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An apology to anyone who has ever listened to me talk about music

| Wednesday, February 9, 2022

A few days ago, a few friends and I were watching one of the snowboarding events at the Olympics. Unfortunately, I can’t be any more specific about which event this was, but my overall ignorance serves a larger point: We simply had no idea what was going on. A contestant would complete her “run,” involving multiple jumps with all kinds of flips and rotations. Unless she fell, we would assume the “run” went well — the more flips, the better, right? Then, the color commentators would wonder about “What the judges were going to do with this”… and somehow, that snowboarder’s “run” would be given an incredibly specific score, one that often seemed lower than the overall impressiveness of the tricks should have earned. 

As far as we were concerned, there was almost no way of predicting which snowboarders’ scores would make the top three. The judges were clearly using some sort of detailed scoring system, but we couldn’t figure it out. We knew which runs we found most impressive, but our scoring system — if you can call it that — was more based off of vibes than anything else.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because of something I realized as I was watching the competitors flip around in the air while simultaneously reciting a Japanese Breakfast song in my head, a song from an album that I would only semi-ironically call “objectively great” despite having no objective standard for judging these things. The truth is this: I like music the same way I like snowboarding — with near-total ignorance, but thinking I can recognize the good stuff when I see (or, in this case, hear) it.

It feels good to get that off of my chest. I’ve tried to maintain this facade of “expertise” for far too long. I may write and copy edit for the Scene department at The Observer, but I honestly know nothing about music theory or production. Seriously, nothing. I took a music class last year, and when we analyzed various songs, I would have to write question marks next to the instruments I was talking about because I couldn’t even tell what was being played (imagine: trumpets?). So, when I say that I like an album because of the production or the quality of the melodies, I really just mean that I like the way it sounds. I can recognize a good bass line or guitar hook, but that’s about it.

Everything I’ve already said would be bad enough. Except my tastes aren’t just subjective; sometimes, they’re not even really mine. I pretend to be immune to various music “trends” and to scorn top 40 music, but I go through phases and follow the crowd like everyone else. I was quick to abandon Taylor Swift (along with much of the world) upon the release of the “reputation” radio singles, even though I loved “1989.” Now, I can once again appreciate both Taylor and “reputation,” but it only took the opening bars of “…Ready For It?” and a little Kanye drama for me to write her off as an artist for almost five years. 

I also went through a “classic rock” phase that irritated everyone around me, mostly because I refused either to admit that it was a phase at all or to listen to anything that wasn’t written or performed by a long-haired, coked-out white man. My rationale at the time was that this kind of music was the best ever made and that anyone with a discerning ear should exclusively listen to stuff from before the 1990s, too. Now, I’ve pretty much returned to the present, as far as my tastes are concerned (though I do still love Led Zeppelin). But I still read Pitchfork and Rolling Stone reviews to make sure I’m listening to the “right stuff.” And as much as I am ashamed to admit it, some of the songs that have become my favorites are those that were recommended to me on indie music TikTok.

By now, you surely understand what I’m trying to say: I’m a fraud, and I’m taking this moment to come clean to anyone who’s been subjected to my uninformed ramblings about post-punk revival and lounge jazz concept albums. But this column is more than just a confession (seeing as that would be a real downer).

Yes, my music preferences are somewhat governed by a desire, however subconscious, to like the music adored by people who actually know what they’re talking about. Yes, they can change on a whim, no matter how sure I am that whatever Arctic Monkeys b-side or Major Lazer and Ezra Koenig collaboration has become my hyper-fixation of the month will be my favorite forever. Yes, Lorde is probably right that “all the music you loved at 16 you’ll grow out of.”

All of that may be true. But who cares? Why should anyone be ashamed about having tastes that change, or about having tastes that are influenced by our peers, or about really loving something we hardly know at all? Sometimes, popular things are popular for a reason. Sometimes, I — and really all of us — will inevitably fail to discover something great until the masses do. Watching snowboarding has taught me you can enjoy a sport without really getting it, or even pretending to get it, and that there’s nothing wrong with being an armchair enthusiast, jumping on the bandwagon with more joy than real understanding. The same can be said for music (even if I’d still rather be a connoisseur).

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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