OPINION: Algorithm + Music = Happy?

OPINION: Algorithm + Music = Happy?

Our lives are becoming increasingly organised by algorithms.  As far as social media companies are concerned this is because they’re worried that without implementing a curated feed they will begin to see a decrease in the numbers of users frequenting their platforms due to information overload. 

Algorithms are also used to help determine things like a user’s age, sex, political leanings, and level of education.  For other services, such as companies that use it for job profiling, etc, they are often used because they’re presented to them as a time-saving measure that will work to streamline and help increase efficiency measures.  The problem with this has been largely documented, a lack of transparency in job profiling has proven to repeatedly action racist and sexist discrimination.

Most people use social media for humble-bragging to sympathetic parties about how they “got a “cool” new job and/or a new car and are hanging out with a friend, about how their child did something completely ordinary but it’s totally a thing, about their dinner, about an article they’ve just written (shoutout to my friends reading this from an embed on my Facebook page).  In reality, though, you are feeding a machine data which helps the platform to determine all sorts of things.  All your conversations, “likes”, retweets, status updates, shares, comments on articles, etc really just boil down to a set of Google Analytics engagement stats for the website/platform that features the content.

When we spend 45 minutes arguing politics with someone over social media, is this activism, or is this a distraction from reality?  Some technology is designed to distract and algorithms make it easier for us to not have to actively think, there are pros and cons to this.  As Mary Aiken outlines in her novel ‘The Cyber Effect’.

“[T]he architects of the Internet and its devices know enough about human psychology to create products that are irresistible – a little too irresistible – but they don’t always bring out the best in ourselves.  I call this the techno-behavioral effect.  The developers and their products engage our vulnerabilities and strengths.  While making us feel invincible, they can diminish us -and distract us from things in life that are much more important, more vital to happiness, and more crucial to our survival.”

Aiken goes on to question the inherent sexism that exists in the architecture of the internet:

“I can’t help but wonder how different the Internet would be if women had participated in greater numbers in its design and considered the work of Sherry Turkle as they did.  I find it intriguing that, one hundred years after the suffragette struggle and the hard fight for women’s rights, we have migrated and are populating a space that is almost exclusively designed and developed by men, many of whom have trouble making eye contact.”

She has a point despite her last sentence being a little derogatory towards the number of autistic people working in the tech industry.  Amazon fell victim to quite the algorithmic disaster when it was discovered to be selling austerity nostalgia T-Shirts rewritten by algorithms.  They featured phrases like ‘Keep Calm and Rape A Lot’, ‘Keep Calm and Knife Her’ and ‘Keep Calm and Hit Her.’  The response from Solid Gold Bomb (the T-shirt company behind the algorithm) was as follows:

“Although we did not in any way deliberately create the offensive T-shirts in question and it was the result of a scripted programming process that was compiled by only one member of our staff, we accept the responsibility of the error and are doing our best to correct the issues at hand.”

So there we have it, one person, one equation, and a whole lot of violent, misogynistic imagery “accidentally” occurring.  It is easy to forget when discussing technology in all its abstractness that ultimately it is designed by human beings and that there is some elitism involved in this.  Algorithms don’t just happen, they occur because of a mathematical equation that typically a few people (or just one person) works on together to determine a certain metric.  A simple example would look something like this:

direction x content (interval x frequency)

This playlist that is the subject of this feature was built using the following equation:

lyrical density + lyrical sentiment + musical valence = The Happiest Songs In Chart History By Black Artists

Apparently the formula designed for this algorithm was based on a seed list consisting of every song to chart in the Billboard Hot 100 list, starting from 1958 until 9th October 2019.

So, we’ve now determined that no matter how hard anyone codes algorithms can still end up being bias, with that in mind can I answer the question as to whether this playlist made me feel any happier?  Yes but not objectively.  This is not by any means a scientific musical analysis.

The playlist begins with the smooth, easy breezin’ guitar tones of Wilson Pickett’s ‘I’m in Love’. Pickett screams the lyrics, as though he has just realised that he’s in love and wants the whole neighbourhood to know.  Even the hardest hearted among us would have some difficulty in not feeling a little bit happier listening to this track, even if you’ve never experienced love yourself, Pickett demands that you feel elated for him.

Next up is Chubby Checker’s hit single ‘Lovely, lovely’.  Riding off the smooth, west coast, sunny, care-free sound, musically the intro is promising as I like this kind of sound but I can’t help become a little soured by the creepy, song lyrics.  As Checker sings “she was lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely…young and fair.”  I’m reminded of every service job I’ve ever had where I’ve been told that I have to put up with being treated like a lobotomised, Stepford Wife so that the company can still cash in on the elderly gentlemen customers who frequent the establishment purely to slobber over young women who are just trying to do a job so that they can pay their rent.  Besides this, its repetitiveness gets annoying after the third round of “lovelies.”

It’s only until we get a holy triad of The Supremes, followed by two Aretha Franklin songs does my mood seem to improve.  I have no complaints here.  After the second Aretha track my ears wince as the opening notes to ‘Baby Love’ by Mother’s Finest starts to play, there’s something cringe-worthy about this song to me but I’m pretty sure it falls into the funk genre so that’s probably why.  It reminds me of boomers who have met on Tinder (installed by their niece or nephew, of course) and purposely drank too much on their first date so that they can blame the casual sex they were always planning to have on this night due to having one too many glasses of red.  They’ve ended up in Yates’ and are dancing rhythmlessly with wild abandon as a challenge to the looks of dismay they can see in a set of 20-year-old students, whose eyes plead “just stop ruining everything, you absolute sociopaths.”

