Apple’s June 5, 2017 Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) keynote presentation was, by many measures, a fairly standard, very polished Apple production, full of the usual slick visuals and catch-phrase styled language that reflects the company’s famous, tightly controlled image. Toward the end of the keynote, CEO Tim Cook brought Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing, Phil Schiller, to the stage to launch an announcement of Apple’s latest product, the HomePod, a product Schiller positioned primarily for listening to music. Amidst his delivery of Apple-typical claims of reshaping the world, Schiller enumerated three key innovations of the product: 1. high quality speakers; 2. adaptive spatial acoustic functions; and 3. a musicologist.
Reactions were immediate as Schiller announced that the “built-in musicologist”—working with the virtual assistant, Siri, as something between an AI disc-jockey and a fact finder—would “help us hear the music we love, or discover the music we’re going to love” through the music streaming service, Apple Music. While many people reacted to the company’s high aspirations or the product’s functionality, others were struck by the word “musicologist.” On Twitter, some users were enthusiastic:
ചെർപ്പുളശ്ശേരിക്കാരൻ (@mathi_dili), June 5, 2017: #musicologist
#HomePods. Apple comes with such cool or strange Names !!
Others were critical:
Shawn Dessaigne (@satansrobot), June 5, 2017: I'm not sure Apple knows what a
musicologist is or does.
Bronson Foster (@bronsonfoster), June 5, 2017: Still trying to get over @Apple's incredibly
incredibly ignorant use of the word "#musicologist." Feeling bad for my colleagues now
dealing with it.
Gene De Lisa (@genedelisadev), June 5, 2017: @Apple, N.B. "Musicologist" is an actual
profession and the majority of them hold PhDs. What HomePod is doing is not
Jacob Daniels (@senatordaniels), June 5, 2017: Siri is not a musicologist.
Still others were skeptical the word exists:
Matt LaForest (@mudetroit), June 5, 2017: “Musicologist” is not a word
@Apple not a word
Looking slightly beneath the surface, a common theme in these responses is uncertainty of what the word “musicologist” is actually doing here, a question that some musicology scholars also grappled with, albeit in a slightly different way. Following Apple’s late-January 2018 announcement of the HomePod’s February shipping date, Linda Shaver-Gleason noted in a good-humored but nevertheless incisive post on her blog, Not Another Music History Cliché, that responses from academics had varied between humorous and self-deprecating:
Gabrielle Cornish (@gcornish91), June 5, 2017: I'll believe Apple's HomePod
is a musicologist when I hear its response to "Hey Siri, how do you feel about John
Sam Blickhan (@snblickhan), June 6, 2017: I'm a musicologist who works in handwritten
text transcription. @Apple came for both my jobs this week but it's cool. #WWDC17
Greg McCandless (@gmccandless), June 6, 2017: "Hey Siri, please explain the influence
of post-structuralism on this artist's oeuvre via a semiotic analysis." #HomePod
While some were decidedly neutral:
William Gibbons (@musicillogical), June 5, 2017: Am I the only musicologist unperturbed
about this Apple thing?
As many recalled at both the WWDC and release date announcements, however, this was not the first time a music streaming service had adopted the term “musicologist” to address the limitations of algorithm driven music recommendations. Pandora Radio has long employed a team of curators it calls “musicologists” for its Music Genome Project whose goal is effectively to develop stronger metadata for the platform’s algorithms, which select music that “fits” together for automated, personalized radio stations. In September 2012, Nokia introduced an ill-fated streaming service for the similarly ill-fated Windows Phone, where “consumers [could] stream music from a suite of over 150 exclusive playlists that are curated and kept up to date by an expert team of US based musicologists.” And in 2014, Warner Music Group’s music cataloguing and marketing arm, Rhino, issued a call for the individual user to “become a Rhino musicologist,” and “share their superior musical taste with the world,” in the form of playlists submitted via its application within Spotify. In method, Pandora tends more toward machine learning, with a distinctly individual-centered and ephemeral result, while Nokia and Rhino leaned more toward human, static outcomes. And in procedure, Rhino’s crowd-sourced method acts as a foil to the in-house approaches of both Pandora and Nokia.
By the time Apple announced its HomePod, ample precedent had been set for “musicologists” in the music streaming industry, even as there remains conceptual ambiguity in individual idiosyncratic usages of the term by different companies. Still, there are some overarching implications in these usages beyond pretenses of neologism or rebranding established practices. To twist the earlier question toward historical terms: why can the word “musicologist” do any work in this situation, at all? What basis is there for marketing teams at these companies choosing it in the first place?
