Pandora Radio, Mood Manipulation, and Background Music
Most of this room is wood. Wood tables and chairs, stools, a bar. There’s wood around the doorways and the giant window that opens in the back like a garage door. Wood beams in the ceiling are exposed. And there’s something in the background music that feels like the middle of the woods. Just since I’ve been sitting here in the past hour, the Deep Dark Woods have played one or twice. Bon Iver, Gregory Alan Isakov, Brandi Carlile (I think). Coincidence, probably, but the woods is the common denominator for all these people. Deep Dark Woods’ band name being the most obvious point. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon famously disappeared into the woods with his heartbreak and wrote For Emma Forever Ago — his breakthrough, Grammy-winning album. Isakov lives in heavily wooded Boulder, Colo. Carlile in an old converted barn in middle-of-nowhere Washington State, where the woods are as iconic as the snowcapped mountains.
Last time I was here, the first song I heard when I sat down was by Laura Gibson — a Portland-based singer-songwriter who grew up, literally, in a cabin in the woods. Her father was a forest ranger and they lived at the park where he worked.
I type all this from West Asheville, N.C. Not exactly the woods, but Pisgah Forest is about spitting distance from here. The relationship between all this music and the woods is almost comical, and beside the point. But I sat down to write a blog about the utility of background music, and it got me thinking.
I am not a fan of background music. Music that works well in the background is the opposite of the kind of music I search out in the world. If you read what I write here frequently, you know I like the kind of stuff that stops you short and makes you pay attention. Music that becomes the center of something. A talking point. Music that challenges comfort zones, that forces disparate key signatures and tempos and modulations into purposeful congress. Music with lyrics that tell a story you have to listen to entirely, lest you miss it altogether. For the most part, in my personal worldview, music is a force that whittles away at us, that shapes us into better people, if we pause enough to allow it.
Background music is noise. It’s there for people who can’t stand the silence between waves of conversation. It’s there for people who are uncomfortable being alone with their own thoughts and ideas. It’s a sound crutch. It allows us to not be shaped into better people, because it’s not supposed to be listened to. It’s supposed to be background. Like a painted landscape — a forest on a canvas, none of the bird calls or rustling leaves that go with the real thing.
Every now and then, when I’m in a place like this, I hear a song that bowls me over — in the background — and I have to ask the barista what’s playing. She invariably has absolutely no idea. These sorts of things don’t matter when you’re listening to Pandora. You’re not supposed to care who the artist is or what the song is about, what they were reaching for. All that matters is the mood.
I’m trying — really trying to appreciate the utility of this. The importance. Because there has to be something meaningful in using music this way. There has to be something that serves us, individually and as Humanity on the whole, in manipulating our emotions so that the way we feel when we hear that one song can be looped and replicated for a whole day; as opposed to having that feeling for a fleeting three minutes and then cycling through other emotions. As opposed to creating balance.
Recently, Facebook tried this with our social media menu. They manipulated their algorithm so that some people only saw negative posts in their feed for days at a time. Other people only saw positive posts. It was a mood-manipulating experiment, and the whole audience of Facebook was upset about it. I know this primarily because people lashed out, wait for it, on Facebook. They didn’t leave Facebook. They stayed put and pulled the little lever that shocked the monkey, and complained that they were being manipulated. I’m not innocent here. I haven’t left Facebook either. I’ve simply taken to hiding negative posts. I don’t want to feel bad in the real world because of something I saw online. What’s the use? Life’s too short.
Facebook’s mood manipulation experiment is basically a corporation doing what we voluntarily do to each other through our background music. I walk into a coffee shop where the interior is covered in wood, and the background music on the speakers is all woodsy people. My body is told to feel a certain way. I’m being mood-manipulated. I walk into a classy joint downtown where piano jazz is playing, and I’m being mood-manipulated. It happens when I’m shopping at the grocery store, at clothing stores and at theme parks. And, yet, there’s something more palatable about allowing companies to mainpulate us through music than allowing a company to use us to manipulate each other.
Music is a place where we can live outside of ourselves. It’s an expression of our best and worst selves. It’s an outlet, a movie, a cartoon. An ideal. It gives a voice to our soul. Social media, so far at least, just gives a voice to our voice. There are some people who use it artfully, as a sounding board for hopes and fears, but most of us just use it to give wheels to our inner monologues. No filter. Between the Things We’ll Say to Each Other’s Faces and the Things We Imagine Which Constitute Art, there is a dumping ground for our petty arguments, our unconsidered hangups and not-thoroughly-conceptualized ideas, our assumptions seeking validation. These are the things we give to social media.
Which makes Pandora Radio and the background music of this woodsy room seem less comical, frankly. It makes confining great songwriting to the background seem like a lesser offense. It turns these songs into singular trees — tall and waving, green and majestic — that I can casually walk past and take for some kind of granted, as I make my way through the forest.