The Chi-Lites and The Miracles offer some sobering, classic Motown next which is certainly an improvement.  This seems to be the last of the songs prior to the 1980’s.  The second half of the playlist is split into a more modern section and to mark this is the overplayed and overrated Pharrell William’s song ‘Happy’.  It’s banal and it sounds like the soundtrack to the aforementioned lobotomy I might have been ordered to undergo in a different decade.  It does not make me feel happy.

Just when I think it can’t get any worse, it does.  Cupid, who is apparently known as the ‘Dance, Party King’ according to his Spotify bio, comes in with a track called ‘Cupid Shuffle’.  It’s so bad it’s really an offense to the Harlem Shuffle from which its inspiration is taken.  The crunk backing track is accompanied by instructions on how to do the Cupid Shuffle which basically amounts to turning to the right, turning to the left, kicking, and walking it by yourself.  Repeat.  As far as lyrical density goes, this is dense so I guess that means the algorithm is looking for lyrical density in terms of this being a positive attribute.  This song is the musical equivalent of a lilac-haired, chakra inciting, Coachella festival attendee who dictates the company they keep must embody positive vibes only, yes – it’s that dense.

Thankfully, Mary J Blige will save us all.  Following Cupid’s Shuffle, is ‘Family Affair’ and I’ve never been happier to hear those sharp, orchestral strings that work to open the track.  I am surprised that this song meets the algorithm in terms of musical valence and lyrical sentiment though, it’s got a bittersweet quality to it in tone and it’s about getting back on your feet after drama that’s caused upset.  In this sense, the song assumes the negative but puts forth a positive solution.

It’s noticeably different from all the other tracks featured so far in that it’s much more sophisticated in lyrical value.  Also, it repeats the word “haters” a few times, and whilst the overall sentence in which the word is mentioned is not negative, algorithms tend to have a habit of flagging things like this up.  They are not usually smart enough to recognise context so it’s odd that this made it in, either way, I’m happy it did.

Other chart-toppers that make it include, Rhianna, Usher, and the Black Eyed Peas.  I can see why these were picked up based on the algorithm but for me, these songs are just music used for adverts and played in supermarkets.  It’s commercial pop that plenty of people enjoy listening to whilst they’re buying stuff, it isn’t wallpaper music (as Larry Jackson at Interscope records once described music in the Top 40), it’s music to buy wallpaper too.  I hear this stuff in its distorted, vaporwave form which resonates much more realistically with the decaying, abandoned storefronts and office buildings and displaced communities that I see wandering in city centres.  Anyone listening to this sort of music at face value today are either pop critics or people who walk around with their faces buried in phones.

Fortunately, there are three solid songs on the playlist that compensate for this.  Young MC,That’s the Way Love Goes’, Salt n Pepa, ‘Push it’ and Kriss Kross, ‘Jump’.  These are late 80’s/90’s hip hop tracks that all harken to what now seemed a better time for commercial music.  The energy of these songs is undeniably empowering and they are a better fit for the soundtrack of political tumult we are experiencing in 2020 than any of the above.  I hadn’t heard Young MC before listening to this playlist and I completely forgot about the existence of Kriss Kross so I ended up feeling pleased that I discovered a few treats.

After listening to this playlist I didn’t feel either good or bad, neither happy nor sad but just like a human programmed to write an article.  Music, however, does feel ‘vital to happiness” so overall I don’t think the algorithm itself is completely misguided or necessarily a distraction.  But whilst there is most definitely some science involved in making pop music that appeals to a wide audience, sometimes there isn’t and sometimes it’s just the right moment in time for a band or artist to resonate within the cultural sphere, I’m thinking of artists like Kendrick Lamar, Dead Prez, Public Enemy, The Fugees, Cypress Hill.  I can’t picture any of these artists sitting down in their practice rooms and actively thinking about how they were going to write a chart-topping single, it just happened.

Reflecting on songs that make me feel happy, it’s impossible to pinpoint any that are not in some way, tied up with memories.  Listening to Bad Brains makes me happy because it reminds me of my teenage skate punk days, listening to the ‘Immaculate Collection’ by Madonna makes me happy because it reminds me of the one thing both my dad and I can agree on musically, listening to The Strokes and Bloc Party makes me happy because it reminds me of dancing the night away at indie discos circa 2005-2008.

Perhaps in the future, we will see more sophisticated algorithms that can reflect more nuance but at the moment it’s hard to envisage a piece of code that can truly reflect the often unexplainable, unpredictable interior emotions of human beings, at least without it falling straight into the Uncanny Valley.

If you’re interested in learning more about algorithms and how technology shapes reality here is some suggested reading to get you started:

James Bridle – New Dark Age

Mary Aiken – The Cyber Effect

Adam Greenfield – Radical Technologies

Barbara Speed – Algorithms may save us from information overload, but are they the curators we want?

Peter McColl – The problem isn’t the algorithm it’s the class system


Listen to Black History Month: The happiest songs created by black artists:

If you’re on the hunt for more Spotify playlists I recommend the Facebook group Oddly Specific Playlists for some fun, human-curated lists.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.