theirs, but even worse, only read news stories they “agree with”—as if news stories, ideally reporting on facts, were something with which one can in fact “agree” or “disagree.” (Reminder: they are not.)

But in our filter-bubbled society facts have become confused with feelings, and as people with similar feelings communicate exclusively with one another, these feelings supplant facts as social currency.

This is not a helpful cultural trend. The current occupant of the Oval Office won the election because of feelings, not facts. Because there are no facts in the world that could justify the result. He is historically unqualified and temperamentally unsuited to the job in which he has, seemingly to his own befuddlement, found himself. Remember too that whatever Russia might or might not have done to sway our impressionable electorate, such folks were only swayable to begin with because they inhabit their impenetrable filter bubbles, and continue from there to insist that provable facts are “fake” merely because they don’t like them. If people could range farther and wider away from their known universes of interests and beliefs, it would be harder to convince them that all sorts of evidence-free ideas are somehow truer than actual truth, and/or to convince them that there is somehow no such thing as truth in the first place.

Okay: so you’ve noticed that I’ve strayed beyond the essay’s original intent. Let me attempt to gather things back together. A homogeneous playlist, drawing only from its own limited reference point, is its own kind of filter bubble. Just as in a healthy society, citizens have open minds and are ever curious to understand what is actually going on in the world around them, so, it seems to me, in a healthy musical landscape, listeners would be curious and open-minded enough to enjoy playlists that don’t go in one prescribed and predictable direction.

I understand that I’m not presenting a flawless analogy here. No doubt there are people who enjoy a range of music even as they are often just listening to one genre at a time. You might listen to a vintage hip-hop playlist now, and then switch over to a 21st-century indie rock playlist, or whatever. But I will still suggest that there may be something that shrinks rather than expands a world view when experiencing music as existing in discrete silos of sound rather than in a larger, interwoven universe.

The appropriately-named Pandora, a streaming-service pioneer, was in my mind a major culprit in the story of how the internet promoted compartmentalized listening environments. The way into Pandora as a listener is to identify an artist, song, or genre as a seed for a “station” that is then created for you on the spot. Suppose you enter “Juliana Hatfield.” You’ll get, first, a Juliana Hatfield song. Then you’ll get a song by a different artist—Liz Phair, say—along with an explanatory note, if you want it, that tells you that this next song was chosen because it shares a specific series of musical qualities with the previous song. Things proceed from there, with the operative idea that you are going to continue to want songs as much like each other as possible. You can go on to create as many different “stations” as you want, each micro-targeted towards the sound of the original seed. Along the way you can give a song a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down,” to help “train” Pandora even further towards delivering music as much like what you are hoping to hear as possible—provided that what you are hoping to hear each time is a song very much like the previous one.

Pandora has always been so proud of their human-generated capacity to analyze music into component parts and make connections between artists and songs based on these analytics that they seem never to have contemplated the idea that people might actually be entertained by a stream of music that offers the unexpected as an ongoing rule. Nor, of course, have they contemplated the longer-term cultural effects of operating a popular service that encourages uncurious listening. It’s weird, because all the streaming music services, Pandora among them, make a big deal about introducing listeners to new music. But they have strong-armed the meaning of the word “new” into such a constrained box—“We’ll play you new music that sounds exactly like music you already know!”—that we maybe need a different word for it.

Homogenized playlists and their discontents

I should note that Pandora’s approach was partially born out of the licensing idiosyncrasies built into the world wide web that separate the idea of a fully on-demand streaming platform from what is considered to be “internet radio.” A fully on-demand system, where a listener can pick out what he or she wants to listen to on a song-by-song basis, is a more expensive and complicated proposition online than a radio model. In line with Silicon Valley’s tendency to present bugs as features, this was the main reason Pandora gives you the opportunity to create a Juliana Hatfield “station” rather than actually let you listen to a Juliana Hatfield album.

By now of course it’s not just the algorithms producing the homogenized playlist environment in which we are mired. There are plenty of human curators who at this point are doing little more than imitating the robots, with the addition, maybe, of finding lesser-known new songs to throw into mixes that fit right in with the established aural palette.

For casual listeners seeking amenable background music, the idea of a stream that aims above all to provide aural consistency may be just the thing. Likewise there of course are occasions and moods that seem well-suited to a single genre or musical ambiance. What I am questioning is the single-genre and/or single-mood playlist as more or less the internet’s default mode. And, circling in on the principle point, I am wondering whether this may slowly be having as deleterious an effect on musical culture as information-based filter bubbles are having on our culture more generally.

