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Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Art of Recommendation

Jason posted this on Friday essentially wondering what's so great about certain artists that get a lot of praise these days. Here's a snippet:


Ok, so I keep hearing praises about bands such as Band of Horses, Sound Team, the Black Angels, Sufjan Stevens, the Secret Machines, etc., and about how these artists are the second coming of Christ or other such hyperboles. But I don't get it. I listen to them, and while I agree that these artists do have some okay to good songs, I don't understand the hype.


On my end, I think I should analyze the mechanics of recommendation.

I don't often make recommendations for my friends. No matter how long I've known somebody's taste in music, I can't successfully predict what he/she will like. I've been through many experiences where I was convinced that a band/record was perfect for a friend, but I was wrong. When friends of mine recommend stuff to me, I appreciate them thinking of me, but that doesn't always mean I'm gonna like it.

A successful recommendation occurred to me a couple of years ago courtesy of my friend Goose. After reading an interview with members of the Soft Boys, he obtained a copy of their debut album, Underwater Moonlight. Shortly after obtaining the record, (and with knowing what I'm prone to like), he told me that this was "Eric music" and I should go ahead and buy it before hearing a note. To be safe, I asked him to burn me a copy for a test run. I was impressed from the first note of "I Wanna Destroy You" and I eventually bought a copy for myself.

Thinking about matters now, the way he introduced me to bands/records was very low-key. He didn't hype up the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle or Love's debut album before he played them for me. He just put them on without an attempt to wow me; rather, he put them on in a sort of "background music" situation. In the case of those records, I was blown away by what I heard. He had played plenty of stuff for me before and after that that didn't wow me, but the way he introduced this music to me is my preferred way to get into music I haven't heard before.

When a song is played for me by someone, I'm often forced to say something during/after the moment of hearing it for the first time. When I'm not turned to for an opinion right away, I have more room to think. Whether I'm in a bar with a jukebox on, a party with an iPod on 'shuffle,' or listening to what Jason's hearing down the hall, if I hear something I like, I go to the source, not the source going to me.

I have a friend who used to really hype up stuff for me before I heard it. He would have the advantage of discovering on his own time and volition and listening to the song/album before he played it for me. What often happened was, halfway through the song, he would say, "Isn't this the most coolest thing you've ever heard?" I rarely agreed, but I enjoyed seeing him express his pleasure of something he heard.

In the case of the bands that Jason listed above, I think I should discuss how a lot of music bloggers/critics tend to think. Whenever a blogger/critic hears a song/album that he/she likes, there is a desire to share this with people as soon as possible. I still gripe when bloggers merely post hyperlinks and say barely a little more than "download this," but I've realized that's enough for a lot of people. Speaking only for my blog, if I'm going to talk about something, I can't just use one or two sentences to describe my feelings.

I don't mean to imply that all music bloggers think alike, but I see patterns of sharing with a number of them. Blogs like Gorilla vs. Bear, Muzzle of Bees, Dreams of Horses and Chrome Waves like to post stuff that is currently rocking their respective worlds at the most recent of moments. Browsing these sites on a regular basis, I see certain acts get some favorable to glowing reviews. Oftentimes, the number of write-ups on a single act can create the inevitable question of, "What's so great about this band?" Then there are the "echo" posts that echo what others have said. The number can create an illusion that some act is as good as sliced bread, but that's how perception builds through repetition. I seriously doubt that people talk up certain acts just to fit in, but a number of artists get a lot of people talking about in favor of or not. These reactions are natural, but when they're inescapable, there is tendency to ask, "what's the deal?" and/or "what am I missing?"

Ultimately, I believe what's going on is a misinterpretation of expression. Just because I like something doesn't mean this is right up the alley for somebody else, even my closest of friends. I enjoy openly discussing music with my friends even if we don't share the same views. A recent case in point: I really like the Secret Machines' Ten Silver Drops, but my friends do not express the same feelings. Jason says he just isn't moved by it and Merritt described it as "boring." I in no way fault them for not feeling the same way that I do. Instead, I appreciate them being honest with me and not berating me for what I like or don't like. I don't berate them for not liking what I like; rather, I give my thoughts on the matter and leave them at that.

Yes, talking about music can be much like dancing about architecture, as Elvis Costello put it once. Yet I find no fault in discussing why we like what we like, even if we don't fully understand what others find so special about certain acts.