x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Tough questions will follow, so don’t touch that dial

There's no harm in hearing the wrong Wiggle now and then, writes Rob Long

If you have the music service Spotify – or any number of online music services – and you want to listen to the new Jason Derulo hit featuring Snoop Dogg, called Wiggle all you have to do is type Wiggle into the search box, and when it comes up you press play. That’s all there is to it.

The song Wiggle starts playing, complete with some truly risqué lyrics. I won’t go into them here, but if you’re familiar with modern hip-hop music you can let your imagination run wild.

But if you do search for the song, play it, and are offended, you can’t really complain because you’re the one who asked to hear it.

The problem is, when it’s over you get to hear another song called Wiggle – although this time it’s Wiggle with an exclamation point – Wiggle! – from a children’s album called Music Together.

It’s an odd and jarring combination of songs. They don’t make sense as a pair, but the search engines on music sites don’t worry about that kind of thing. They just deliver up what you ask for and play the songs in order, even though Wiggle by Jason Derulo and Snoop Dogg isn’t exactly what the parents who searched for Wiggle! wanted to play for their children. Right after that cheerful, sweetly innocent children’s tune stops playing the music makes an abrupt turn into salacious and rudely graphic hip-hop, all because of one little exclamation point.

It goes both ways, of course. The people who searched for the hip-hop Wiggle probably feel the same way about Wiggle!

They wanted to hear some down-and-dirty rap, and suddenly they’re listening to a very simple melody with childish rhymes. They may not immediately notice the difference – hip-hop music isn’t exactly complicated – but you want to hear what you want to hear.

What we have, then, is a problem called “audience flow” and it’s sort of a throwback issue from a time when audiences really did sit and watch – or listen – to a carefully assembled series of things – TV shows, pop hits, that sort of stuff. If you’re under 30, this may seem like musty history, but back then radio and television programmers had one central mission: whatever you do, don’t break the spell you’ve cast on the audience.

One Top 40 hit had to blend effortlessly into another, or you’d jar the listener, and he or she would suddenly notice that the radio was on, and, the fear was, be inspired to change the channel.

In television, the key was to group similar things together. Family sitcoms flowed into adult sitcoms which flowed into cop shows or dramas, and what you wanted was a smooth transition between them all, so that the viewer would forget about that handy remote control – so close, just over there on the sofa! – and start to flip around the multitude of viewing options.

Again, for some of you this will seem like a fable from some ancient text. It’s hard to imagine a television viewer these days who doesn’t graze around the dial looking for something else. For a lot of people, “watching television” means watching everything on television all at once.

More troublesome for those of us in the don’t-wake-the-audience-up business, an increasing portion of the television public decides what to watch by choosing from a list of what they’ve already recorded. One song or one show doesn’t flow into the next because of some invisible force. The force, unfortunately, is in the customer’s hand.

There is no more audience flow, in other words. The audience doesn’t drift, they actively paddle to what they want. They compile shows to watch, playlists to listen to, they create Pandora stations that deliver music that adheres to a specific profile. They get Netflix recommendations and Amazon you-may-likes. They never have to move out of their chosen and tailored zone of entertainment.

Unless, of course, they search for Wiggle when what they want is Wiggle! in which case, well, the audience is going to have to race to the music player before the lyrics heat up and the younger listeners start asking a lot of awkward questions.

On the other hand, it might do the people who search for Wiggle some good – or, at least, it will do them no harm – to hear a little of Wiggle! instead. Sure, it’ll surprise them. But that may not be such a bad thing.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl