I was emailing with Sally today about the increasing distaste I feel for the habit of rating everything one encounters, and it occurred to me that this relates a bit to my changing tastes (or, really, a change in the way that I have tastes at all) in music.
When I was a kid (through middle school or a bit beyond), I liked most of the music I heard, though of course I liked some things more than others. But I was largely unconscious of what I liked - I usually didn't know what bands or artists or albums the songs I liked came from (with the exception of the music my mom really liked, which she would tell me about). I just listened to the radio and liked what I heard and was crazy about a few things. (Some songs I remember being crazy about: Do Ya Think I'm Sexy? by Rod Stewart, Strip by Adam Ant, We Built This City by Jefferson Starship.)
Sometime in high school, I started to really have taste. There was some music I loved (Erasure, Depeche Mode, Midnight Oil, Jane's Addiction, The Cure, plenty of other stuff I'm not thinking of at this moment) and other music I loathed and detested (New Kids on the Block, Tiffany, Madonna - who I had loved when I was younger - and in general most top 40 things). Through college and beyond, I developed and expanded and refined these tastes, and they were a part of my identity. (This identity-by-tastes seems really common among my friends, particularly younger ones.)
When I was 19, I think, I did have a surprising experience. I hated the song "Vogue" by Madonna. I was visiting the Netherlands at the time, and I walked into a club with some friends. In the club was a leather-clad half-naked guy in a cage, and he was dancing to "Vogue." And it was the perfect music for exactly what was happening in that moment. I had not known such a phenomenon could occur: that a song you hated could turn out to be perfect for a particular occasion.
I've noticed over the years since college that my musical tastes are not only expanding but in general just loosening. There began to be a ton of music that I enjoyed hearing despite not officially "liking." (For instance, I am now ready to admit that I really do love hearing the song "Dust in the Wind." I will always sing along.) Sometimes I felt as though, if my friends learned of my real tastes, they'd think less of me.
That kind of anxiety is part of why we (some of us, anyway) identify with the famous xkcd cartoon about Pandora:
It seems silly that there is such a thing as "embarrassing music" in a way. People make all this music for us to listen to and enjoy - what is embarrassing about enjoying it? I mean, I'm embarrassed about liking "Dust in the Wind" which is not exactly nazi death metal or anything. It's pretty innocuous.
I am moving more and more towards viewing my musical tastes as being more probabilistic (I tend to enjoy dance music, alternative, 80's pop, blue grass, dixieland jazz, and Beethoven, and don't tend to enjoy metal, classic rock, new country, or jazz, but I can enjoy a lot of things in the right context) and not really related to my identity. It's actually hard for me to let go of the idea that musical tastes have more than practical importance.
But I am getting more and more to the point where it seems useless to describe various artists as good or bad. Sally and I both remember a time that Robin defended Pearl Jam (who Sally didn't like) as "a quality product," but most commercially produced music could be so described (depending on what qualities you think are important). Does Garth Brooks suck just because I don't really like his sound and his lyrics aren't clever and edgy or deeply meaningful (for me)? Or is he great because his music (apparently) brings pleasure to millions of people? Who cares what I think anyway?