Recommending things to other people — movies, books, music, scotch, soap, what have you — must be one of the more underrated pleasures of life. It’s something we all like to do because it makes us feel like an expert in that particular thing we’re recommending, or at least in the know. It is also a hopeful boost to one’s status. One rarely recommends downmarket items; it’s not Bud Lite you push on friends, but that expensive double IPA made in La Jolla.
Perhaps there is a bit of snobbery in recommending things, or at least often there is. It’s like name-dropping, recommending is — sometimes we do it to look better than we are. But more often, I think, recommending things is a purely friendly gesture of sharing an enthusiasm with friends. There’s hardly a day when any of us don’t do it. Note how good you feel the next time you recommend something (my recommendation).
Of course, being on the receiving end of a recommendation isn’t always so fun. I’ve never particularly liked having books recommended to me, for instance. It’s probably simply because, after a lifetime of reading, I know my own tastes, they are particular, and few people share them. I know what I don’t like too (popular thrillers, for instance). I don’t mind having someone recommend, say, a wine or a scotch to me, however, because though I already like both of those things, my experience with them is fairly limited. The trouble with wine and scotch recommendations is that they’re usually too expensive.
Critics are in the business of recommending things, you could say. Even a critical slam is in its way a recommendation — the thing being slammed doesn’t live up to some more ideal example that it is either implicitly or explicitly being compared to. One thing that most people don’t understand about critics — the very word “critics” is generally sneered — is that they went into the profession out of a deep, encompassing love for the thing they are criticizing. The deeper the love a critic has for the object of his criticism, the more common the negative review from his or her pen: It’s a proposition worth pondering. Nothing can live up to the best, and only the best will do.
These days, recommending things, like much else, has gone high tech. Algorithms used by Amazon, Spotify, Netflix and other sites figure out what other things you’d like to buy, listen to or watch based on your past activities and the activities of others similar to you. The Big Brother aspect of it is a little creepy, certainly. But further, do we really want math and machines recommending our pleasures rather than human beings? Along with supplanting critics, these algorithms have helped put an end to record and book stores, where knowledgable clerks could guide you to your next purchase. They’ve probably helped along the layoffs of critics at newspapers as well. One can sound like a Luddite lamenting such innovations, but few would admit that nothing has been lost.
Call it the personal touch. On my daily walks, I have recently started listening to a radio show called “Swing Time,” broadcast on KKJZ, 88.1 FM, on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It is hosted by a man named Johnny Magnus and despite the show’s title it doesn’t feature swing music alone, or even primarily. The playlist spans the ’30s to present day with an emphasis on big band vocalists singing jazz and pop standards. Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole make regular appearances, but they are also joined by a fleet of other vocalists you don’t hear so much of anymore, like Peggy Lee and Julie London, Sammy Davis, Jr. and the Ink Spots, Doris Day and the Andrews Sisters.
Magnus plays instrumentals, too, big bands especially, but will throw in, from time to time, items that have no business whatsoever being broadcast on a jazz station, such as “Come Saturday Morning” (every Saturday, it seems) by the Sandpipers (Magnus seems to have known the producer) and Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” and Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
The playlist is apparently Magnus’s own; it is relatively small and he repeats a lot of the same pieces over and over. He has short anecdotes for many of the songs, some of them including himself, and he repeats those too. He’s an older man, I would guess in his ’80s, and he’ll occasionally search for words between songs, but never for enthusiasm. Typical between-songs banter usually includes a few breathless “Wows!” and “Wowees!” an “Oh, man!” or “Oh, boy!” or two in reaction to the tune he’s just played.
Through Magnus I have been introduced to a lot of great music that I would never have listened to otherwise, since no algorithm could have possibly recommended them. I would have never known what a great singer Peggy Lee is, for instance, without Magnus’s wonderful selections of her work. I would have never even heard of the marvelous Les Elgart band had not he played it, and played it again, so it finally sunk into my ear. Individual songs stick out — Guy Lombardo’s version of “Enjoy Yourself” and Sammy Davis Jr.’s rendition of “Hey There” from “Pajama Game” — as well as individual performers, like pianists Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal. There are songs that Magnus plays that I don’t like, of course, but that comes with the territory. The strange thing is, listening to them with his ears, in the context of the rest of his playlist, I’ve come to appreciate most of those too.
(One happy consequence of my listening to Johnny Magnus is that I’ve begun to collect records — vinyl — again, as I search used record stores and library gift shops for the original pressings of many of the musicians he features. Among other things, it has brought the joy of browsing, without a wi-fi connection, back into my life.)
If you are to become a good recommender, I feel, you have to understand exactly what it is you like about the thing you’re recommending. This can be harder to discover than you might realize. I recall a question I was once asked by a musical friend: What is it that you like about Mozart? It stumped me.
A few years ago, I became practically obsessed with the American writer William Dean Howells, rather obscure today but when alive as well known as Mark Twain and Henry James (both of whom were friends). I have long had the tendency to read a single author in large chunks of their works, but my Howells’ blowout was a bit overboard, including something like 25 or 30 of his books, a couple of biographies of him, selections of his essays, poems and short stories, a massive dose.
I was enjoying the whole thing immensely, but pretty much solitarily. I realized that what I was responding to in Howells — his realism, his depiction of ever day life and every day people in the 1880s and 1890s, without sensationalism, anti-Romantic — was of no interest to practically anyone I knew. I ended up mentioning to people that I was reading Howells but not taking the step to strongly recommend him to anyone except a friend who liked Henry James. And even then I didn’t push it.
Facebook, Twitter and other social media have turned out to be strong recommending platforms, not just ways to communicate. I can’t go through my feed without being asked to listen to three or four pieces of music, it seems, or to see this or that movie or comedy sketch. Everyone’s a critic online. And so, these days, the world needs the professional critic a lot less than it used to — or thinks it does. Who needs another recommendation when one is drowning in them?
Still, I think of critics, of Magnus and others, who have helped me understand what I like and I can’t say that an algorithm or social media has ever done that. Long live the critic.
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