How We Fight for the Music We Love

You may have heard that there was a wee little debate this week. It was between two people trying to become The President of the United States – or POTUS, as I’ve affectionately referred to that position since The West Wing was on the air.

People watched. People argued. Passionately.

The way I’ve sometimes argued about music.

Some people might think that’s a silly thing to do. What’s the point of arguing about music? It’s all opinion anyway.

I was a total music snob.

If I had tried telling that to my younger self, I would have bitten your head off. What could be more serious and worthy of argument than music!

I’ve gotten into some pretty heated arguments with people about music. A decade or so ago, I was what one might call a “music snob”. A total jerk may have been another way of putting it. Anyway, I took my musical opinions very seriously.

So this one time when I was living in beautiful San Francisco, I was over at the apartment of a friend of my then-girlfriend’s. This friend – who, incidentally, was interested in making out with my girlfriend – was also a self-described music-snob. And our tastes in music were generally diametrically opposed.

They loved indie rock. I liked mainstream.

They was punk. I loved guitar solos.

They hated Radiohead. I pretty much thought they were gods.

Somehow, the subject of Gwen Stefan’s song “Hollaback Girl” came up. I don’t know if you remember that particular pop hit. It’s one where she sings that “this shit is bananas” and then spells out the word B-A-N-A-N-A-S. You can listen to it here if you don’t recall it:

At that particular stage of my life, I really disliked most pop music. I considered it an inferior form of art compared with music like jazz, blues, rock, and classical. They don’t even play their own instruments, I would argue.

To me, “Hollaback Girl” was the worst of the worst. My girlfriend’s friend, who we’ll refer to as “Frank”, thought it was great.

It was written for superficial high school cheerleaders with the maturity of an Adam Sandler character. This shit isn’t bananas I said. This shit is just shit.

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Well, Frank vehemently disagreed. Frank thought Stefani was being clever, ironic, sophisticatedly cheeky. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How could someone claim to have superior taste in music and like this trash, I thought.

I went home kind of annoyed.

*Sidenote* I think Frank wound up making out with my ex-girlfriend after we broke up, but that’s fine. I’m totally over it. But the Gwen Stefan thing. Well? keep reading…*End Sidenote*

Why do we Fight over Music?

In an article for The Guardian called, “Rubbish Music: Why We Judge Others for their Musical Tastes,” Tauriq Moosa writes, “Musical taste is still used by many as a judgement of an entire person. Adoring the latest Justin Bieber or Nickelback is, probably, more likely to invite insults than any other response.”

When Moosa says that we use it as a judgment of an entire person, I think he’s overstating it. Still, we definitely get pretty judgy with our music.

You see, music is an important part of our identity. Music says something about who we are and what we stand for.

When I attacked Frank’s love for “Hollaback Girl” and Frank counter-attacked my love for Radiohead, we both felt emotionally wounded. The claim is that there is something wrong with us for liking the music that we like.

Because music says a lot about who we are as a person – or at least we take it that way. We feel extremely invested in the music that we listen to.

The fact that I might favor Stevie Ray Vaughan over Eric Clapton as a guitarist, for example, says something important about me. It might signal to you that I prefer more contemporary trends over a more historical period, or that I prefer flash and speed to more subtle and possibly sophisticated styles of play.

What’s At Stake in This Fight?

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Not only does help to forge our individual identities, but it also helps to cement a certain sense of group identity. Am I a Beatles or a Stones guy? Metal or punk? Blues or jazz?

Depending on my answers to these kinds of questions, it’s undoubtedly going to influence who I hang out with, how I behave, what I wear, and many other facets of my life.

So, in the end, it does say something about me as a whole person. If I’m obsessed with Phish, I’m the hippie guy that smokes pot and goes to see the band 40 times per year. If I adore Taylor Swift, I’m a teenybopper who loves to go dancing with my sorority sisters. Etc. Etc.

When I like or dislike a piece of music, I am staking a claim and grounding myself in a certain identity. I belong to a certain social clique. And when the music is attacked, so is the social clique. Now there’s even more at stake than just myself. There’s my whole community to think about. So I must go down fighting.

Why We Should Fight for our Musical Opinions

Okay, so music isn’t life or death. So it may seem trivial to waste energy fighting about it with people. At the end of the day, who really cares what music we and our friends listen to?

Well I do. And you should too. Here’s why:

Ultimately, not all music is of the same quality. We may disagree on which music is best, but I think most people will agree that some music is better than other music. I’d argue, for instance, that John Coltrane is a better sax player than Kenny G, that Steve Reich creates more beautiful music than John Cage, and that Led Zeppelin was a more interesting rock band than The Doors.

I’m not asking you to agree with any of those statements. Or to disagree.

What I am asking you to do is to take a stand. To fight for the music you believe in.

Because passion is important. Things take on significance, they matter, because we believe in them. Whatever you do in this life, you should do it with passion. I don’t care if your’e surfing or listening to music or arguing politics or whatever.

Put your whole being into it. Do it like it counts.

Let me be clear: the point isn’t to change someone’s mind. It’s not about the outcome. It’s about the process. It’s about caring about something so much that you feel it in your blood, that it consumes your soul.

That’s the way to listen to music.

– Brian M. Reiser,
J&R Adventures

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