What Does Our Early Taste in Music Say About Us?
I don't mean to brag, but I'm almost certain I spent more time than you over the weekend thinking about Right Said Fred. Remember Right Said Fred? The duo of bald, mesh-tank-wearing beefcake brothers who, in the early '90s, had a hit with the song "I'm Too Sexy?" Sure you do.
Which begs the perfectly reasonable question: Why Right Said Fred? Well, on October 9, 1992 -- 20 years ago -- I bought my first CD. That album, I can confess with relative pride, was Automatic for the People by R.E.M. But only six months before, I picked up my first cassingle -- the aforementioned club-pop tune whose title, if memory serves, stirred controversy among my elementary school classmates when it became a risqué catchphrase during the last couple months of the school year. But never mind that: I was thinking about both Right Said Fred and R.E.M. because I wanted to excavate my own criteria, as a pre-teen, for what made pop music good.
At any age, musical taste can seem too slippery to nail down. Today, I have a 20-year-long track record of positions I've taken in the name of musical bias. Just as is true for a self-preserving politician, my record contains some thoughtful changes of mind and some outright flip-flops. So R.E.M.'s stature diminished gradually as I discovered music that exposed them as a more conventional rock band than I first thought. While Right Said Fred lost their appeal much more quickly because, well, I stopped being an 8-year-old child. But by returning to these groups recently, I've learned a lot about the role taste plays in our struggle to understand who we are.
As children, we begin to self-identify through the things we like and dislike. Adults do this too, of course. And it could be argued that's all taste really is -- a kind of sonar we send out in an effort to situate ourselves within the world. But when you're 8 your outgoing signal is weaker than when you're, say, 15 or 29. So the echos are harder to measure. As in many other aspects of life at this age, we're still learning to tell right from wrong. And a person's taste is always built upon their unshakable sense of rightness.
But eventually, we learn to listen with the prejudice of vanity. We develop ways of shutting out what doesn't jibe with the story we're learning to tell ourselves about ourselves. Like a museum, we learn to curate our collection, to imbue it with significance and extra-aesthetic value -- just as I would begin to do a couple years later by insisting the music I like be indie and experimental and altogether more obscure than your music. That's when ideology entered the picture. It was an early flex of self-consciousness. And it was at this point, when I learned to feel embarrassment for some of the music I had previously liked, that an Eden of sorts closed to me and a loss of aesthetic innocence took hold.
On that October night, 20 years ago, when only two objects sat on my "music shelf" -- the Right Said Fred cassingle and the R.E.M. CD -- I didn't read much into the self-portrait that was beginning to stare back at me. I didn't feel a swell of pride by the way these groups validated me. I didn't feel they connected me to "something larger than myself." Right Said Fred's gentle parody of the advertising world made me laugh with derision, while R.E.M.'s Dadaism made laugh in confusion. It probably didn't hurt that both groups placed organs really high in their mixes. I've always had a thing for the nocturnal evocations an organ brings to a record. But that was it, really. Hammonds and laughter: the stuff of good pop music.
When does all this change? When do we start to complicate this easy dialog? When do we begin to project ourselves onto the music we love? My hunch is the light had already started to refract for me the spring before when, in one irreversible gesture, I turned from a kid who liked music to a fan who bought records.