My Music Tastes Sucks: Finding Joy in Critical Thinking

Saturday, March 20

By Ash Haslett Cuff

Generally speaking, my taste in music is quite atrocious.

"But Ash,” I hear you protest. “You’ve written a couple articles surrounding music, I thought you were fairly secure in your taste. Secure enough, at least, to tell us what we should be listening to.”

Yes, while I have written a couple of ill-advised articles about music, that doesn’t mean I think I have a good taste in music, it just means I like telling people what to do. 

I've made my peace with my music taste. It’s largely vapid, synth inflicted indie poptimism with contrived lyrics and the occasional funk-inspired bass line to try and fool listeners they’re listening to something with merit.

These bands only have 5,000 monthly listeners for a reason.

So sure, I listen to second rate indie bands populated with anemic men in loudly patterned shirts who take themselves too seriously, yet I still have the gall to turn up my nose at mainstream music. I’m a hypocrite and a snob which is probably the worst combination known to man. Clearly you don’t need a penchant for Kubrick and Radiohead’s entire discography on vinyl in order to be a dick; us lesser mortals do the job just as well without mummy issues and psychosomatic gluten allergies to contend with.

Sometimes I feel self conscious buying records. The sulking, tattoo riddled cashier is surely questioning what the hell I’m doing with a $5 Eurythmics record or the poorly received debut from a band who still think they’re in Dazed and Confused even though they’re 32. Part of the reason I occasionally feel insecure about the music I listen to is because I don’t know much about music, and I don’t have the vocabulary to even defend or justify myself. Unlike with my taste in literature (which is stellar, by the way), I’m unable to enter into meaningful conversations about music. If I had this knowledge of music, I might be more secure. On the other hand if that were the case I probably wouldn’t be listening to what I currently subject myself to.

The crux of this piece could easily be something along the lines of ‘listen to what you want, do what makes you happy,’ however that kind of sickenly insincere positivity disgusts me so I won’t even attempt to broadcast a message of ‘be yourself’ lest I make myself ill.

 By all means, enjoy what you want, I have no issue with the core of that message. Equally, don’t get snippety when your taste is subject to scrutiny. Be prepared to defend it, sure, if you want, but don’t shut down criticisms. I’ve found that being able to think critically about what I enjoy has actually increased my ability to like it. Mindless absorption can only take you so far; at a certain point your brain is crying out for usage, so may as well oblige it.

Thinking critically is a skill many more could benefit from learning. It doesn’t mean you have to start trashing everything, after all that can be counter productive. Learning how to pick apart pieces of media or literature or music can increase your enjoyment as it will help you understand more clearly what you do or don’t like. You don’t even really need to know the technical jargon to pinpoint what works for you in a particular piece (I have definitely used the term ‘bouncy’ to describe a song before, and my film knowledge would be nothing without abuse of the word ‘aesthetic’).  

So sure, even after thinking critically about things and finding out that they might be shite, I still am able to enjoy them regardless. Fran Leibowitz talks about how she dislikes the term ‘guilty pleasure’ when people describe certain things they enjoy. She argues that if something gives you pleasure, there’s no reason to feel guilty about it. Maybe if that pleasure includes the public removal of a Ventetian whore’s nose then you may need to rethink, excluding that however…(yes I referenced one of my previous jokes from another piece, sue me. I’m already starting to run out of fresh material. You can find that article here by the way, it’s quite a fun one if I do say so myself.)

But, as with many things, I agree with Fran: I don’t think you should feel guilty about something you enjoy, especially if that pleasure is books or films or music. No matter how low brow or questionable in quality it may seem, if it brings you some happiness then surely at least one of its initial functions is being fulfilled. You can enjoy something while still thinking critically about it, and take the judgement of others with a grain of salt. Let us have occasion to revel in mediocrity, sometimes it can be surprisingly liberating.

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