Saturday, October 24, 2009

musical taste and the pleasures of shamelessness

In high school I was quite a crusader against the whole phenomenon where people say they like something because it's just their personal taste, but it's totally obvious they only like it because a certain group of people likes it and they want to be seen as part of that group. Even more obnoxious, I felt, was when people talked about how much they hated something as if it were just a random personality quirk of theirs, but conveniently the thing was something you were "supposed to" hate, as deemed by the cognoscenti. Since high-schoolers are immature, people around me were constantly making grand gestures to this effect, like when this girl who idolized Jim Morrison and always wore ripped old flannel shirts exclaimed "blasphemy!" and ran to shut off a boombox in the school gym that was playing Paula Abdul.

I'm known now among my friends as one of the more shameless people out there, as regards this whole practice. I will bellow it from the rooftops if I have just downloaded "Genie in a Bottle" by Christina Aguilera. I don't feel guilty enough to call anything a guilty pleasure. (And anyway, it's more shame than guilt.) I'll occasionally use the phrase "guilty pleasure" in polite conversation just to grease the wheels of sociability, but deep down I really don't feel it. However, lest you think I'm making some sort of post-hipster claim to authenticity and fearlessness, I have to admit that I am also highly—maybe even overly—attuned to which choices are considered cool and which are not. And I'm aware that my tastes are influenced by society in a huge number of ways.

But I don't feel guilty about that either. In fact, I want it to stay that way. Because I kind of feel as though some of those social influences are more meaningful and more authentic than what happens when you are put into a vacuum with some piece of music or clothing and asked to judge, independent of where it fits into your world, whether you like it.

Last weekend's New York Times Magazine had an article about Pandora, a website where you type in names of musicians you like, and it plays you other songs you might not have heard of that have musical qualities in common with what you like. It talked about how Pandora attempts to decrease the influence of other people's tastes on your taste, and how that sometimes results in recommendations you wouldn't want your friends to know about, like when someone who liked Sarah McLachlan was horrified that Pandora thought they would also like Celine Dion, since Celine Dion is ground zero for uncoolness among female pop artists. There was even a pretty good book that analyzed why Celine Dion is so uncool ("A Journey to the End of Taste"), part of the hipstery 33 1/3 series of books about albums, but even that book seemed to consider it a huge revelation that "uncool" is why people hate Celine Dion. I liked the parts about Bourdieu but felt they didn't go far enough.

Ironically, this week there was also a piece in Double X about the same phenomenon, only in this piece Sarah McLachlan herself was used as the example of the "music you're not supposed to like." A new band called Florence and the Machine, which produces harder rock than Sarah, was nonetheless likened to Sarah in that both have "a certain melodramatic ambition, a taste for organs, yearning and soaring, highly-produced, multi-layered, heartsick tracks likely to put an ache in the back of a 14-year old's throat," even though Sarah is "treacly" and associated with "angels," bringing to mind old ladies who collect Precious Moments figurines, not anyone who would listen to music that was edgy or controversial or subversive.

So is this a contradiction? Is Sarah McLachlan cool or isn't she? Not a contradiction—it's just that Sarah McLachlan exists in a certain spot along the coolness continuum, cooler than Celine Dion and less cool than Florence and the Machine, maybe cool in the mind of the average 48-year-old suburban New York Times Magazine reader and less cool in the mind of the 30-year-old city-dwelling Double X reader. I also think that Sarah has become less and less cool over the years—her pre-Lilith Fair stuff (my favorite Sarah McLachlan song during my main fanhood years, 1994-96, "Black," off the album Solace, begins with weird creepy cello tones) seems far less treacly to my ears than the stuff she produced after she launched the Lilith Fair. When her 1998 album "Surfacing" came out, I remember feeling that palpable letdown you feel when a musician you thought you were a fan of comes out with an album you hate. "Arms of the Angel," a single off that album, clinched it for me. Sarah never used to sing about angels, at least not literally. Even "Ice Cream," one of her pre-Lilith songs that the Double X article specifically calls out as being treacly, is practically 9 1/2 Weeks compared to "Arms of the Angel." (Your love is better than ice cream, but a similar consistency when melted.) Not that, like, 9 1/2 Weeks is hip; Adrian Lyne is no, um, Cassavetes. But he's no Chris Columbus either.

Yeah, but. You also have to take into account that that was 1998, and my fanhood of "Solace" and "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" had occurred in '94-'96. And a certain terrible thing happened around 1998. A certain shift in how music sounded and in the culture at large, specifically the way culture perceived "alternative" and "edgy."

