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Bring Back Music's Gatekeepers

Bring Back Music's Gatekeepers

Algorithms can deliver custom-tailored playlists–but they don’t offer the richness of place and context that can make music unforgettable.

Casey Puerzer

I received my first iPod for Christmas when I was in the third grade. My father and I went down to the family computer in our basement, and he picked out two gigabytes of music for me. I have no memories of that walk downstairs. For my father, it was a religious sacrament.

My dad had been a radio DJ at the University of Pittsburgh’s WPTS, and later the station’s manager. He was there on the ground floor of “college rock;” he remains an obsessive-compulsive listener.

My father combed through his iTunes library, and played me a song or two from each artist he figured ought to make the cut. He told me about each artist. But before he told me who were in these bands, even what style they most identified with—he told me where they were from.

He played R.E.M.’s “Driver 8,” and told me about Athens, Georgia in the ‘80s. It’s an impressionistic account of a train driving though Georgia’s “fields divided one by one” and seeing “a treehouse on the outskirts of the farm.” The lyrics read like a Flannery O’Connor short story, and they filled me with the same fascination as the History Channel’s programming about the Civil War. It’s a song about Georgia, and what my father had to say about Athens made it make sense to me.

My father also played me the Replacements’ “Left of the Dial,” and he told me about the Twin Cities. I remember being confused by the concept of Minneapolis and St. Paul being two different cities, and I remember becoming fixated on the lyric “passing through and it’s late / station started to fade / picked another one up / in the very next state.” The idea of passing through a place to which you have no serious connection, picking up its local radio station, losing that signal, and finding another station reminds me of all those Townes Van Zant songs–about how the placeless, rambling life isn’t as fun as it seems, how it leaves one alienated, atomized, and alone. It only makes sense, then, that the Replacements were a road band, and that they famously drank a lot.

My dad also gave me pretty much the entire discography of Bruce Springsteen. It was inevitable and, for a New Jerseyan, predictable; Springsteen quickly came to hold a unique spot in my little library. He grew up about thirty minutes from my front door. I remember listening to “Born to Run” and thinking that I ought to keep track of where bands were from. R.E.M. was somehow inextricable from Athens, Georgia; the Replacements were forever tied to the Twin Cities; Bruce Springsteen was a part of New Jersey.

A sense of place helps us make sense of things. It tells a story; it contextualizes what we hear. In “The White Album,” Joan Didion writes that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.”  Perhaps it’s just an idiosyncrasy, but I find myself unable to enjoy a song unless I know where its singer is from. Without this crucial detail, the lyrics, the texture, and the creative choices reflected in a song just don’t click into place.

Thanks to digital streaming services like Spotify, iTunes and YouTube, accessing music has become easier. But fewer people care about bands’ hometowns. The discovery of a new song is not as special as it used to be. The stakes are lower, and the payoff is diminished. There aren’t any gatekeepers left—the people who can tell you what music to listen to and what to avoid. It’s all mediated by The Algorithm. Our tastes have become more democratically determined, and more individuated as a result. This development has had some positive effects: No one is shamed out of record stores because they’ve asked for something “tacky” anymore, but without gatekeepers, without informal hierarchies, our tastes have become less things to be refined than things to be cultivated as-they-are.

I don’t think it was all better back then. I was born in 1998; I wasn’t there “back then.” I have no “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties,” (to quote LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing my Edge”). Almost all the music I could ever want is on Spotify. I can make playlists instead of mixtapes, which is quicker, saves me a few bucks, and I can send them to my friends over text. There are certainly some things my father and his friends had “back then” that I regret not having—a friendship with a cool, gatekeeping, shamanistic record store clerk, for example—but I wouldn’t trade the ease of contemporary listening for that.

Still, I can’t get it out of my head that as it has become easier to find new music via The Algorithm, many of my friends and peers won’t take the time to learn about a band’s origins. Moreover, in a world of streaming, place is less important to a band’s sound. The local scenes are dying. Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization, which chronicles the hardcore scene of Los Angeles in the ’80s, couldn’t be made today. I’m reminded of the Postal Service, a band which got its name on account of its members living in different cities, sharing demos through the mail. At least the Postal Service was honest about it. It was novel in the early 2000s for the band to be without one central place, and its members knew that and advertised it.

