Exploring the peril of thinking your musical taste makes you who you are

From Fugazi to Sonic Youth, politicians are manipulating the idea that taste equals character.

August 26, 2019
Exploring the peril of thinking your musical taste makes you who you are L: Photo by Joshua Lott / Getty Images | C: Ben Gabbe / Getty Images for Marc Jacobs | R: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images  

Abundant Living is a monthly column where Zachary Lipez does the only things he’s remotely good at: wallowing like a happy pig in a seemingly endless litany of grievances and expounding weirdly about the music he loves, hates, and loves to hate.

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Late last month, Justin Brannon — founding member of Indecision and Most Precious Blood and current New York City’s Councilmember from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn — tweeted about Sonic Youth’s 1990 album Goo. It was one of those “name a better… I’ll wait” provocations that people do on Twitter. The replies were what you’d expect. Friendly music fans amiably disagreed. disgruntled constituents compared the strapping Councilmember Brannon to Uncle Fester. And the Twitter account of a NYC Republicans organization tweeted that, of all the albums in the whole wide world that were better than Sonic Youth’s Goo, the only sure thing was that they were “Def not your albums!”

It’s unclear how familiar the operator of that last Twitter account is with New York Hardcore. Maybe they’re Sinatra fans exclusively or maybe they’re literally Rick Ta Life. It doesn’t matter, or at least I don’t care, but I filed the exchange into my ever growing mental file I like to call “Taste Ain’t Indicative Of What Kind Of Person You Are.... Or Is It?!?! I Dunno!” Anyway, when I’m not thinking about food or Veronica Mars, it’s what I think about.

I started thinking about what taste in music says about a person in a moral sense not when I first discovered punk, but when I first discovered punks. Or maybe just “alternative” culture. At the most basic level, here was a culture made up of people that didn’t want to beat me up for no reason. How does one not attach a value system to that? My music makes me a better person is not something that is ever said aloud. Or even consciously believed. It’s usually merely implied through a Hold Steadian cosmology of references weighed down with meaning: liking Prince means this, liking Styx means that. Even The New York Times is getting in on the act. Not explicitly saying that taste determines policy but, you know, just sayin’.

For my teen self, punk felt virtuous in a way that hair metal was not. And it wasn’t just that I was more discerning because I was privy to the secret gnosis of London Calling being better than Dr. Feelgood, but I thought my rejection of the square world was an inherently political act. And one that would no doubt lead to a life of revolutionary danger. Sure, I was a hellbitten dummy, a snobbish little fart who wised up to a certain extent as soon as I left college and got over (some of) the grudges of highschool, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t retain some of the feeling. And maybe, if you’re being honest, you did too. And if you never felt this way, then great! Please savor this discussion of people you are far, far superior to. But if I’m ever on your Facebook page and I see one of those memes about how music was more “real” in whatever historical epoch you were last happy, I’m rewriting this column and naming names.

The trap of conflating morality and taste is an easy one to fall into. It’s not insane to draw a line between Beto O’Rourke affection for Fugazi and his politics. Fugazi was a band that encouraged activism over fandom and there’s an implied social responsibility that doesn’t come with, say, Tim Kaine loving The Replacements.

It’s tempting, with all its agitprop trappings to believe that loving punk and its adjacent genres at a young age teaches one to be a more critical thinker. I’ve seen the claims from friends. I probably claimed it myself at some point. Of course, if there’s something inherent to punk that leads us culture and makes us think, it sorta follows that there’d be a few less thick-as-pig-shit punks running amok on message boards worldwide. We were probably going to think critically anyway. Or we’re just entirely lacking in self-awareness and just like a fast count-off and “question authority” stickers. If I were you, I’d take the compliment of the first theory.

Ask any of the first few thousand DJs to use a computer instead of vinyl and or anybody caught on either side of a craft beer versus Budweiser debate and they’ll tell you: it’s human nature to ascribe moral meaning to hobbies and preferences. People see taste as character. And it’s a bummer when our aesthetic judgements — part of our identities — are shared by those we despise.

When we consider Paul Ryan’s love of Rage Against The Machine or The Federalist’s garish reposting of a 2001 David Berman interview just hours after the announcement of his death, it’s easy to retreat to the stance of “these people don’t really get this artist.” And in both these cases, the artists in question would, without a doubt, loathe the fans in question. But Berman’s presumed (and considering his writings about his lobbyist father, assured) revilment of The Federalist (and whatever cretinous racist funds it) doesn’t make said cretinous racist’s appreciation of his music any less sincere.

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The example I use most in my “That Nirvana Bumper Sticker Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” argument (besides the entire liner notes Cobain devoted to trying to get people he hated to stop liking his band) is 2nd Amendment/whatever-ever-else-rightist-bullshit-happens-to-be-lying-around provocateur Dana Loesch. Loesch was a lot scarier last year when she was still leading shill for the NRA. With the implosion of the terrorist recruitment wing of that organization Loesch is, while not unemployed I don’t think, some sort of online ronin of automatic rifle hipsterdom. Not sure what her exact job is to be honest, but she still has a huge audience that she uses to gum up the works on even the slightest compromise in gun control legislation. She’s not, in a human sense, great. Also? Former teen goth and huge Roky Erickson fan. Go figure. Or, rather, don’t. What I’m saying is taste has absolutely nothing to do with your value as a person.

Of course, most people are neither good nor evil. Just toddling meat golems of compromise and possibility. By any reasonable standard of judgement, I’m just an over-40 hipster: The sort of band T-shirt wearing goof I made fun of when they’d be featured in New York Magazine, except I don’t live in Park Slope and I don’t own anything. But I still fancy myself the “good” kind of hipster; I just want to know what the kids are up to! As opposed to what I imagine, in possibly the smallest of differences, is the bad kind: snobs, phonies, Grouper fans who make fun of ASMR, etc. Regardless, I can’t judge anyone. I mean, I can, and do, but I like to think I have an at least partial inventory of my flaws. If there were an aesthetic shortcut to goodness, I’d take it. Even if it meant pretending that Goo is the best Sonic Youth album, or that I wouldn’t take AC/DC* over them every time.

*Mike Pompeo’s favorite band apparently. Goddamnit.

Time for the Abundant Living Mix! Ignore everything I said above. I was just kidding. If you like these songs, it means you’re a good, righteous person who deserves only the best in this life.

Jonny Couch - "Vertigo"

Holy Circle - "Free and Young"

Moken - "Walking Man"

Natural Man Band - "The Hammer"

Girl Friday - "Decoration/Currency"

I Jahbar - "Weed Patrol" (Remix)

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Uniform & The Body - "All This Bleeding"

Trash Kit - "Sunset"

Tommy T - "Anchin"

Khiis - "The Spiral"

The Paranoid Style - "A Goddamn Impossible Way Of Life"

Game - "Trwoga"

Bush Tetras - "There is a Hum"

Nervous Curtains - "Paramilitary Re-Enactor"

Azam Ali - "Hope"

Consumer Electronics - "Play Therapy"

Exploring the peril of thinking your musical taste makes you who you are