fm Bandit

Pandora the explorer: 90’s joints

The City’s alt-rock station Live 105 is doing an all-nineties Memorial Day weekend. This is the best station, at least in the Yay Area, to entertain such a marathon. 90’s music–here describing a continuum of self-absorbed, disaffected melodies from Radiohead to Radio Disney–could be as empowering as Destiny’s Child or as vulgar as Hole, and it was still a perfect lullaby for the Zeitgeist’s empathetic slumber.

It’s no surprise that a good 90’s playlist is pretty much a must-have for the modern entertainer. Like a good secret blend of herbs and spices, (NSFW) it’s best composed of the well-guarded results of guest-validated experiments. Scientific caution should be exercised when dealing wildcards: OMC’s “How Bizarre” can tear the roof off, but Tracy Bonham’s “Mother, Mother” is way too out of pocket for punchbowl chatter.

For those brave/lazy enough to let go of the reins, Pandora’s heaven-sent. If you haven’t heard, the popular music discovery radio service deconstructs your favorite songs and isolates hundreds of attributes; from there, it seeds an online radio station with tracks that combine similar musical elements. Most of the time, the formula works. But there’s a key misconception suggested by its thumbs-up/thumbs-down interface. Don’t take the bait. Against your raging Web 2.0 sensibilities, patience is a virtue here.

The best strategy is to be stingy with your input, keeping in mind how many tracks are spectacular because the taste they leave transcends the sum of their ingredients. A station with too many upvoted offerings becomes clouded by the consequences of the ease with which you’re pleased. 90’s music is probably the most dangerous territory when it comes to this hazard, because so many of its standout gems come from unlikely quarries.

Be advised: this is all empirical, I really haven’t looked into how the Pandora algorithm works. As far as outcomes go, I’m nearly always pleased with what my stations air. If you know more about the gnomes inside the machine, edify me. I’m also aware there’s a wind of near-randomness involved, so don’t expect for the service to play exactly which tracks you want. Pandora says that’s illegal or something.

It follows that your first track is the most important one. If I had money, I’d go see Zeparella at Slim’s. Instead, we’ll call our saturday night playlist “Don’t Speak” Radio, and go on from there. It’s worth noting that I’m assuming mixed, noncontroversial company and will exclude “Hit ’em up” et al; as in, there are some cases in which it’s still fun if the homies can’t have none. A challenge then, will be avoiding a Lilith fair with all these girlie picks.

Pandora’s first offering is “I’m Just a Girl,” which is to be expected. This is a come-on. It’s often the case that the first track is by the same artist, so I let it go with no input in order to find out what the software’s really thinking.

Next up: Bittersweet Symphony. Without apology, I hate this song and don’t mind giving it a thumbs-down. There’s nothing special about it, so I’m not worried about excluding something else with a great strings section (say, White Town’s “Never Be Your Woman”) from consideration.

In order to win me back, they play more No Doubt. This time “Sunday Morning,” and I’m pretty sure I have to let this one go too in order to get a better picture of how these genes are going to play out. This pattern of playing the seed band in order to stop the negative listening experience is probably sound as far as creating a quality user experience, but it means we’ll have to sit through the nurture to reveal the nature. We’ll have to treat anything from Tragic Kingdom as sweet talk and play hard to get.

The greatest weight is placed on submissions, which means I truly believe no Pandora station should have any more than six direct submissions and eight thumbs-ups. I think similar restraint should be exercised with down-votes, but there’s no reason to endure the intolerable by setting a limit. Just don’t equivocate between disliking a song and disliking what it’s made of.

The next track up is “Yellow” by Coldplay. Sometimes people ask me if I like Coldplay in a way that makes it sound like maybe they really do. Rather than knowing for sure that they like those guys, I sometimes pretend to never have heard of them. People are usually briefly incredulous, and then they tell me to listen to this song. Unfortunately, Pandora skips the tracks you downvote; nevertheless, there will be no Coldplay stinking up my playlist. Next up, more No Doubt.

With Hoobastank’s The Reason comes a perfect example of the downvote conundrum. Putting aside its utter repulsiveness for a second, it’s a formulaic replica that fails as a 90’s track chronologically. The song is forged from basic, successful elements that need not be disparaged regardless of what a whiny, generic abortion created therefrom. If you want, you can skip it without affecting the queue. I try to listen to songs I hate.

