2005MGMBaby300.jpgImagine that you are a judge at a baby beauty contest. Thousands of babies are brought out in front of you for you to inspect, and it’s up to you to decide which ones the public at large would want to see.
Every baby that you see is wonderful: full of life, full of curiosity, energy, enthusiasm and its own kind of perfect integrity and even beauty. In that sense, they are all exactly the same, equally open, curious, and ready to engage. Every one of them deserves the same chances as every other.
At the same time, though, you have to admit to yourself that some of the babies are certainly easier to look at than others (and now that you’re on the subject, some of them – bless their little hearts – just look pretty undercooked).
That’s what it’s like to make judgments about music.

It’s clearly true that some music works better than others. Popularity and critical acclaim, both immediate and enduring, attest to that. And yet it’s also true that all artists, no matter how effective, popular, or acclaimed their music, feel that they are special, and deserving of peoples’ attention.
This is a situation where, when looked at through one eye, all music is exactly equal, and looked at through the other, some music is, as Orwell put it, “more equal than others.”
It’s not by accident that I reference Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” because I think some of our deepest ideas about these things are rooted in a conflict between ideology and biology.
The idea that all music is equal and deserves equal rights is somehow fundamentally a democratic idea; as is the corresponding idea that the public, and not some small cadre of experts, is the best judge of musical quality.
But the fact that some music not only attracts more listeners, but also seems to mean more to more people over a longer period of time, indicates that there is actually something fundamentally unequal about music as well. And if you really think about this, it’s doubtful that any two records are really ever of the exact same level of quality. After all, different people can’t have identical experiences of the same piece of music, can they? And in fact, a single person can’t even have the exact same experience of a piece of music even if they listen to it twice in a row. Fascinating…
And so we have a paradox, which for those of us who have to make value judgments about music, is a constant challenge to negotiate. Like any good challenge, it’s also endlessly absorbing in its own way.
I’d like to understand it better, so if you will, imagine once again that you’re judging that baby contest, and tell me: what are you thinking? How are you going to decide? And then extend those ideas to music if you dare.


  1. Jemini
    March 19, 2009 at 11:13am
    I must say that I am completely unimpressed with the ability to match electronic music styles. For example I have a station called Desert Dwellers, they're a downtempo group that often mixes devotional music in. Why does pandora keep playing house music and psychedelic trance music with downtempo music. This makes no sense as all the beats are completely different as well as the rhythms and vibe of the music. Please hire someone who really knows their electronic music genre's. Sorry, jazz musicians don't count here!!!
  2. christa
    March 19, 2009 at 12:41pm
    I would like to know what the status is of adding some older types of electronica music such as Rave. I'm talking about artists such as L.A. Style, Apotheosis, T99, U-96, Messiah and their Ilk. Actually I'd like to see more electronic music in general. See Ishkur:
  3. michael
    March 20, 2009 at 9:40am
    You have a bunch of Genre Stations. How about some New Release Stations? I'm not saying we can judge your babies for you but if the number of listeners on your New Release Stations is significant, perhaps we can give you a rough guideline. I'm not sure how your licensing works so I'm not sure how feasible it would be.
  4. ML Smith
    March 21, 2009 at 6:27pm
    Fantastic post! Compelling, suspensful, and totally sooooo awesome. A must read, (thank you Pandora for saving me from myself) especially for those who know how to read.
  5. Anonymous
    October 24, 2009 at 8:03am
    I think you lose a lot of information by compressing into one-dimension (popularity, record sales, "baby attractiveness" based on an average of a population's sentiment). A world in which every song was "perfect" would quickly be boring. That's why, even though I can't stand some artists, I'm still glad they're out there pushing the limits: they create a possibility that someone else can go out and run with.
  6. Camping Carooner
    October 26, 2009 at 9:23am
    These days you have to stand out, too many artists sound alike. Being noticed is the best way to get noticed and be popular.

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