Thursday, March 06, 2008

An addendum on taste

I've been pondering, on and off, further ramifications of Carl Wilson's investigation of taste -- which I first pondered here.

(We're all about further ramifications here at JTMOUE.)

Still haven't actually gotten to the book yet.

(We're all about overscheduling here at JTMOUE.)

But check this out: bass wizard Steve Lawson recently had a cool post about a cool post about a cool post (see how this Internet thing works?), and all three tie into this topic nicely.

An excerpt from the primary document (the context is an experiment in which the trajectory of a given song's popularity could be "rewound" and tested numerous times):

In each of the eight social worlds, the top songs -- and the bottom ones -- were completely different.

For example, the song "Lockdown," by 52metro, was the No. 1 song in one world, yet finished 40 out of 48 in another. Nor did there seem to be any compelling correlation between merit and success. In fact, Watts explains, only about half of a song's success seemed to be due to merit.

"In general, the 'best' songs never do very badly, and the 'worst' songs never do extremely well, but almost any other result is possible," he says.


Because the first band to snag a few thumbs-ups in the social world tended overwhelmingly to get many more. And who received those crucial first votes seemed to be mostly a matter of luck.

How many of us are willing to admit that that beautiful tune we hold so dear, that authentic expression of heartfelt artistry, that potent signifier of some significant event in our lives, may actually be something we have (at least in part) been conditioned to love?

There is a lot of writing about musical likes and dislikes as if they are scientific, subject to the play of immutable laws (most musical analysis-based criticism takes this tack -- which of course is fine as far as it goes). But what if musical taste is actually a very complex kind of choice?

What if our record collections are full of things we (again, at least in part) decide to like because it suits some larger agenda about who we think we are or who we want to be?

These are silly questions, I know. I'm in a silly mood.


M.Farina said...

You raise an interesting idea with the "decide to like" question.

Although my musical tastes run across a wide spectrum, I find myself listening to things that I WANT to be influenced by. Maybe it's jazz, maybe its punk, whatever... my tastes are centered around whatever musical pursuit I'm involved with. It's just like school, where you have to read Nabakov or something, next thing you know, Lotita has become the springboard for a whole new approach to choosing reading material.

Maybe its the musician in me - I cannot be objective. Everything relates to everything else. What's more, I find myself coming back to composers or bands who I did not like at first listen. Later on, with a broadened perspective, I enjoy it...

Andrew Durkin... said...

Yeah! And to be clear, I didn't want to suggest that "deciding to like something" is a bad thing, or that I don't do it too. I think it's actually pretty common, and pretty natural -- just not talked about so much, perhaps...

D0nnaTr0y said...

I agree with M.Farina in that I find myself also listening to what I want to be influenced by. I often wonder if I wasn't a jazz musician, would I really listen to jazz? I hate to say it, but I kinda doubt it. Especially because I do enjoy the indie rock scene and even some of the dance pop stuff, too.

I know that a good portion of the musical phases I went through growing up were usually instigated by a person that I loved, for better or for worse. There was the Glenn Miller phase when my grandfather gave me his record player and bunch of old Glenn Miller records, then a long country phase in high school when I was dating this cowboy wannabe (read: redneck. Not my finer years!), in fact, a lot of the jazz I listen to now I could attribute to my college boyfriend who was an alto player. In that sense, I would definitely say I chose to initially like that music as part of an agenda to relate to those people. But like the Nabakov reference, I think those influences acted as a gateway to much deeper listening, as well as music appreciation (I no longer actively listen to country music, but am not repulsed by it when I hear it).

In the general music classes I teach (elementary level) we do a lot of active listening where the kids are asked to give supported opinions about the what they hear. I had to come up with a rule that the kids are not allowed to say they like or dislike the song because it is or is not "their kind of music" as I was having trouble with them being unwilling to be open to something outside their prescribed genre. What I find now is that in order to like or dislike the music, they have to relate it to a memory, which I find intriguing. They'll say, "I like this because it reminds me of a time when..." Not entirely sure how that plays into your question, but thought it worthy of mention.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Hey Kelly:

I think you're spot-on about the aesthetic influence wielded by the people we are close to (and I think the same dynamic works in reverse, too -- for a while I was unfairly resistant to the wonders of Bob Marley's music, mostly because I associated it with the stereotypical fraternity party scene, which I wasn't into). It's amazing how some music can appear to change dramatically, simply when you change the social context that surrounds it.

That school anecdote is very interesting. It suggests that responses to music generally require a certain amount of cognitive *work* on the listener's part. That idea may be obvious to those of us who make music for a living, but there is also this countervailing notion out there that taste is an immediate and effortless phenomenon. (Sometimes it can seem that way, of course, but that may just be because the person has already done the work necessary to "get" what's going on, whether through previous familiarity with a genre, a set of memories that are ripe for some sort of soundtrack, and so on...)

There is so much yet to say about this subject -- thanks for your thoughts!