A Good Ass Question: Is Taste in Music a Fair Judgment of Character?

July 5, 2012 18 comments

The ultimate “cop-out” sentence a reviewer or columnist can pull out of his/her dismissive phrase bag (re: ass) is the expression “Good for its target audience”. Now, you’ll see this in multiple variations, such as: “Well, if you liked ____, then you should probably like ___” or “It may not be for me but, whoever it’s for, they’ll love it”. It’s the laziest, most self-serving display of false literary magniloquence one can ever attempt to pompously inject into any prose bearing, even a faint, resemblance to analysis. The very idea of forming a critique, in any media, is to be able to synthesize the experience of absorbing content for the specific purpose of illustrating its value to ANYONE who’s generous enough to take your opinion seriously…

So, why is “good for what it is” the only way I know how to describe Justin Bieber’s latest album, Believe?

Okay, I know no one put a gun to my head and said “review Bieber’s new album!!!” (although, out of all the Belieber’s out there, one of them has to be packin’ heat), but at the same time, there’s always the argument that, whoever the album appeals to in the first place is probably going to purchase it regardless of any criticism they see. But, is that really the case? Who are “they”, and why are we (and, by “we”, I mostly mean people with a taste in music that covers multiple styles and genres) so confident in our ability to typecast others based on their choice in music? Whether it be good or bad, most people feel they can easily define an individual’s personality, solely based on listening decisions.

I mean, put it this way: You’re on a bus (or train, or maybe just standing outside looking human-y) and, right next to you, someone’s listening to their iPod. You overhear the track playing and, lo and behold, it’s something along the lines of Flo Rida’s “Wild Ones”. Okay, fair enough. Now, let’s say you glance over to take a look at this person and the profile is as such: husky, 20-something white guy, tribal print shirt, gelled hair, shitty tan; the works. Tell me you haven’t put this guy’s ENTIRE life together already!?

Now, take that same situation, put it in the form of a 20-something black female. She’s got on a solid-color sun dress, ballet-style flats, thick-framed Ray Bans, and a cotton beret, barely concealing her loosely coiffed hair. From her earbuds, you can vaguely hear that new Little Dragon single, “Sunshine”, playing as she dexterously sways in rhythm. Some of us may conjure images of her lifestyle possibly including exclusive house parties in big city apartments (*cough* Lower East Side, Manhattan *cough*), alternating between her life as a fashion intern and liberal-arts college student; all while documenting her days via Tumblog.

(note: I almost composed that second example as a slightly overweight, 20-something, white female listening to Adele’s “Someone Like You”. But, that seemed a tad harsh… Aren’t you proud of me???)

I could be dead wrong about both, of course, and neither is a genuine assessment of character, simply because I don’t know either one of them personally (then again, this is all hypothetical, so I know them better than you do, ha-HA!). I’m also aware that factors such as clothing and body type definitely came into play, but music is certainly a chief component in those judgments. However, there is some worth to the prejudice of coveting another persons musical preferences.

I can attest that, as shallow as it may seem, if I meet a female that I’m interested in, and I make an effort to gain her interest as well, a divisive factor can be (and often is) her taste in music. Of course, I’m well aware that I may never meet a girl as passionate about Wu-Tang as she is about late 60′s – early 70′s era Frank Zappa, but I also cannot date you if 75% of your iTunes library is Skrillex and/or Skrillex related fodder. I just can’t. And, aside from that being extremely trivial and petty, it’s also only one aspect of a person’s identity. We may share the same views on politics, food, sex, movies, TV; hell, even an opinion on the more suitable captain of the USS Enterprise. (it’s PicardLadies) But, those are my stipulations. I’m certainly open to anything that enters my ears, but she has to be as well. That’s how seriously I take my music.

Yet, there’s also the duality of tracks that you love for all the wrong reasons. Those, ahem, “junk food” songs that exist solely for disposable fun. In a more mirthful context, I take that music just as seriously. And, no season brings out that appreciation for celebratory schlock more than summer.

Something happens to me when the temperature rises and the layers of clothing decrease exponentially. Aside from sweating profusely, I also gain a seemingly inherent soft spot for trashy pop and ig’nant-ass rap music. A few months ago you couldn’t pay me to show any emotion other than disdain towards Ca$h Out’s “Cashin’ Out”. Fast-forward to mid-June: my car windows are triumphantly down while I’m hollering about how a condo is, indeed, on my wrist. Same goes for that Godawful “Call Me Maybe” cancer song. As much as I’d like to hate it, I don’t change the station immediately when it comes on the radio anymore. I’m certainly not feverishly scrambling to turn the volume up, but it doesn’t feel out of place within the relative milieu of the season. Now, I’ve discussed, at painful length, the polarizing effect of guilty pleasure songs, but should my guilty pleasures define who I am?

Well, sort of. That’s an aspect of my personality and, while it isn’t a dominating facet, the best I can do is be honest about it. But, what if it’s one of those summer days where I’m indulging, and you happen to catch me right in the middle of my attempt to match Bieber’s falsetto on “Boyfriend”? (it happens, folks) How would you ever know that my musical depth reaches further than generic radio pop? Or that the very next song on my playlist is Lee Perry’s “Bionic Rats”? You’ve got every right to judge me for that singular moment, but it wouldn’t be accurate. Then again, are we actually going for accuracy? Or, is the goal to actively filter people out of our lives whom we believe aren’t, at the very least, as interesting as we take ourselves?

I’d say it’s an amalgamation of all of those tendencies, as well as our own congenital insecurities. There’s always someone who’s musical knowledge is more encyclopedic than yours. And, there’s always going to be “that guy” who looks down on you for getting “way too excited” about your discovery of Brian Wilson’s Smile LP, simply because he’s been listening to The Beach Boys since Little Deuce Coup (pretension isn’t exclusive to hipsters, guys). But, you’re going to like what you like, and that’s what will, in the long term, always define who you are… So yeah, I like Believe, for now. But, that’s probably because you caught me on a hot summer day with my windows down and my stereo up.

To address the thesis here, though: Can one asses factual individual traits about a person solely based on their taste in music? Absolutely. But, is it fair? Now, that’s a good ass question.