by Rob Horning
No question stumps me more than “What kind of music do you like?” I usually try to beg off with a vague reply—“All kinds of things” or perhaps the far more honest “I don’t know.” Musical taste is a mysterious and intensely private matter, difficult to articulate and impossible to justify. It’s discovered as we listen and if we are concentrating, this is a private matter, felt directly, and it doesn’t require any social mediation.
So when I contemplate that question, I know it isn’t really about the music and that private satisfaction that can’t be expressed, that is an experience, a process, rather than an established fact. Rather I’m being asked how I want to define myself: It’s an invitation to mark my place on the taste matrix—lowbrow or highbrow; mainstream or avant-garde—and pull off some basic identity posturing.
Because our taste in music is a widely and readily understood shorthand for identity, we often seek public ways to exhibit it, even though this betrays its origins in that private, inarticulate satisfaction. Why are we so quick to do this? To muddy the joy we derive in hearing music as it is, objectively, by mixing with it all the provisional, mediated characteristics that stem from how it is hyped, how other people regard it, how we’ll be regarded when we champion it? Could it be that without all that extraneous context, there isn’t much there to consume? Are we at some level secretly aware that the intrinsic qualities of the songs we profess to like for no reason other than to please ourselves are not all that deep and sophisticated?