Think about this: rock’n’roll came of age as an artistic musical medium precisely when music was most freely presented: when FM disc jockeys in the early- to mid-’70s were unleashed to present their playlists (called radio shows back then) with no guiding principles other than their own taste and expertise. Many artists and styles of music were mixed together, and listeners willingly came along for the ride. Not every song was a winner, not everything from back then is worth revisiting now, but the free-ranging canvas on which the DJs painted was an environment that gave space and validation to everyone from Joni Mitchell to Yes to the Velvet Underground to Stevie Wonder to Roxy Music to Randy Newman and so much more. As a listener you may not have been in love with every song a DJ was playing. But there was no “skip” button, and not often a lot of other interesting listening options. You stayed with it. Your mind was not trained at that point to be quite so judgmental, so in need of immediate gratification that you couldn’t sit through one song that you didn’t know and maybe didn’t immediately like. And this too: you stayed with it because you trusted the human being who was putting the show together.

So three mutually reinforcing phenomena were fostered back then: artistic exploration by musicians, intuitive and idiosyncratic playlist creation by DJs, and open-minded listening by music fans. This sounds to me like the opposite of what single-genre playlists might be fostering, over time, in artists, curators, and listeners alike. Expecting little more than one type of music from your playlists seems like another minor but symbolic way we shut down the capacity to be reached by external reference points.

In fact, I’ll go as far as to hypothesize that had the constraints of today’s musical landscape been in place back then, little of what we now know of as classic music might even exist. You don’t get to “classic” via algorithms that focus on formula; you do not find artistic breakthroughs through the relentless application of RIYL. To funnel music ongoingly into pre-established sonic silos is not only to encourage listeners to seek and be satisfied with the overly familiar but to render jarring and/or foreign any music that does not glide soothingly into place from the previous song.

Return to eclecticism?

So, we have found out the hard way that people who are too dedicated to their own information bubbles tend towards an adversarial sort of “other-ing” when encountering people who have different opinions or orientations. In the worst cases, when his or her information bubble itself is dominated by evidence-free ranting, a person can lose track of reality altogether, all the while thinking he or she is the smart one. What, therefore, I have to wonder, will be the long-term effects of music listeners who grow accustomed to hearing music cordoned off by style and sound?

The answer is probably nothing as serious as what’s going on politically, if only because the stakes are not as high. Another mitigating factor is how readily available musical diversity remains, even for those who listen genre by genre. You don’t find a New York Times story on the Fox News web site, but you will find pop and country and hip-hop and rock and jazz playlists all available on your streaming service of choice.

This is certainly better than the complete isolation we’ve gotten with information filter bubbles. But I also think that expecting listeners to actively decide to go explore an unknown genre is expecting a lot. As such, the detrimental effects of genre segregation—whether they be artistic or social or some combination of the two—may not become clear for quite a while. I don’t anticipate that this would mean that one day people who like one kind of music will be unilaterally angry at people who like a different kind of music. But I do believe that brains that receive homogenized input, of any kind, are brains that do not over time develop the elasticity that characterizes our best and brightest citizens.

But I hold out hope, if cautiously. In the early days of digital music, I sensed a bracing spirit of curiosity in the air, as music from a wide variety of eras was abruptly available to one and all. There was a cultural moment or two when it seemed normal for high school kids in the mid-’00s to be listening to Led Zeppelin and The Who, for instance, because it was now so easy to hear anything from any time, anything you might be curious about.

If eclecticism didn’t take root for long at that point—if, instead, a literal Pandora’s box of genre- and decade-focused listening has become the norm—there remains much promise latent in the accumulated force of recorded music. The President and his partisan zealots can walk around pretending that facts don’t exist but the music industry really has no motivation to pretend that wide varieties of music don’t exist. As such, at some point, I’d like to believe the platforms will catch up to the reality that an amazing amount of recorded music is out there and available, in greater variety than ever, and that the best way to put it on display is, at least sometimes, to mix it all together. Not all music from all genres is great, by any means, but there is enough that is great to keep you listening for years and years. What creates cultural vitality is the widespread ability to appreciate an inclusive spectrum of artistic output. I mean, if the progressive-radio DJs of the ’70s created wonderful, idiosyncratic mixes with just 15 or 20 years of rock’n’roll at their disposal, think of the eclectic adventures to be had with 40 more years of music and so many new genres to choose from.

Look, people: the robots aren’t going to save us here. It’s going to take human beings, one by one, looking up from their screens long enough to picture a wider world than they can imagine, and realize that it’s up to them to find their way in it. And maybe, just maybe, the mundane act of expanding one’s world view just that little bit of enough to encompass an unpredictable playlist can for some be a small step in the larger process of remembering that we are all connected, and not just when we look alike or sound alike.

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