Summer is fast approaching in my hemisphere, and, with it, there will be cookouts and bonfires and block parties and all sorts of various and sundry opportunities to throw oneself, headlong, into awkward conversation with near-strangers. Small talk is crippling, and beer is small help, so sooner or later, you are going to have to stare down the most menacing small-talk maneuver of all:
“So, what kind of music do you listen to?”
As everybody knows, this is the worst question in the world. It’s fraught with judgment and dread and despair, and, what’s more, it’s really really hard to answer. Even if you can come up with a solid answer off the top of your head, three or four beers in at whatever bar or party or cookout you’ve heretofore attended with some measure of good cheer, this question is guaranteed to throw you into momentary misery, and leave you a stammering, embarrassed wretch of a person. Everyone will know! Your tastes will be ridiculed! You’ll lose valuable face and never, EVER get laid! I am here to help you face this question with zero fear. Of course, this question is actually a great question, and it’s one of my favorite questions in the whole world. First, let’s look at some popular, terrible answers:
“Oh, I listen to a little of everything”: this is asinine. Of course you do. I do too. I also read a little of everything: fiction, non-fiction, magazines, books, newspapers, Internet (a WHOLE lot of Internet), reviews, advice, criticism, etc. And then there are the GENRES! And there are genres WITHIN genres, and sub-genres within THOSE! I also watch a little of everything: television, film, animation, live action, documentary, fiction (once again, myriad genres, genres within genres, nesting dolls, etc.). And I eat a little bit of everything. So why would I not listen to a little of everything? This doesn’t tell anyone anything, except you haven’t given any real thought towards what you listen to and what you like and dislike, much less why you like or dislike it. Try a little harder.
“Well, my music tastes are diverse and eclectic”: this is asinine as well, but with a side of pretension. When I read this, I tend to interpret it as: “well, I haven’t given much real thought to my tastes, but rest assured they are good; possibly (probably) even better than yours, and I listen to all these different things because I am really hip and in the know and cultured and chic”. This is the kind of thing an asshole says. Now, there’s nothing WRONG with listening to a lot of different things, or having diverse and eclectic tastes: however, I find that the people who say this, when pressed for examples, generally explain that they listen to, say, both John Mayer AND Lil’ Wayne, as if this makes them towering cultural titans, rapacious consumers of the finest listening experience mankind has to offer. Furthermore, no one is listening to everything, all the time. When someone asks what you listen to, it’s fair to assume that they’re asking what you’re listening to at present. If you’re listening to a bunch of hip-hop, but you usually listen to heavy metal, you can say that, and it’s okay. However, ask yourself: are you answering the question honestly, or are you trying to show someone who you want to be and how you want to be taken? If all you’ve listened to in the last three months is hip-hop, are you really a metalhead? You could, one supposes, be both, or, even more interestingly, neither: you could just be a dude (or chick) who listens to both metal and hip-hop, in which case saying “well, I listen to a lot of different stuff. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of hip-hop, but I also listen to a fair deal of heavy metal” is a totally acceptable and well-informed answer.
“I like just about everything”- this one, usually paired with the equally odious parenthetical “(except country and rap)”, is the quickest way to get the part of my brain that pays attention to people to shut off entirely. We’ve already been over this, sort of, in the first point, but this is slightly different: listening to a little of everything is picking and choosing certain selections from different genres. Liking just about everything is having no taste: you just accept whatever rolls through your doorstep (or comes on your radio, because CERTAINLY, you are listening to radio if you say this). If you append what I call the “country/rap fallacy”, you are effectively saying this: “I am a dunce with no business offering any opinion on music whatsoever, and, furthermore, I am probably classist at the very least, and more likely than not a bit of a racist. I am furthermore incapable of finding merit in things that literally millions of other people find merit in, or even allowing myself the opportunity to discover what other people find so captivating about these things, regardless of whether or not I appreciate these facets or not. Please, for the love of God, do not listen to me, because I will likely cause you the type of brain hemorrhage usually reserved for scuba divers with poor impulse/buoyancy control.”
Listen, world: it is OKAY to say “well, that’s a tough question. Here’s what I’m listening to right now”. If you think that your current tastes aren’t commensurate with your typical listening habits, say so: no one is going to think you are a weirdo for knowing yourself well enough to realize that it’s a bit out of character for a lifelong classical music listener to have a torrid three-month dalliance with industrial music, and, furthermore, they’ll probably think it’s pretty neat that you find something worth appreciating in this different music. If you’re REALLY fancy, you can even draw comparisons between the two, or contrast them, and if you are super-duper-on-the-ball, you can articulate what you like about these styles, even if the things you enjoy about the styles are different (E.G. “I love the lush orchestration in Romantic symphonies, but I’m really drawn to the harsh textures of industrial music”). If you really, truly dislike an entire genre of music, keep it to yourself: no reason to expose yourself unduly. Now, if you hate hip-hop, and you find yourself in a conversation with a true hip-hop head, this is a perfect opportunity to say “man, I just don’t think I understand hip-hop. What am I missing, and where should I start?” The question “where should I start” is, in my mind, just about perfect. If you don’t know much about an artist/genre, it allows you an “in”, and, what’s more, whoever you’re addressing gets to feel super-cool and cultured because you asked for their advice. It’s always more fun to explore than dismiss, and it certainly makes for less contentious party encounters.
So, in review: be specific, stay current, don’t hate, and ask questions about what you don’t know. It’s a sure-fire recipe for looking like a badass when someone asks you what you listen to.
Steve Albini is hysterical.