Nick Matarese (@nmatares), June 6, 2017: “They focused on making Siri a "musicologist" instead of a better generalist. T-shaped assistant.”
When a Google product designer, Nick Materese, tweeted this concatenation on the morning after Apple’s WWDC announcement, he gestured toward a possible interpretation of Silicon Valley’s adoption of a term that seems superficially pretty foreign to the tech industry. Matarese humanizes Siri qua musicologist in her HomePod morph by characterizing her as T-shaped, capable of many things with deep specialization in one. The description is apt, especially accounting for the other functions she performs, but rather than cast Siri as a startup team member, as “T-shaped” connotes, I would suggest that Materese’s reference to generalists invokes, intentionally or not, a historical context of yearning for guiding lights and experts amongst wider publics.
Around the turn of the twentieth century in the United States, intellectual atmospheres were in flux, particularly within the college-educated, white, middle to upper class, where emphases on broad-based knowledge lost value to deeper understanding of specific subject areas—from breadth to depth, from generalism to specialism. This philosophical evolution did not simply expunge nineteenth century genteel culture’s generalism for greater sequestration in subfields; rather, significant overlap occurred and gentility lingered well into the time when university curricula began catering to greater depth in ever more insular majors. As Joan Shelley Rubin details in The Making of Middlebrow Culture, this tension contributed to the rise of “the middlebrow,” a historically contingent category that includes products and activities intended to stimulate cultural or intellectual elevation for consumers.<1> Very often, these products bore names like “A Brief History of…”, or the “Five-Foot Shelf of Books,” intended to “furnish a liberal education to anyone willing to devote fifteen minutes per day to reading them”.<2>
Among figures like Will Durant, John Erskine, Stuart Pratt Sherman and Irita Van Doren that Rubin describes, Henry Seidel Canby supplies us with an interesting and demonstrative case. Canby’s origins and education align him closely to genteel generalism as he progressed through studies at Yale, eventually earning a PhD in 1905 and a faculty position there in 1908. Becoming restless with materialism’s specializing influence on curricula at Yale as students sought well-paying jobs over well-roundedness, he eventually left the academy and became editor of Literary Review for the New York Evening Post, a publication intended to inform its audience’s reading choices. Before long, he landed on the Board of Judges for Harry Scherman’s Book of the Month Club, founded in 1926.<3> Canby’s Ivy League pedigree and personal intellectual philosophy made him well-suited to serve as a guiding light before a wider public, part and parcel of an industry partially reliant on this sort of personality for its legitimation.
Henry Seidel Canby<4>
Closely resembling these printed products, educational entertainment also appeared on the radio in the 1920s and 30s, with programming featuring an intellectual guide leading discussions or lectures on classic or contemporary literature. Eventually, universities supported radio lectures by their professors, in a role akin to the work of today’s university extension course lecturers. In products legitimized by professorial experts like Canby, what buyers purchased was as much the opinions of the experts as it was the Book of the Month.
What I want to spotlight here about the figure of Henry Canby and middlebrow products is the strong customer appeal of the guiding expert. Products like the Book of the Month and radio lectures by university experts took shape from a demand for cultural cache, not unlike human or algorithmic curators of streaming music playlists and radio stations. While tech companies’ adoption of the term “musicologist” came as a jolt of humility to those of us who lay claim to that title professionally, offering a patina of expertise and pre-packaged access to elite culture is the actual work that the word “musicologist” does for Pandora, Apple and others. This resonance with historical middlebrow products, I would argue, is a primary reason the term carries any significance at all. Consumers buying legitimacy buy the supposed privilege of being in the know, much like the connoisseur outlets of Pitchfork or Fanfare Magazine.
Taking a step back, applying the term “musicologist” to a digital assistant puts the face of an expert on the thing; more simply, it puts a face on a thing, humanizing and warming it. It seeks to resolve a problem that in March of 2018 Washington Post pop music critic, Chris Richards, saw in platforms like Spotify, where “algorithm-generated playlists often feel like mix tapes made by bots,” which they are. The appeal of humanity explains why, when devising the Book of the Month, Harry Scherman’s decision to cultivate images of personalities to sell his products rather than curate a faceless catalog listing worked as well as it did. Humanization sells.
