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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Rx for the Anchoring Bias in Music

By superior craft and musicianship, Paradise Is There, Natalie Merchant’s recent remake of her best-selling album, Tigerlily, has freed many of her listeners from their hard cognitive wiring to the earlier recording. That is no mean feat considering the infectious power and popularity of Tigerlily—a commercial and artistic success that two decades ago enthralled several million listeners.  

Put another way, Paradise has released us from many of the cognitive “anchors” that accompanied the earlier recording.  Once accepted and ensconced, anchors lock in normative elements and expectations for discourse, discussions, negotiations, and, yes, music. Tough to dislodge, they can bias and blind us to alternatives. (Read about anchoring biases here).
In music, listeners who internalize a favorite recording or performance adopt specific cognitive and emotional expectations. That can bring great joy and appreciation of musical nuances. It can also blind listeners to other interpretations, other performances.

Pull up the Roots
Through musicality and virtuosity, Paradise pulls up more than a few of Tigerlily’s entrenched anchors.  Recorded twenty years later, the remake is predominantly acoustic. A string quartet, acoustic bass, piano, accordion, and tenor sax complement uncommonly nuanced vocals. Merchant’s voice—an unselfish vehicle for her enduring songs—radiates extreme comfort in its own skin. 

An “old soul” when she crafted those songs in her early thirties, Merchant wrote them for adults (herself included). The songs endure as explorations of love and loss, chance and fate, obstacles and personal growth, shades of grey. Her ode to grey (my own personal favorite)—I May Know the Word— has the pacing and gravitas of a late Beethoven adagio. Quite an accomplishment for a thirty-year old who had just parted company with a progressive rock band (10,000 Maniacs). 

A new recording, of course, comes with a new set of anchors. Will I be up to task if Natalie Merchant unveils a third rendition some time down the road? My one request: No need to wait twenty years, but please, Natalie, cut me some slack in savoring my share of Paradise.

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