Does place still mean something? It’s easy to forget about it, particularly in an interconnected, global world becoming more homogeneous by the minute. I can open my phone and instantaneously listen to a song that is simultaneously being listened to by innumerable people in innumerable places. But listening to a band without knowing its hometown is, to me at least, hardly listening at all.

Bruce Springsteen grew up in Freehold, New Jersey. Knowing this makes songs like “My Hometown” mean a lot more than they would otherwise. On his podcast with Barack Obama, Springsteen recounted the inspiration for one song: a 1969 riot that followed a racially-motivated shooting in Freehold. The stoic restraint of Springsteen’s vocal performance becomes weightier in light of its connection to real events. “My Hometown” isn’t about just any town, it’s about Freehold, New Jersey, while still being about so much more.

Places tell stories, or at least provide prologues to songs; place fills the gaps and give context. Consider Connor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band’s “One of My Kind.” It opens with the verse “I can’t live in this city, but I was born here / I know all these people, where they went to high school / where they got their angle, where they waited tables / still call me brother, like Cain and Abel.” The third verse is one better: “I can’t think in this city, but I remember / I know every story they ever told me / where I got my blueprint to create my whole myth / had to make it tragic, like a summer snowdrift.” What Connor Oberst does not mention in “One of My Kind” is the name of the city he’s from—Omaha, Nebraska. Perhaps he doesn’t mention it because “Omaha” isn’t a particularly poetic word—or maybe because he assumes that most people listening already know where he’s from. He’s an old guard indie rocker now, and it’s well known that he still lives in Omaha. He started a record label there; he cultivated the city’s scene, introducing the world to bands like Rilo Kiley, and he publicized the music of his Nebraskan forbears like Simon Joyner. “One of My Kind” can be an anthem for anyone returning to their hometown, but it is also Connor Oberst’s own story. The song finds the universal in the particular, and the former is only made more arresting by the listener’s familiarity with the latter.

Bob Dylan recently told the Wall Street Journal, “streaming has made music too smooth and painless. Everything’s too easy…it’s all too easy, too democratic.” He subsequently added, “technology is like sorcery. It’s a magic show, conjures up spirits, it is an extension of your body, like a wheel is an extension of our foot. But it might be the final nail driven into the coffin of civilization.”

My complaint is with The Algorithm and the behavior it incentivizes. We are each fed an individuated selection of music that is not as special as it seems. It is well known that record labels pay Spotify to push certain artists. But, more importantly, it feeds the notion that none of us need other people in order to cultivate our own tastes. We are deracinated and love it; we are atomized and think it gives us the strength that should come with independence. We can justify it however we want. Our friends and family, even if they like good music, can be annoying gatekeepers. But every justification of The Algorithm and its supposedly emancipating qualities bring us further into our selves, to a mindset from which it becomes nearly impossible to relate to others. Our experiences have become so self-curated that it even feels superfluous to share them with others.

Alexis de Tocqueville warns us about the deleterious effects of radical individualism in Democracy in America. The overly individualistic person “withdraws narrowly into himself and claims to judge the world from there.” Such a person thinks he doesn’t need anyone else, and it does him in in the end. But we do need one other, and we encounter one another in the real world, in real places. Our reliance on technology—on The Algorithm—fools us otherwise. It’s no wonder that Americans are listless, ennui-ridden, and wont to die deaths of despair. When we think that we can be alone all the time, we will be.

I’m not suggesting that anyone abandon Spotify or any other algorithmically-based music streaming service. I certainly won’t be. But we should recognize what it is doing to us. By telling us that we don’t need one another, it cleaves us from a sense of place.

What I am suggesting is a renewed appreciation of the things that taste should be most determined by: our family, our friends, and, above all, our place. My taste was shaped by my father in central New Jersey, and it makes me happy to learn about new bands from that same place. It’s not just idiosyncrasy that compels me to learn where every band I hear is from. It’s important to know. It turns a person’s musical education into a liberal one: you learn about where you’re from, where other people are from, the people around you every day, and what it means to refine your taste. And it will improve your listening.

Casey Puerzer is a Ph.D. student in the Political Science Department at Boston College, specializing in American Politics.

Image: A bin of records including Bruce Springsteen's "Born In the U.S.A." (Jose Antonio Gallego Vazquez)

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