What if McDonalds Marketed Mozart?
(This is a withdrawn post from 8/7/07 - just too unfocused to be featured up front. Here it shall live in a sort of virtual garage. I don't disagree with what I've said, but I'd like to say it better and in about half as many words.)

Hey, here's a shock: food products packaged with a McDonald's logo taste better to children than when plainly wrapped. I really think they could have saved the research dollars it took to figure that out. It's amazing how often people are surprised by the power of advertising and, more broadly, how often humans underestimate the tendency for humans to develop irrational biases. And I've no doubt that grown-up tastes would fare just as poorly in a well-designed study. (I know mine would.) Being biased isn't a totally bad thing about humans; part of developing an intuitive understanding of the world around us demands that we learn to take shortcuts and make educated guesses about - well, about just about everything. Such shortcuts are often based on connections that begin at a rational level but which easily become more about association than careful evaluation.

[Watch out now for this stunning connection with my previous post in which Speed Stick deodorant played a role.] Aside from listening to lots of music since I've hooked the iPod up to my car audio, I've also been trying out some of the Sports Guy's podcasts. They don't represent him at his best, especially the bizarre recent one in which he interviewed NASCAR driver Tony Stewart. You see, NASCAR is really a separate world from the sports world that Bill Simmons (The Sports Guy) and I love, and NASCAR drivers are apparently more pod than human. The interview didn't click because Simmons clearly knows next to nothing about NASCAR, and Stewart clearly knows next to nothing about humor or irony.

So, when the Sports Guy playfully asked the Car Guy to try to sell him on Old Spice, the product sponsor for Stewart's racing team, Stewart immediately went into a painfully canned product-selling mode. He really tried to make a pitch for Old Spice. Why is any of this relevant here? Because Simmons, pretty much ignoring the sales pitch, proceeded to make the wise observation that when we're young, many of us unknowingly make long-term commitments to certain kinds of products like deodorants. For Simmons, he's always been a Right Guard man and can't explain why. For me, in addition to being a Speed Stick guy (I know, too much information - and probably too much of this), I have over the years developed completely unfair preferences, based mostly on commercials I've liked/hated, for: Honda over Toyota, Coke over Pepsi, and Miller Lite over Bud Lite (neither of which I drink!).

In fact, I've bought three different Hondas in my life and never a Toyota, and it's entirely possible that the annually horrendous Toyota Summer Sales Drive commercials have cheated me out of some wise purchases. (I'm not saying Honda ads are perfect, but they did come up with this, perhaps the greatest ad ever.) On an only slightly more reasoned level, I prefer Dunkin' Donuts coffee to Starbucks because I'm offended at the notion of referring to something small as "tall." That's language abuse of the worst kind, and I'm telling you I can taste it in the coffee the same way those kids thought carrots wrapped in the McDonald's name tasted better.

Tastes aren't just about what we taste; they're also about who we perceive ourselves to be within a culture. (I once hated coffee; I wanted to learn to like it because it seemed the thing to do; Long story short: I now love coffee.) Although it's probably dangerous to say this, something as roundly and justifiably denounced as racism is certainly rooted in part in a healthy, learned tendency to trust what one knows. The fact that such trust might be unfairly biased doesn't mean that humans don't rely on that sort of intuition. I'm not saying this justifies racism in any way, just that it helps to explain who we are. That I see my three children as three of the most beautiful children ever is, in its way, a racist (or at least heavily biased) opinion - they look like me and my lovely wife! Here's a story that suggests some of the complicated sociological problems that can arise from all this.

I've got to admit, it's scary just to type this sociological stuff for fear of being misunderstood, so I'm going to take a quick left turn and head back to music where bias is also an important and underdisclosed problem. That's why I found Lisa Hirsch's recent list of disclosures about her own musical biases refreshing. We all have them because thinking objectively about music is impossible. Note that biases are not just about the sort of aural "blind spots" some listeners like Hirsch develop over time. They also have to do with the fact that the way any of us hears anything is affected by what we bring to it.

