When my dad drove me and my brother to school in northern Florida, his control over the radio was absolute. Maybe that’s because he’s an only child. My mom, who grew up with two sisters, would give her car over to our Raffi tapes and Disney movie soundtracks. But with my dad we listened to one thing: country radio. For most of the 1990s, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, Travis Tritt, and Faith Hill sang background while my dad quizzed us on multiplication tables and state capitals. When I wasn’t on the hot seat, I happily hummed along.
Minus a fervent Garth phase that peaked around 1997, I mostly gave up this music by the time I was old enough to have a CD player. I grew up, moved north, and changed my tastes. But not everyone knows that. Or, more accurately, not everything knows that.
There’s one place where I’m still that elementary school-age country fan, a place my affection for this music still lives, as if preserved in amber: The Pandora music app on my phone. Visiting Pandora is a comforting throwback on multiple levels. There’s checking in with Shania Twain and Reba McEntire and the whole Prime Country gang, of course. But it’s also the one corner of my internet life that I’ve kept completely walled off from the rest — a portal back to a time when people’s online and offline identities were starkly separated. These days, the internet knows everything about us. But with a little tinkering with account settings and a lot of benign neglect, I’ve made sure my Pandora remains delightfully stuck in the dark.
Compared to the rest of the internet, which feeds me New Balance ads before I’m even conscious I’m looking for sneakers, Pandora is delightfully ill-informed about me as a person.
If you aren’t a so-called “geriatric millennial” like me, you may not even be familiar with Pandora. An early harbinger of AI-driven streaming music services like Spotify and Apple Music, it was launched in 2005 by the creators of the Music Genome Project — an early effort to codify a person’s tastes based on musical properties like instrumentation, tempo, mood, and vocals. There were no iPhones back then; Pandora started as a desktop site. Unlike more contemporary services, it required a lot of tending. To create a station, you’d type in an artist or song. The algorithm would feed you new music based on its properties. If you liked a new song, you could give it a “Thumbs Up”; if you hated it, a “Thumbs Down.”
Pandora promised to help users discover new music, but I never had much luck with that. Knowing whether a song is a Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down on first listen is impossible, for one thing; more often than not, I didn’t make a decision either way. But 2005-era Pandora was perfectly suited to feeding me what I knew I wanted. It didn’t take long to create my own version of a 1990s-era country music station. Pandora named it “Garth Brooks Radio.”
I don’t listen to this “station” very often; the app is buried deep on the fourth page of my phone. My iPhone sends seldom-used apps to the cloud to free up storage space, so I have to re-download it nearly every time. But in moments where I’ve felt unmoored — when I was homesick after moving, on the verge of becoming a mother, or faced with reconfiguring my life after 15 months of a pandemic — this music has been my sonic security blanket. I can feel my shoulder muscles loosen when the pedal steel and fiddle solos kick in, when Garth vocalizes the inner thoughts of a widower going on his awkward first blind date since losing his wife in “Learning to Live Again,” or when Patty Loveless realizes, somewhat listlessly, that being dumped isn’t making her all that sad in “You Can Feel Bad.”
My Pandora visits have an even more comforting aspect: The service knows nothing beyond what it knew in 2006. Compared to the rest of the internet, which feeds me New Balance ads before I’m even conscious I’m looking for sneakers, it’s delightfully ill-informed about me as a person. That’s because I haven’t fed it any new information. It’s still connected to my college email. I’ve refused every invitation to “verify with Gmail” or Facebook. I disabled location services somewhere along the line, so Pandora still thinks I’m in Tallahassee, Florida, where I went to college and haven’t lived for 13 years. I use the free, ad-supported version, and most of the commercials are for the local Publix supermarket.
That informational vacuum carries over to the music itself. Spotify, my primary music apparatus these days, has figured out how my different listening habits have evolved and relate to one another. It knows I blasted HAIM’s Women in Music Pt. III all last summer; it intuits why Jason Isbell and Phoebe Bridgers, or CHVRCHES and Lizzo, belong on the same auto-generated playlists. But if Pandora’s taste-predicting functionality has improved over the years, I wouldn’t know about it. Nor do I want to.
It’s a section of my online life that’s pure and unchanged, the way your hometown can be — the streaming music equivalent of hopping in my dad’s old Jeep and taking a long, straight drive to pick up dinner from a barbecue joint at dusk. There’s a Zen feeling that comes with seeing the familiar landmarks and making polite conversation with old family friends who don’t really know you as an adult. Pandora doesn’t know me as an adult either — or really as much of a person at all. To the app, I’m just a faceless country music listener with a Florida State University email address. That’s a (non)relationship worth cherishing.