In the 90s (most of it), people participated in poetry readings. They had long, flowing curly hair, not "big" like 80s-style "big hair" but far more voluminous than anything considered hip today. They wore roomy-cut, but somehow not "slouchy," flowered dresses with Doc Martens boots, which have always had a sort of awkward-looking toe shape (I even thought so at the time, and preferred Fluevogs for that reason), and not only was that kind of awkwardness socially acceptable in the 90s—it was also aspired to, if you considered yourself "alternative," because, as per the whole Soundgarden "Black Hole Sun" mentality, angst (with attendant awkwardness) was the antidote to sunny Stepford superficiality ("mainstream"). Also, people used the word "alternative" and it didn't sound ridiculous.

Lots of things seemed non-ridiculous that seem ridiculous now. It was okay for people outside MFA programs to say they were "into poetry." People called themselves "passionate." You could even use the word "erotic," or (remember this?) "erotica." It was all part of being Artistic, which was related to being Romantic. The mid-90s sound of Sarah McLachlan embodied that aesthetic, and it wasn't thought of as treacly. Celine Dion, on the other hand, was considered treacly, even in the 90s. The difference was, as Double X puts it, that Sarah was "heartsick." Her melodrama didn't have anything to do with how wonderful Christmas is; it had to do with how she would be the one to hold you down, kiss you so hard she'll take your breath away. The ululations were about sex and angst, not love and happiness. For this reason, Sarah was included in the description "alternative," and Celine never was.

But around 1998, things changed. You started hearing the words "hipster" and "ironic" everywhere you went, much more pervasively than before. Nick Hornby came out with the novel "About a Boy" in 1999, in which a vacuous, independently wealthy hipster dude helps out the hapless junior-high-age son of a 90s-style "artsy" woman, who is never a romantic prospect for him because she's just not his type. He likes women whose style owes more to fashion magazines; this woman wears a sweater that looks like a yeti. Our hipster instructs the young boy on how to be cool, and he and his mother, meanwhile, educate him on the benefits of "singing with your eyes closed."

Sarah McLachlan is music you sing with your eyes closed. Which is why, after 1998, it sounded uncool. Singing with your eyes closed was cool until 1998 and then it wasn't.

I'll grant you that Sarah herself probably aged into syrupy oversentimentality around the time she did "Surfacing," but I think her earlier albums would also not have been as well received if she had released them after 1998. When I first heard "Possession," the first Sarah song I ever heard, I heard it within 1994. And I heard it with the ears of a 21-year-old.

Which brings me to my other point: That when I hear "Possession" in 2009, with 36-year-old ears, I still love it. I'm not sure I would love it if I heard it for the first time now. Part of why I love it is that it reminds me of 1994, and of being 21, and of everything that was going on with me then, and the people I knew and listened to it with.

And isn't that also a way our musical tastes are affected socially? I've never listened to music as a completely solitary activity; I've always listened to it as part of life. In fact, when I was in high school and all self-righteous toward people who claimed that their taste was based purely on the "quality" of the music, this was the argument I used to give: Don't you have any sentimental attachment AT ALL to, say, "Hold On" by Wilson Phillips? The people you worked with at that summer job, the diner you went to with the person you were in love with, where it was playing? Top 40 music has that facet to it that "cool" music doesn't have: You hear it everywhere, not by choice, and it seeps into you. Plenty of the top 40 music I liked in my youth crept into my life that way, in non-music-oriented situations. No one gave it to me on a mix tape or said, "Hey, you have to hear this." I didn't read about it in a music column. So I grew to like it because of the non-music associations it had. And for that reason, I've always felt like it had a certain kind of authenticity that music you listen to only in the context of "music" doesn't have.

The most extreme example of this is top-40 songs I hated when they were popular but love now. For instance, "Born to Be My Baby" by Bon Jovi. If you want to know how little of a music snob I was at the time, know this: When I hated "Born to Be My Baby," I loved Debbie Gibson's second album. But I hated how Jon Bon Jovi's vocalizations were so exaggeratedly guttural. I hated the silly over-the-top macho-ness. I hated Jon Bon Jovi's hair. I hated the people in my community who were big fans of Bon Jovi. (Maybe this is music snobbery of a type, but my snobbery was more of a defense against those kids' assholishness.) But now when I listen to it, all I can think of is 1989, and being 15, and all the things I did while the song was playing. I have a sentimental attachment to it.

