The Good Listener: What To Enjoy And How To Enjoy It
We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the press releases and urgent pleas from deposed Nigerian dictators is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, as discussed this week, our interactions with those around us.
Joanna Groom asks: "How do you maintain your dignity as a music snob without alienating others?"
The first six words of that question have vexed me since I first became aware of the concept, so I'm not sure I can help you there. But the idea of "music snobbery" is right up there with "guilty pleasures" in the realm of premises that ought to be rejected out of hand. The best way to avoid alienating others with music snobbery is to reject snobbery in all its forms, just as the best way to avoid feeling embarrassed about the things you like is to embrace them, publicly and proudly; to reject the notion of embarrassment itself.
It's virtually impossible to keep track of what we "should" be thinking and feeling about pop culture at any given moment: What's popular travels in an elliptical orbit around what's cool, in ways that cause them to drift apart for ages and then intersect when you least expect it. From "Call Me Maybe" to "Gangnam Style" to "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," most of this year's biggest pop hits have, at various points in the year, carried enormous cultural currency with tastemakers — there was a healthy stretch of 2012 in which disparaging "Call Me Maybe" in certain circles amounted to cultural light treason. As magnanimous as I sometimes pretend to try to be, I skewered Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton mercilessly on an episode of All Songs Considered for daring to besmirch the good name of Carly Rae Jepsen, and I may well do so again before the year is out.
As for not alienating others, I guess Step One is "Don't insult your friends and coworkers for daring to hold musical opinions that differ from your own, especially when they've been nice enough to invite you on their podcast." But the solution really boils down to doing everything in your power to love what you love, respecting others' right to love what they love, and reveling in those glorious moments when the two orbits intersect.
Ciara LaVelle asks: "How do I reconcile my hip, intelligent self with the self that is really excited about the new Taylor Swift album? Asking for a friend."
The most vocal Taylor Swift fans I know are plenty hip and intelligent — and, truth be told, that album is pretty damn good, if overstuffed and uneven. (Rule of thumb: Duets with Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody can generally be consigned to the outtake reel.)
To summarize: Ain't no shame in Taylor Swift fandom. Shout it from the rooftops!
Whitney Roux asks: "How should you deal with the psychological issue that arises when someone you really do not like — a nemesis or archenemy — loves your favorite band?"
The psychological issue is easy to dismiss, on the grounds listed above: Like what you like, be an honest broker of your own tastes, and everything sorts itself out from there. Great music asks so little of us that I hate to associate it with bad memories or insufferable people. Even if it calls to mind conflict of my own making — in other words, if I've ruined a song or album for myself and it's my own stupid fault — the music deserves better, you know?
As I see it, the trickier issues here are practical in nature: namely, how to experience a live concert without the burdensome distraction of enemies and ghosts looming all around you. In extreme cases, I'm partial to good old-fashioned avoidance — even commuting to a show the next town over, if necessary and financially feasible. At the very least, position yourself at the other end of the room, always try to rise above the petty urge to settle scores in public and, when cornered, slather on a thick, faux-friendly layer of good old-fashioned passive-aggressiveness. Life's too short to let the icy glares of others ruin your good time.
Dave Hoffman asks: "If my son doesn't like Phish, do I have to pay for him to go to college?"
Yes! Remember the words of Mark Twain: "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant, I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." Kids often have a way of coming around to their parents' way of thinking, for better and for worse.
Besides, at least in my day, college was where young people went to learn about Phish! Once he doesn't have the threat of his father's approval looming overhead, he may well come around. Good luck with that.