The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This is not a map of “every state’s favorite band”

The Internet loves maps. Maps that explain the world! Maps that explain America! There’s a good reason for all that: Maps give us a quick, digestible and pleasantly geographic snapshot of otherwise unwieldy data. But sometimes the translation from data to map cuts out some critical nuance. As in this very cool, viral map of music preferences by state, which you may have seen advertised in certain corners of the Internet as a map of “every state’s favorite band.”

We could argue over exactly what “favorite” means. But most people, I suspect, would assume — based on that designation — that the map shows the most popular band in each state. It doesn’t. The most popular band in each state is probably OneRepublic or something.

What the map does show you is which bands are relatively more popular in that state than they are in other states AND that are not already selected for a more populous state. It’s culled from data collected by Echo Nest, the massive music data service that works with Spotify, Rdio and Vevo, among others. Paul Lamere, the director of developer platform at Echo Nest and the man who made the map, breaks the methodology down this way in this comparison of Tennessee and New England:

Hillsong United is the 97th most popular artist in Tennessee for our sample of listeners. In New England, Hillsong United drops all the way to the 1097th artist, a drop in rank of 1,000. Hillsong United is a Christian rock worship band. Tennessee listeners, living in the heart of the U.S. Bible Belt, listen to Hillsong United much more than their New England counterparts. Second on the Tennessee list is Juicy J,a rapper, songwriter and record producer from Memphis, Tennessee. Third is Young Jeezy from nearby Atlanta Georgia.

When Lamere compares Tennessee to the U.S. as a whole, Juicy J becomes the “most distinctive” artist, earning his spot on the map. But Tennesseans reading this map and asking who the heck Juicy J is shouldn’t feel terribly out of the loop — Juicy J is still only the 47th most-popular artist in Tennessee, way behind Beyonce and Katy Perry and Pharrell.

Case in point: The most distinctive artist for D.C. is St. Lucia. Who is St. Lucia? I’ve never heard of her them him.

Arguably, what this map does show — nuanced regionalisms in music taste — is way more interesting than what people are saying it shows. (A map of every state’s favorite band would, after all, basically just mirror this.) But that’s kind of the problem with maps online! You gain some visual pop, and lose a whole lot of nuance.

For those interested in regaining said nuance, Lamere has developed an entire Web app on music regionalisms  and written several other cool analyses on music preference by age and gender. Also, for my confused D.C. neighbors, this is St. Lucia — he’s opened for Passion Pit and Foster the People, and lives nowhere near the District.