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Accounting For Taste, Part I

  • By BC Gibson Author Avatar
  • 23 October 2013

Ben Gibson is SupaJam's resident Blogger in Los Angeles. Ben gives a unique underground insight into the "west coast" music scene plus the state of the music industry in the US of A as a whole. Enjoy!

Accounting for Taste

     That’s a title that must be amongst the most ambitious ever devised, right next to The Key to All Mythologies and The Never Ending Story.  And like those, this tome will also fall short of total fulfillment, landing instead in the soft sand of abstraction.  Indeed, even the most ambiguous of appraisals stands poised to be proven wrong, because when it comes to individual taste, there really is no accounting for it.  As anyone who’s ever tried--and failed--to buy their significant other an appropriate gift will surely attest; getting the measure of just one person’s taste is difficult enough. 

     So, having eased expectations, I’ll focus on a few areas where contingent conclusions can be drawn in regards to musical taste.  In Part I, I tackle the elephant in your pocket: the Internet. 

Part I:

Internetz Can Haz Evrything?

     The Internet has ravaged a number of previously viable business models, the music industry being one of the most publicized victims.  In altering completely the way that people find, buy and listen to music, it is reasonable to assume that people’s tastes have also been affected. 

     So what then are the implications for taste resulting from the ubiquity of the Internet?  First, it would be practical to have a general definition of what the Internet is.  It is not, in fact, a series of tubes, as an American Senator once stated.  Rather, for the purposes of this piece, the Internet can be thought of as a repository of all the world’s readily available information.  As such, the Internet does not make value judgments regarding what is accessible.  Lies and trivialities consume as many bits as truth and substance--more probably--since content is largely driven by the whims of the common layperson.  And no matter how eccentric or contrarian these whims might be, they can easily find their like online.  In this way, rather than being a tempering force, the Internet can act as kindling for opinions and tastes that might never catch on otherwise, be it the tenets of radical Islam or the music of Justin Beiber.

The Arrogance of Right and Good

     For people seeking a specific narrative in news, or a certain sound in music, the prevalence of content fitting their exact specifications is so great that they naturally begin to regard their tastes as being more pervasive than they really are.  Thus it becomes more difficult for a Republican or a Democrat to fathom another political view, or for a fan of Country or Hip-Hop music to countenance another musical sound, because they so rarely come across such views or sounds.  People begin to think that they have access to everything that’s worth finding; if it hasn’t found them within the bounds of their normal Internet travels, then it can’t be factual, it can’t be good.  It’s as if people have assumed an arrogance commiserate with having all the world’s available information available to them, while at the same time exposing themselves to an ever smaller and more homogeneous portion of that information

     I won’t say that this is true for all: for some, the Internet really is about expanding knowledge and broadening taste.  Music as a whole presents a very interesting case in this regard, because while some wall their ears off within whatever genre or sub-genre suits them, there are always others trolling the depths of musical history, seeking sounds of the past reimagined for today, while still others look for music that is entirely new and uniquely modern.

My Mustache, My Mustache, My Hipster’s Mustache

     Besides what’s uniquely modern, one of the hallmarks of the information age is mix and match nostalgia, where attributes of different decades are plucked from their history and recombined in the present, like a Frankenstein of anachronisms.  Everything old is new again, all at once and on a continual basis.  Sometimes a bit of modern novelty is added, sometimes the product is simply a wholesale reproduction of another time.  In any case, the breadth of musical sound being produced today is larger and more diverse than it ever was before the Internet.  In the past, music was far easier to timeline: certain sounds were synonymous with their era. 

     On SiriusXM for example, there are stations devoted to specific decades, and if one of these particular stations is playing and you don’t know which, you don’t have to listen very long in order to accurately guess.  When my parents have been in the car with me, listening to one of these stations, they’ve made a game of guessing the year.  I can’t help but think that when I’m their age, playing that game will be far more difficult.  Really, with the sheer number of songs being churned out these days, it’s just as likely that when I hear a song from 2013, 50 years from now, I’ll be hearing it for the first time.  With any luck it won’t be a Pitbull song that I’ve thus far managed to avoid.      

My Circle’s Totally Bigger, Bro

            Even in the present, playing guess-the-song with anyone is becoming more and more difficult.  I’m constantly amazed at how, when I have a conversation with someone about music, that they can tell me they’re into music, and yet, being into music myself, the bands that we both go on to mention are totally unfamiliar to one another.  I don’t think this is necessarily a product of either one of us having a general lack of knowledge about music, or a matter of either one of us not being into the right or the good kind of music; one or both of those might play a part, but more so I think that our mutual ignorance is simply due to the overwhelming quantity of content that is available.  To visualize this point (this is the Internet, after all) I’d like to employ some modern art, specifically Several Circles by Wassily Kandinsky. 

     For this metaphor, think of all the songs being produced and made accessible on the Internet as the black background of the painting.  An individual’s tastes can be represented as one of the circles. There is often some overlap, and in a few cases someone’s taste is entirely eclipsed within the scope of another’s; but then there are still others who stand alone.  Obviously the range of anyone’s taste varies per individual, and placing an overall center to all taste seems arbitrary. Esteemed interpretations aside, Kandinsky’s painting can be seen as an apt representation of music in the modern era.

For previous eras, I’ll employ another painting, Chromatic Circles by Herbert Bayer. 

     In this work there is a more discernible center.   Keeping with the metaphor, that center can be thought of as a record deal and maybe some radio play.  As before, the background represents the sum total of music being produced, and the circles represent an individual’s tastes and knowledge of that music.  Here it’s much easier for one person’s taste to occupy a greater percentage of all the content that is currently available.  It’s also more likely that they’ll be overlap when it comes to the taste of multiple individuals.  So in this context, when talking about music with another person, it was far more likely you’d be talking about the same stuff.

Quantity > Quality > Perspectivism

     It was likely never possible in the past, but it’s certainly impossible now to fathom something like a perfect knowledge of all available music.  It could never be the case that you’re preference is the result of careful deliberation, a conclusion arrived at after having listened to and understood all the music on the Internet. Instead, as stated above, people tend to run in the opposite direction. Faced with the overwhelming onslaught of ideas, sounds and sights that is the information age and the Internet, people fixate, choosing their own taste and their own truth.  Sometimes they call their truth, Truth and their taste, Taste.    

     Today, for any novelty to disseminate--to trend--it helps to avoid subtlety. This is as much the case in YouTube videos as it is for music, where it’s part and parcel of the format through which people listen.  Digital music files do not have the same depth and quality of sound that previous formats did. They represent a trade-off, novelty and quantity in exchange for a higher quality sound, and the commitment that buying a record used to entail. 

The Expansion of an Aesthetic     

     Because of this and because of the general ADD engendered by the Internet (point, click; point, click; point, click), music unique to this time is indeed light on subtlety, opting instead for something like shock and awe. 

     In that effect too, I think interesting parallels can be drawn between music and visual art. What Crystal Castles’ song “Wrath Of God” does with sound is similar to what Damian Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (shark in a vat) does with sight. They’re both looking to elicit the same response. Whether or not you’re keen on having that response elicited is, ultimately, individually subjective.

The Neurology of Music…

     And that is where Part II will pick up. There I will consider the parts and processes that compose that individual subjective, and why music even appeals to anyone in the first place.