Pandora as Judgment-Free Zone

There is a very interesting article in this week’s New York Times Magazine about Pandora, […]

R-J Heijmen / 10.22.09

There is a very interesting article in this week’s New York Times Magazine about Pandora, the free internet music service that creates custom playlists based on your personal music preferences. I am a huge Pandora fan.

Most interesting, for Mockingbirds, is how the absence of judgment (i.e. law) in Pandora creates the space for love (of music) to flourish. Pandora’s entire system depends on a group of music experts evaluating songs in the most objective, least judgmental way possible, which often leads to unexpected musical connections for listeners, as is recounted in the following humorous anecdote:

Westergren (Pandora’s founder) likes to tell a story about a Pandora user who wrote in to complain that he started a station based on the music of Sarah McLachlan, and the service served up a Celine Dion song. “I wrote back and said, ‘Was the music just wrong?’ Because we sometimes have data errors,” he recounts. “He said, ‘Well, no, it was the right sort of thing — but it was Celine Dion.’ I said, ‘Well, was it the set, did it not flow in the set?’ He said, ‘No, it kind of worked — but it’s Celine Dion.’ We had a couple more back-and-forths, and finally his last e-mail to me was: ‘Oh, my God, I like Celine Dion.’ ”

This particular listener would have never realized the horrifying, liberating truth that he likes Celine Dion if Pandora had rated music based on taste, which is, by definition, judgmental. As the author writes:

What Pandora’s system largely ignores is, in a word, taste. The way that Gasser or Westergren might put this is that it minimizes the influence of other people’s taste. Music-liking becomes a matter decided by the listener, and the intrinsic elements of what is heard. Early on, Westergren actually pushed for the idea that Pandora would not even reveal who the artist was until the listener asked. He thought maybe that structure would give users a kind of permission to evaluate music without even the most minimal cultural baggage. “We’re so insecure about our tastes,” he says.

Simply put, the absence of judgment in Pandora creates the freedom for people to discover what they actually love, rather than what they’re supposed to. As a pastor myself, I see my role in the spiritual formation of my congregation as fostering the type of non-judgmental, gospel-induced freedom that allows for love and creativity to blossom. I may have my ideas of what “living by the Spirit” looks like, my own personal “taste”, but imposing this on others will invariably quench the movement of the Spirit in their own lives.

Of course, whether or not liking Celine Dion could be called a fruit of the Spirit is another question…