The Washington Post

Pandora’s IPO and the delegation of taste

They pay them WHAT to recommend bad music? (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

“Do you like this song?” I ask. “Here is another song that is not as good as the song you were just listening to. Like the first song, it employs drums. I am assuming that’s what you liked about the first song, the use of drums. But if not, I will suggest three more songs by the same artist just to make sure you understand what I’m getting at. No? Okay, here is an ad for Heineken.”

Yet somehow the online music suggestion service has managed to explode in value after its Wednesday IPO. On paper, it sounds pretty good: 90 million registered users and, it claims, a new one every second.

But haven’t any of the stockholders used it?

Pandora is like dating. “This one isn’t very good,” you think. “But I bet the next one that comes along will be worse, and I am only allowed to reject six.”

Sure, it’s free. But that’s only part of the appeal.

I once read a review online for the store Anthropologie. I cannot remember the exact words, but it ran roughly as follows: “This store is amazing. It has all the things I would think to buy myself if only I had taste!”

That’s Pandora’s secret: Most of us don’t have taste.

This is sad, because gluten-free foods now have taste, and “at least as interesting as a gluten-free substance” was what I used to put on all my online dating forms.

But cultivating taste takes time. And time is the one thing we don’t have. We still have to do all the things we once did — Host Labor Day barbecues! Eat! Watch television! Read! Talk! Walk from place to place! Run marathons! Catch up on headlines! Love! Die! Deploy excess exclamation points! But now there is also The Internet. And our days contumaciously persist in containing only 24 hours.

So something has to give.

Back in those halcyon days when I didn’t have to sit bent over my smartphone, cackling and reloading my e-mail inbox every six minutes in case Natalie Portman needed help babysitting, I could afford to put effort into determining my preferences. But these days I have to take it and run. I dimly recollect liking a song I once heard during an episode of “Criminal Minds,” with maybe a banjo in it? Can someone send me more things like that?

No wonder Pandora’s worth so much money. That is what happens when you delegate taste, as we’re increasingly doing: to algorithms, Personal Shoppers and whoever picks those owl sculptures for Urban Outfitters. I wish I were quirky, but I’m too busy! Can Zooey Deschanel send me a list of the clothing she’s wearing?

My approach to this has always been to like everything. The best stomachs, Voltaire wrote in “Candide,” are not those that refuse all food. But since the debut of Pandora I have had to contend with the fact that I have worse musical taste than an algorithm. In fact, in most respects I stack up rather poorly against an algorithm. Algorithms tend not to crack loud jokes during the Serious Part of the Opera and won’t insist on dragging you to “X-Men: First Class” a fifth time, and they are much better sports when you beat them at Scrabble.

Woody Allen once quipped that his father had been replaced by a little gadget this big that did everything his father did but much better. “The depressing thing is, my mother ran out and bought one.”.

So do we all. That’s why Pandora is worth $3 billion.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".


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