I was thinking recently about my disclosure that I consider Chariots of Fire to be one of my Top 14 all-time movies, even though I can easily see some of its flaws. The trick is that by the time I noticed the flaws, the film was already "in my system" in a crucial way. Here's one reason for that: I now can see Chariots of Fire as a pretty typical period piece, but at the time I'd seen few if any such well-constructed cinematic period pieces, so it seemed both more original and more genuine as historical document than I would now see it. I'm not suggesting that just any decent period piece would have had the same effect, but the other aspects of the film that resonated with me were enhanced by my sense that I was seeing a miracle of filmmaking - early 20th-century England had come to life! If I were to see it for the first time now, some of that magic would be gone because I would recognize all sorts of period-film conventions.

In a similar way, the fact that the widely respected reviewer Bryce Morrison gave quite contradictory reviews to an identical recording of Rachmaninoff (first by Bronfman, then "by" Joyce Hatto) isn't as shocking or damning as it might seem. He heard them more than ten years apart AND he thought he was listening to different pianists. I've already covered that second point several times, but the mere fact of Morrison's having experienced so much in the interim is huge. We change; what we listen to changes us and how we listen. (Note that many of Hirsch's confessed biases have to do with music she's been overexposed to.)

However, too much of the way in which classical music is presented is based on the assumption that we all hear the same thing. That's why you get the sort of silly ranting you see here against a potentially useful educational tool. This listener doesn't need help listening, so he assumes that others shouldn't either. (For the record, I think a running audio commentary during a performance is an odd idea, but I don't see why a running text commentary might not be a great idea.) Furthermore, that's why reviewers such as Morrison often write as if personal bias isn't an issue. It's quite understandable that under varied circumstances the same interpretation might seem slow and plodding or thoughtful and mature, but the typical strongly worded critique obscures that. We don't want carefully qualified opinions. (Well, I do, but that's why I'm rambling on like this.)

One problem I see here is that the very way in which we're taught to write makes too light of such bias. We're told to leave out phrases such as "I believe" and "I think" when presenting an opinion because the reader should already assume that an opinion is being set forth. However, words are much more powerful than we give them credit for. When someone reads an unqualified opinion, I'm convinced its effect is different than when the writer couches words more carefully. I'm no linguist, but I know that language offers all sorts of ways to confuse and obscure what's actually being said, especially when levels of authority are in question.

I used to think I might like to like write reviews some day, but I don't think I could ever get past this hangup. I can't help but see my opinions as strongly tied to who I am; that doesn't mean the opinions can't be useful to people, but it means I'm not comfortable presenting them as objective data. By the way, many of my favorite music bloggers do a good bit of reviewing and I enjoy reading their reviews, so there's a lot about the reviewing institution that I appreciate. Curiously, although no disrespect is intended, I tend to particularly enjoy these writers when they're not reviewing. Jeremy Eichler (not a blogger, as far as I know) has been the chief music critic for the Boston Globe for some time now, but I found his article on Joachim yesterday to be the best writing of his I'd come across - I'm quite sure it had to do with his being freed from doing the more typical scorekeeping thing ("the orchestra was in fine form" etc). I don't blame him for having to do the scorekeeping; it's his job. I just think it's a job with unrealistic expectations, and I wish critics had more freedom to write articles like Eichler's Joachim piece.

[The other struggle I'd have with being a critic is trying to evaluate performers who are much more gifted than I am. Understand, I'm not saying I don't have opinions (sometimes negative) of the way a Levine or Pollini performs and/or interprets. It's just that knowing how superior their musical minds are, I'd have trouble putting my opinion forth as in any way authoritative. I'm glad others are willing to do this, because this kind of reporting can be informative and instructive - but it would terrify me.]

Where am I going with all this? I'm not even sure, although in part it's a defense of my tendency to multiply words in an effort to qualify almost everything I say. (I don't have a prepared defense for my general abuse of the comma, but let's just say I'm a comma libertarian (and a parentheses anarchist).) This is definitely a stream-of-consciousness post, but I don't think we can be reminded enough that we hear with our full range of experiences. Sharing opinions is wonderful; pretending they're unshaped by who we are is just confusing.

This ramble of an entry grew out of the intersection of a bunch of different items I'd read recently and, as so often happens, there seemed to be an elegant and logical structure in my head when I started. Well...I'm just gonna close here, although I wish I'd gotten around to exploring the implications of the clever title I thought up halfway through. Something along the lines of: "The Mozart Extra Value Meal: Buy one symphony and get a side sonata and a refreshing divertimento for only a dollar more! Supersize it by upgrading that sonata to a concerto! Have it your way!"