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January 25, 2014

Picking your own music has its downside

By Emily F. Popek
The Daily Star

---- — As a kid, I was a big radio listener. We didn’t have cable TV, the best way for me to keep up with new music was to plop down in my favorite chair on Sundays and listen to Casey Kasem’s Top 40.

Right now that sounds about as hip as if I told you that I spent my childhood listening to 78s on a Victrola. But the truth is, I still love listening to the radio, and I don’t think I’ll ever outgrow that.

Don’t get me wrong — I also love the fact that, through services such as Spotify or iTunes, I have thousands of albums and songs at my fingertips. The thing is, one is no good without the other.

I was getting ready to drive home the other day and I had the urge to hear a particular song (if you must know, it was “Golden Rings” by Tammy Wynette and George Jones). A few clicks on my smartphone and, boom, I was vainly trying to carry the soprano line in this classic country duet.

This is a wonderful thing, my singing voice notwithstanding. But I never would have known this song if it weren’t for the random nature of radio.

I have to give a shout-out to “Big Chuck” D’Imperio here. His morning segment, featuring hits from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s (plus an Eddie Arnold tune), was where I first heard “Golden Rings” and a score of other classic country greats.

When I discovered Pandora, an online radio station of sorts that builds “stations” based on song “seeds,” I populated my first station with these songs. Five years later, that radio station is still delivering me new gems previously unknown to me.

But, at least for my generation, the Spotify model of picking and choosing exactly what we want seems to be crowding out the Big Chuck model of just tapping into a stream of media and getting whatever happens to be flowing by. And I fear that, by narrowing the parameters of what we “like,” we are depriving ourselves of the happy accident of discovering something we didn’t set out to find.

Sure, there are algorithms that are supposed to provide us with mathematically generated happy accidents. My Pandora station was built with these algorithms. Similarly, If you search for “Die Hard” on Netflix, the website will recommend movies such as John Woo’s genre-defining “Hard Boiled,” the 2010 comic-book smash-up “Kick-Ass,” and (of course) the “Die Hard” sequels.

But none of this, however carefully calculated to reveal wants you didn’t know you had, can mirror the experiences of browsing, whether it be turning the radio dial, running your finger down the spines of books on a library shelf or flipping through records in a bin.

Of course, many of us do this pre-selection because we feel (and rightly so) that there is a lot of garbage out there that we don’t want to weed through. We know that if we turn on the TV to “see what’s on,” we’ll find infomercials, reality TV, re-runs and opinion masquerading as news. We don’t want to have to hunt through all the millions of books on Amazon to find what we want. If our Web browser remembers that we recently ordered 12 ounces of Starbucks pre-ground French Roast coffee, we are pleased to add it to our virtual shopping cart again without having to wade through the other thousands of products available online.

We welcome the ability to search, rather than browse, because the wealth of variety we face at every turn can become overwhelming — what social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister calls “decision fatigue.” And plenty of companies are all too willing to combat our fatigue by assuring us that we will have only what we want, what we need, what we like.

But what are we missing? How do we find the things that we didn’t know we wanted? Are we leaving room for discovery, for chance, for randomness to creep in? Or has the stream of media we let into our lives become too small?

I, for one, want to leave room in my life for happy accidents. I want to be able to turn off Spotify and turn on the actual radio, so that I can hear songs I’ve never heard before, songs that make me stop and say, “What IS this?” I want to be able to walk into a library and judge a book by its cover (yeah, you heard me).

And I’m glad that I still can. I don’t want to live in a world with no Big Chucks. Do you?

Emily Popek is assistant editor of The Daily Star. She can be reached at epopek@thedailystar.com.