The kids I knew when I was a teenager who were given to pooh-poohing songs like "Hold On" by Wilson Phillips nearly always said it was because they were musically unimaginative. That they only used "two chords." Usually, these kids were into classic rock—which, in New York City hipster circles, isn't considered particularly cool. But I'm reminded of a Chuck Klosterman essay that posits that teenagers, contrary to popular belief, don't actually want to be COOL the way 18-to-40-year-olds (some of us) do; they merely want to avoid being lame. They're not going to want the most cutting-edge stuff out there; they want the safe stuff. To teenagers, top 40 isn't safe, even if it is bland, because top 40 is the domain of littler kids, and if you seem younger, you're not safe. Classic rock also has the advantage of having come out before you were born, so it gives its fans a certain air of world-weariness that teenagers want. Therefore, teenagers in both 1991 and 2009 love "The Joker" by the Steve Miller Band. They love the Beatles and the Stones. They (especially the boys) refer to it as "real music" when discussing it vs. Wilson Phillips. These types were also into jam bands like Phish, which featured plenty of musical variety but, as Time Out New York once put it, being a fan of those bands is a liability if you want to get laid in the vicinity of East Houston St.

I'm reminded also of the time in Sassy Magazine when someone wrote in to opine that Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" was a rip-off of R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World As We Know It," and then someone else wrote in to say the R.E.M. song was a ripoff of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" by Bob Dylan, and I got mad, because everyone was just being soooo predictable with their transparent little games of social one-upmanship, since everyone knows that Dylan trumps REM and REM trumps Billy Joel in the social hierarchy. That classic rock/high school thing again, where Dylan trumps REM. The music-snob jam band fan kids I knew also accused the Violent Femmes and the Ramones of having only two chords; this one super-ultra-blasé girl condemned those bands as the music she'd liked in seventh grade, during her oh-so-unsophisticated punk phase. I've heard that this whole hierarchy shifted after grunge hit, pretty much right after I graduated from high school, and also that today's teenagers deem anything non-rap to be lame, but that just goes to show ya, ever further, how temporal these hierarchies are. And of course, nowadays hipsters make fun of Rush, which was a darling of the music snobs in 1990. (It seems true that part of hipster snobbery is making fun of how unenlightened we as a culture were in the past; maybe that's why the Modern Lovers sound so ahead of their time, because they sound like something that would have come out post-1998.)

So what I find curious, ultimately, is that these articles are accusing music snobs of being too socially influenced in their alleged tastes, but I differentiated myself from them by saying I was even more socially influenced than they were. Sure, they played that whole obnoxious game of pretending they weren't doing it just to be cool, but they somehow managed to avoid what I felt was the unstoppable pull of top 40, which was a completely social phenomenon. Maybe you aren't supposed to like it, but in another way, you totally are supposed to. How can you really lap up the tastes of the elite so unquestioningly while full-on rejecting the tastes of the masses? The same mechanism, really, is involved in liking both.

Well, maybe personal taste can factor into your relationship with "bad" music. I certainly have plenty of opinions where it's concerned. I'd much rather listen to anything by Britney Spears than anything by N*SYNC, although Justin Timberlake's solo stuff is kinda good. I've always felt that the Samantha Fox hit "Naughty Girls (Need Love Too)" is far superior to her follow-up, "I Wanna Have Some Fun." And since there's no social incentive in liking any of this music, I can feel pretty confident in my belief that these are my actual tastes. Or maybe my life was just going better during the time that "Naughty Girls" was in the top 40 than when "I Wanna Have Some Fun" was. Or maybe I, personally and socially, was in more of a "Naughty Girls" kind of place when it became a hit (Spring '88) than I was in an "I Wanna Have Some Fun" place during its heyday (Christmas vacation '88-'89, when I was listening a lot to the Ramones and to Prince's "Sign 'O' the Times" album, which had come out over a year before but hadn't really pulled me in until then).

So I think that music snobbery and top-40 populism alike are ways of allowing your musical taste to be filtered socially, but I guess I still agree with my teenage self that music snobbery is a more artificial, undesirably self-conscious version of that social filtering, where instead of letting your social experiences define you, you fudge your own social experiences or even engineer them to result in a socially desirable personal playlist. Don't want to like Sarah McLachlan? Dump your friends who are fans of hers. (Do people do that? I wouldn't want to be friends with them.)

But the mere existence of a hierarchy itself alters the experience of the music listening, in some cases. When you listen to music you know is high status, that feeling of "then I must be cool" is a pleasurable rush that adds to the enjoyment of the music. Rock music is already about a sexy, adrenaline-ish feeling, a stylization of emotions; this effect on the ego fits in seamlessly with that overall listening experience. Seriously, I owned three White Stripes albums before I realized that I wasn't all that into the White Stripes. I mean, they don't suck, but they're not one of my favorite bands.

