Some experiences are just harder than others to put into words. How do you explain to a friend why you love a certain band? Or are smitten with a particular fragrance? In the face of such aesthetic challenges, most of us tend to sound like monosyllabic teenagers: "Good beat." "Smells yummy."
Pandora (headquartered right here in Oakland) is an online music service that purports to use the "Music Genome Project"--there we go with the DNA again--to help you "find the music you love." Type in the name of an artist or the title of a song (almost any genre except classical) and Pandora will "launch a streaming station to explore that part of the musical universe." (Naming footnote: Pandora was originally called "Savage Beast Technologies," probably a mis-allusion to Congreve's "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast." Opting instead for the name of the hapless Greek lass who loosed evil on the world was, shall we say, a bold move. The corporate site refers delicately to Pandora's "curiosity.")
Chandler Burr is a writer who specializes in a different sense: smell. His book The Emperor of Scent tells the true story of an idiosyncratic scientist with a novel theory of fragrance. Now he's been hired by the New York Times as the paper's first perfume critic. If you're a subscriber, you can read Burr's debut column here; if not, or in addition, you can listen to Bob Garfield's On the Media radio interview with Burr, "Eau-Stained Wretch."
There are interesting business angles to the Pandora and Burr stories--Pandora is turning every listener into a DJ, with implications for the recording industry; Burr's column may or may not be a shameless sop to the Times's perfume advertisers--but my beat is words, so that's what I want to talk about.
Here's what Jeff Leeds, writing in the Arts & Leisure section of Sunday's Times, has to say about Pandora's selection process:
Pandora’s innovation is to focus on the formal elements of songs, rather than their popular appeal. Say your favorite song is Aretha Franklin’s recording of “Respect.” Pandora will make you a personalized soundtrack that could include Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” and Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.” (Why? Click twice and learn that Pandora thinks the Gladys Knight tune resembles “Respect” because it includes “classic soul qualities, blues influences, acoustic rhythm piano, call and answer vocal harmony and extensive vamping.”)
In all, the Music Genome Project has identified "400 distinct musical characteristics," from the straightforward "chromatic harmony" and "acoustic instrumentation" to the more arcane "G-funk synth line," "wet/dry recording sound," and--my favorite--"headnodic beats," which "will cause most people to sway their bodies and nod their heads in time, but are not ferocious enough to compel them/you to jump up and dance." To pigeonhole selections into this musical lexicon, Pandora employs a small army of $15-an-hour music "analysts." (Heads-up: Pandora is currently seeking specialists in French and German popular music.)
Pandora's approach, however tortured and tautological (I like funk because it's funky), is an earnest effort at describing the hard-to-describe. Chandler Burr, by contrast, tosses description to the four winds--none of that "woody topnotes with lingering aldehyde finish" stuff the scent mavens usually come up with. Burr tries to avoid adjectives altogether. Instead, he specializes in metaphor. He writes about a fragrance's "darkness" (and, poetically, about that darkness's "luminosity"); he says the smell of one perfume "is like looking down into a well of cool, dark water." He compares a certain scent he loathes to "laundry detergent spilled on an aluminum counter."
I'm not sure the majority of perfume buyers will find Burr's metaphors useful; personally, I'd rather know about those woody topnotes. But his fresh use of language does jolt us into thinking about the senses in a radically different way, and it reminds us of the ways in which smell--far more than the other senses--connects with memory.
I'll be keeping an eye, an ear, and a nose on Pandora and Burr to learn what new linguistic tricks they come up with. Meanwhile, I'm finding it all quite...headnodic.