While streaming services’ adoption of expert “musicologists” puts consumers in the know, it also contributes to platforms’ generation of communities. Generally speaking, individuals who follow an expert (middlebrow or other) form a virtual community akin to Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities, where readers gather in common consumption of literature, or slightly adapted, follow the ideas of an expert.<5> In the case of music streaming, literature can be substituted by playlists, which can be curated by “musicologists” (experts). Spotify, as a prominent example, plainly exhibits other markers of community, as well: if they choose, users register by linking a social media account, subsequently follow their contacts’ activities, and even make collaborative playlists with them.
Other features generate not only communities, but what can be termed publics. Literary critic Michael Warner, in his influential essay, “Publics and Counterpublics,” gives a number of criteria required for an entity to garner the status, “public.” Most significantly, Warner revises the all-encompassing and much-critiqued formulation of “the” public from Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere into a nimbler, more flexible configuration of multiple publics. His criteria for whether an entity is “a” public include: 1) self-organization, 2) a relation of strangers, and 3) constitution through mere attention.<6> Determining whether music streaming users constitute a public, individuals voluntarily become users, qualifying them as self-organized. Linking to one’s Facebook friends on the platform could disqualify certain regions of Spotify from being a public, per Warner, but users can subscribe to and consume Spotify’s algorithm/musicologist-curated playlists. Such subscriber groups bring together individuals who otherwise would not know one another, creating relations between strangers. Though Warner thinks primarily of written media in his prerequisite of “mere attention” (that is, multiple strangers’ simultaneous consumption of the same piece of writing), sociologist Georgina Born cites Benedict Anderson in positing that music performs the same function: “Music animates imagined communities, aggregating its listeners into virtual collectivities or publics based on musical and other identifications.” Music streaming services do similar work to the online piracy communities Born elsewhere references as facilitating “the virtual or stranger alliances and collectivities generated by the mediation circulation of music and sound.”<8> If these parallels work only as implied evidence of the virtual communities to which streaming services’ “experts” contribute, to a self-consciously literal, nominal extreme, there is even a message board, the Spotify Community, which fulfills one other of Warner’s rules for “a” public: ongoing, reflexive discourse. Surfing alongside all of this is the “musicologist,” with its expertise and curated playlists.
Lest we dismiss these elements as menial or incidental, the proliferation of black markets for playlists shows that there is big business in fostering a healthy community or public, whether in music streaming or in middlebrow cultural products. Realistically, all of these communal features are profit-minded, exploiting the dopamine-inducing potential at the heart of social media’s allure. Nevertheless, each contributes some element of community or public. In reflecting upon what music streaming services do when they adopt a term like “musicologist,” parsing the user experience gives significant insight into why the fictional figure of the music streaming musicologist has any impact, at all. Just as the Book of the Month and university-supported radio programming catalyzed middlebrow publics, music streaming services are the platforms for their publics, to be legitimized and partly constituted by the likes of a Canby or Siri-musicologist.
As a closing thought, Apple’s lexicographic influence is not immense, but it is far from negligible, accounting for the ubiquity of the “i-” on consumer electronics packaging. Terminology (such as “musicologist”) plays an important role in the company’s branding strategy, which is to say that language is carefully selected and crafted. Without flattering ourselves too much by claiming the pushback on Apple by academic musicologists alone swayed a transnational company, it is worth noting that at the time of the HomePod’s release, Apple’s webpage for the product featured this description:
Today, it reads:
To paraphrase another public intellectual, Leonard Bernstein: whither “musicologist”? If a behemoth like Apple has forgone the word for one reason or another, it is difficult to guess if or how the word will surface again. But in this case, what may have felt to some critics like a naive co-opting of a term was actually a shrewd marketing decision connected to history, and for Apple is right at home with the Smart Keyboard, Genius Bar, and myriad Pro models meant to make customers feel in the know.
<1>Joan Shelley Rubin, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).
<4>Norman Borachardt, “Sketch of Henry Seidel Canby,” Current Opinion 72 (January-June 1922), 381.
<5>Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (New York: Verso, 2006).
<6>Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” in Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2005), 65-124.
<7>Georgina Born, “Introduction - music, sound and space: transformations of public and private experience,” in Music, Sound and Space (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 32.
Jacques Dupuis is a PhD candidate in historical musicology at Brandeis University, writing a dissertation on Robert Schumann and early 19th-century popular theater genres.