However, when I list my favorite bands I am acutely aware of being "safe" in doing so, i.e., that they're high enough status on the social music-o-meter that my coolness won't be jeopardized. My top three are 1) The Hold Steady, 2) all of Greg Dulli's projects (Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers, Gutter Twins, and his solo stuff), 3) Belle and Sebastian. Now, none of these are on the absolute bleeding edge; they're not obscure enough to please some 20-year-old art student who lives in the MacKibbin Street Lofts; they've achieved a level of popularity that hard-core snobs would use to dismiss them. But they're also no Sarah McLachlan, and certainly not Celine Dion. I feel perfectly comfortable admitting to the people around me who I consider cool (none of whom are 20-year-old art students) that these are my favorites and thinking that this means my taste is pretty decent. But another thing that plays a big role in how comfortable I feel in declaring these as my favorite bands is that I genuinely love all of them. I love them in different ways, which makes it extra magical. It's sort of like the Hold Steady embodies all the most beautiful aspects of summer, Greg Dulli fall/winter, and Belle and Sebastian spring. I have separate playlists on my iPod for each of the three, because I so frequently am in the mood to be saturated with one of them. I also love some classic, unassailable stuff, for example, Tom Waits (another fall/winter artist, along with Dulli).

Contrast that with Panda Bear's "Person Pitch," an album that, a subscription service that offers a lot of indie stuff, convinced me I had to download, it was just that great. I had a hard time listening to it; it wasn't exciting or catchy or relatable enough. It was very conceptual, oriented toward noises and sounds, not toward melody and lyrics, which makes it more difficult but not impossible. Sure, I've enjoyed experimental, wordless electronic music; it can be great, when it's evocative of something, when it makes me feel something—and that's extra important when you're listening to it absent of any personal context. But this was too self-consciously experimental. It struck me as the kind of music that someone (probably a guy who didn't get laid often enough) would put on after deciding, "Now I Am Going To Listen To This Album." Some would say that because it's less "accessible," it's for people with more sophisticated taste, so if you don't like it, you must not be very sophisticated. But here's my theory on that: There is a level of sophistication past which you become less cool. Isn't "cool" about living from the gut, not from the head? About spontaneously and charismatically relating to the world around you, not living in your head? About having rip-roaring, The Fonz–ish encounters with your peers? If it's too "difficult," you can accuse music of having failed to achieve that personal reach that, to me, is essential to cool.

It's like this dorky guy who once tried to seduce my friend. When she agreed to spend an evening in his company, they went to Sixth Street, the block of the East Village with all the Indian restaurants, and he insisted on looking at the Zagat rating of all of them before picking one. Walking up and down the whole goddamn block. Whatever your opinion of the social status of Zagat (some would say it's too middlebrow and behind-the-curve to be considered sophisticated), that act, of checking out the Zagat ratings, was a cerebral-ified attempt to make a sophisticated choice instead of a random one (and this would be true even if he had been relying upon a more bleeding-edge source of restaurant reviews than Zagat). And it would have been cooler, evening-wise, to make a random one. The coolest would have been to go to the one your friend recommended, if you had a friend who recommended one, but failing that, as our dork obviously did, you should just fucking pick one.

So maybe what it is is, there's enough different cool-enough music out there, that speaks to different people in different ways, that anyone can have a socially acceptable favorite band that genuinely is their favorite, that truly moves them and makes them happy, and since there is so much diversity there, no one has to resort to listening to treacly angel-pop, ever, unless you don't know any better, and only then are you a real member of the Great Unwashed. Even I stopped listening to top 40 at some point. Somewhere along the way, the number of commercials on top 40 radio made it hell to listen to. MTV stopped playing videos. As I got older, I had fewer and fewer jobs that involved listening to it against my will. It doesn't speak to me anymore—mostly. There is the occasional exception, like Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats." I got that song onto my iPod and listened to it over and over again. I just love the sunny, friendly way she describes exacting revenge on her ex. Love it! And the wonderfully true depictions of what goes on in a bar, the silly props people use when they flirt. And OMG, "Shut Up and Let Me Go" by the Ting Tings! As used in Gossip Girl, The House Bunny, and I Love You, Beth Cooper! Sooooo transporting! But mostly I hate top 40 on the occasions when I have to hear it, like when I go into Forever 21 at the mall.

Still, I love the top 40 music of my preteen and teen years, and the swooning, hysterical romantic-artistic ululations of the 90s coffeehouse-girl artists. They are a part of me, and I can't bear to deny it. "Possession" 4ev.