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friendsimage by the amazing Amanda Mabel

When I first learned about Pandora Radio in 2005 or 2006, I was hooked. Part of this was the name–Pandora had been (I’m somewhat embarrassed to say) part of my first AOL screen name and email a decade earlier, back in The Old-Timey Internet Town of 1995. I think I’d misunderstood the myth somewhat, and had seen Pandora as this empowered woman wielding chaos (“It’s HER box, dang it! She owns chaos and destruction! Now let me get back to watching Welcome to the Dollhouse and making this beaded choker…”).

But back to Pandora. I’m not sure how I found it, but I thought it was an amazing concept: type in a musical artist that you like, and Pandora (based on The Music Genome Project) will begin to stream artists that it thinks you will like. I’d type in M. Ward, and it would recommend Magnolia Electric Co. or Grandaddy. Type in Bjork, and Pandora would play Frou Frou. This blew my mind. Up until then, I depended on a few different sources for music recommendations: the other artists carried by labels I loved (Helloooooo, Secretly Canadian), blogs and magazines, the occasional lucky radio/soundtrack moments, and most importantly, suggestions from friends and family.

From 2000-2010, I burned and exchanged hundreds of CDs (and maybe a few cassettes–I do believe I had a walkman in 2003, which seems absurd now). Wherever we moved, my friends and I would mail one another CDs, lovingly scribbled on with Sharpie. Collections from my friend Ryan would skew a little electronic and romantic (Her Space Holiday or Sneaker Pimps or Death Cab for Cutie). My Uncle Jerry sent me a tape with Freedy Johnston and Damien Jurado on it, and I’d listen to it as I walked to class (I sent him either a tape or CD that had Badly Drawn Boy on it).

In the mid 2000’s (what should we call those? The mid-aughts?), I was part of a CD exchange group. I remember buying blank CDs in stacks of 50 or 100. A group of us would meet every few months, and create a CD around a certain theme (there was “Rites of Passage,” and “Love,” and a Halloween-themed one). We’d make a dozen of them, and leave with a dozen new beloved collections. Nerdily, I’d slave away over mine, my husband cracking up at how painstakingly I’d arrange and rearrange the order of the songs. I continue to be grateful for people who love music (or art, or poetry, or anything) this much.

Now, I listen to Spotify regularly, as well as Pandora. It’s helpful and entertaining. I’ll continue to use it, and don’t wish to criticize it. Sometimes, I forget whether I’m listening to Spotify or to my own music. Customized radio will play you what you already like. Sometimes, that’s exactly what we want (when we want background music, for instance). But other times, I crave hearing or reading or absorbing new sounds or ideas. And nothing scratches the “discovery” itch for me like a good, personalized recommendation from a friend does.

When a person tells me about a book I should read or an album I should hear, I take it very seriously. I treasure that recommendation. They aren’t recommending what is similar to my tastes, necessarily (a la Netflix or Youtube)–they are recommending something that they love, that they think I might love. Often, it’s unexpected, and not always what I’d select for myself. There is a bit of a risk here–I want you to try this experience, they are saying. I still remember friends of mine driving over with a CD, walking in, and telling me that I had to listen right then and there (and proceeding to play me “John Wayne Gacy, Jr. ” by Sufjan Stevens). That day, I must have listened to the song twenty times, trying to get at its warbly, sad, balladeer-esque magic. I hadn’t heard anything like it.

What recommendations have you been grateful for? What have you recently recommended to a friend?

In these interludes,  poet and singer-songwriter  Hannah Stephenson invites you to eavesdrop on the music bouncing around her brain. She’d love to hear your thoughts, your inner soundtrack, and what band inspired that shrine in your bedroom.

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