Friday, February 22, 2008

Is It Fair to Judge People Based on Their Music Taste?

By Nicole Pope

Once a semester I assign my students an analysis paper. Theoretically I could make them analyze anything: literature, abstract art, U.S. foreign policy, that year’s KU basketball team. Since it doesn’t matter what they are analyzing so much as how they are analyzing it, I ask them to write about something they are passionate about: their favorite music.

This assignment reveals far more about my students than, say, essays about the environment or smoking bans or the death of a grandparent. Suddenly I see them through a new lens: the quiet girl always hiding her Sudoku under her desk who loves Rilo Kiley, the hard-working Daddy’s girl who still listens to Daddy’s music (Lionel Ritchie), the kid in the back wearing a “Nausea” hat that isn’t really a commentary on his feelings about this class or life, but rather an advertisement for his favorite band.

It’s also the assignment with the potential to bring me closest to my students. I’ll never forget the girl who wrote an analysis of Animal Collective’s “Grass,” or the one who came to my office for help comparing Interpol’s “The Specialist” to Badly Drawn Boy’s “Everybody’s Stalkin,” or the student who compared descriptions of God in Sufjan Stevens’ “Casimir Pulaski Day” to those in Modest Mouse’s “Bukowski.” For perhaps the first time in the semester, these students and I were speaking the same language.

I’ve wondered about this connection, and whether it’s fair to bond with some people and not others based simply on music taste. Certainly others forge similarly shallow camaraderie based on films, art, politics, religion, television shows, and so on. Is it so wrong that for me at least, music is the number one barometer?

At times I feel like the characters from Wonder Boys, who scrutinize passersby and imagine their life stories: “He’s a groomer named Claudelle.” “He lives with his mother.” “He blames himself for his brother’s death.” Except I’m looking at people and guessing their music taste, like “I bet she adores Joni Mitchell,” or “He’s totally in a Slipknot tribute band,” or, “That hipster wannabe is a total Deathcab fan.”

Maybe there’s nothing wrong with this game in and of itself. But is it fair to then make assumptions about that person? I’d like to say no. That would be too superficial. That would be stereotyping. But to an extent I think it is possible, if not fair. If you believe like I do that music is an expression of one’s views on a lot of things – life, love, religion, politics, the pursuit of happiness, the status quo – then you better believe I’ll see a world’s difference between a super-Evanescence fan and a super-Animal Collective fan. (This is an extreme example, but you get the idea.)

To be fair, sometimes I am dead wrong about someone. Like the kid who I pegged as a SY/MBV fan, until he handed in his paper over chamber music. (No, not chamber pop, chamber music. Like Gregorian chants. Still, it could have been far worse.) Or the kid with the D+ average who adored Sufjan Stevens and Iron & Wine. He might not have been able to articulate why he adored them, but should that be a requirement for liking something? This time I can resoundingly say no.

My pretentious theory gets even more messed up when I think of my mother. I don’t want to just write her off, you know, even though not too long ago she did make me endure a diatribe about how Christina Aguilera was sooo much more talented than Britney Spears. Sometimes I make her mixes with safe bands I know she’ll like: Spoon, The Decemberists, Cat Power. Then she’ll call and say, “I finally listened to that CD you made me. That one kind of country-ish song has the f-word in it, but I still really liked it.” (“A History of Lovers” by Iron & Wine.) I’ll never forget the time she called me on her birthday after a couple glasses of wine and said, “I just wanted you to know. Arcade Fire. I get it now.”

So on subsequent mixes I get a little braver. And a little braver. Once I made her a mix with Sigur Ros and Sleater Kinney on it. I never did hear her thoughts on that one, though sometimes I imagine her sitting in her car listening to it. Trying to figure it out. More than likely, she’s trying to figure me out.

(Note: As much as I wish the nifty snobby graphic above were my creation, it's not. I took it from here, where incidentally you can also buy the T-shirt.)


Joshwa said...

i'm a proud owner of that shirt, in fact. though i have trouble finding occasions in which to feel that pretentious

Girlfriend said...

Do they have socks with that graphic on it? I would definitely purchase the socks.

Hackworth Artifex said...

I hate to nitpick, but if "Music I Used to Like" insinuates it isn't presently liked, then that's not a valid Venn diagram. hehe

Gossip♥Grrl said...

I've often thought about this too...or I guess more recently I've been thinking about if you can tell what kind of music someone listens to by the clothing they wear? In some cases yes, but not always. I thought about doing a post on that.
I think it also gets difficult to judge someone when they listen to all different types of all reality you could really hate me for some of the music I listen to. :)

The Moon said...

I agree with Hackworth...

"Music I Used To Like" should be changed to "My Backcatalog", "Music I found out about 5 years ago", or something silly like "Spinal Tap".