Friday, January 13, 2012

My Changing Musical Preferences

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?


Sally said...

If you spent any time listening to contemporary radio country music, you would realize that Garth Brooks is a fucking genius producer of incredibly good music of this type. Driving halfway across the country and back, forced to listen to the radio because the CD player was busted, it was bliss to find an 80s/90s "classic" country music station that played Garth Brooks.

I suspect that identity-by-taste peaks in that 13-25 ish age range. I think I have more of it than you do at this point (though maybe that's just because my taste is better - heh heh). I think my music preferences/judgments have loosened a bit but not a lot, though I too am more inclined to deem music as "good/appropriate for the context" than I used to be.

Stefanie said...

I know when I was growing up, my taste in music generally was limited to Country and Classic Rock, as these genres were what my parents listened to. I never really branched outside those boxes. Both because I was hardly ever exposed to things different, and because I really did enjoy the music (still do actually).

It wasn't until around high school that I began to explore music a bit more. I think it came from the fact that I started driving, and thus had complete control over the radio and could crank up whatever and sing along to my heart's content. And, like yourself, there are songs that I will sing along to every time, but would not consider them songs I like.

Now, I find that I have a strangely eclectic taste in music. Though I must say, I continue to find that I am really influenced by what the people around me listen to, merely because it exposes me to different tastes.

When I put my iPod on Shuffle, I get an interesting mix of things like Garth Brooks, Linkin Park, Frank Sinatra, Patsy Cline, etc.