Next up: Sublime’s Santeria. This deserves a thumbs-up, and hopefully we’ll get some testosterone or at least a thorough, clean guitar solo in the mix. Take note not to let your appreciation for Sublime be known any more, lest you be wading in a smoky sesh of Dispatch & Slightly Stoopid standards; this is just the way it is. Another thumbs-up for Natalie Imbruglia’s there’s-just-so-many-things-that-I-can-touch-I’m-torn. Loving it. Another solid Tragic Kingdom cut with Spiderwebs.

Now I’m wondering what sort of stringy goodness I’m missing out by having dissed The Verve. To make up for it, I add White Town’s Your Woman, which somehow equals Alanis Morisette. It’s not because I’m a diction snob that I’m downvoting Ironic. One consequence of a playlist tearing the roof off your vibe is that you need to avoid songs that mention the word rain. Next up is “Take on Me” by A-Ha. 80’s songs are the genetic ancestors of 90’s songs and need not be downvoted, but a skip will do to avoid a bathroom rush.

Next up is Kiss the Sky by Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra. This is Pandora’s other, and arguably primary, utility: new music you’re mathematically supposed to enjoy. The Last High by the Dandy Warhols is a welcome cigarette break, but things are beginning to feel a bit out of control. Getting too patient will encourage the software to stop trying. I want to add a little bit of power chord magic without getting too sidetracked by the willing array of underwhelming rockers threatening to crash this thing. I choose Touch, Peel, and Stand by the Days of the New. This beat out “Gotta Get Away” by the Offspring because I doubt any computer program can be as picky about the Offspring as I.

With a Lily Allen track comes the realization that the honeymoon phase is over. Ideally, one can get their input in quick and then the relationship usually works out as expected. Once divergent and new tracks start being added into the mix, it’s usually time to put your chin on your hands and listen carefully.

They play a Days of the New track, which wasn’t quite what I was going for. I add “Shine” by Collective Soul. Seether’s Immortality is more on the right track, but no thumbs up. Thumbs up though for STP’s Interstate Love Song. Alice in Chains Over Now, an acoustic version, is also a good choice; no response from me though. Unfortunately, live versions have banter and crowd noise on the end, which makes for an uncomfortable groovepause.

A live version of Collective Soul’s Shine (“…yeah”) is an easy hit. Keeping in line with a grand tradition of appreciating my own efforts, it’s worth noting that I’m satisfied with the results so far. I think there are two more songs to be added to the mix, and I’m going to add one during the crowd noise for this track. I choose Jumper by Third Eye Blind. Puddle of Mudd’s yawn-provoking Drift & Die plays next, which is another mediocre trap where you’d be hating the game if you hated the player. If you have a skip left, you’re welcome to use it.

The next song is Matchbox 20’s If You’re Gone, a definite downvote. Letting the software know you appreciate “subtle use of vocal harmony” invites way too much poisonous agriculture across state lines. Pinch Me by the Barenaked Ladies isn’t bad; it makes me think of the far-better “Meet Virginia,” but I’m worried it will ride Train too far into the Soul-Sister territory if I suggest that. Hehe, he just made me say underwear.

I think it’s good to make the last track something strange. Len’s Steal my Sunshine will do. Timid upvote for Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle,” which I acknowledge was risky. Worried I’ve softened things up too much, I add Harvey Danger’s Flagpole Sitta. An upvote for Under the Bridge, a favorite, concludes stuff.

Appendix I |Station details

Artist Seeds
I have found that artist seeds are too vague to be useful. Stick to songs.

Song Seeds
Don’t Speak by No Doubt
Flagpole Sitta by Harvey Danger
Jumper by Third Eye Blind
Shine by Collective Soul
Steal My Sunshine by Len

Thumbed-up Tracks
Interstate Love Song by Stone Temple Pilots
Never Let You Go by Third Eye Blind
Santeria by Sublime
The Middle by Jimmy Eat World
Today by the Smashing Pumpkins
Torn by Natalie Imbruglia

Thumbed-down Tracks
Bitter Sweet Symphony by The Verve
If You’re Gone by Matchbox Twenty
Ironic by Alanis Morissette
The Reason by Hoobastank
Yellow by Coldplay

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