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The Good Listener: How Can I Become A 'Music Person'?

A reader grew up listening to Rick Astley and now needs to know: Is it too late? (Courtesy of the artist)

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the shoes our kids outgrew in the time it took to have them shipped is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on remedial music fandom.

Michele K. writes via email: "How can I become a 'music person'? Think of your target audience — me — as someone who grew up listening to bad music (like bad Rick Astley '80s soft rock), then went to college where the music scene was weak, then moved to Southeast Asia (where English-language music meant the aforementioned bad Rick Astley '80s soft rock), and then you go to law school and your soul turns black, thus preventing good music from entering. And then, all of a sudden, you're in your mid-30s and realize you never got a quality music education. Is it even possible at this point to get one, or should I just give up? If it is possible, where do I start? Remember: Telling me to take a song I like and put it into Pandora (or whatever the kids are listening to these days) assumes that I have a baseline knowledge of cool songs."

Poor Rick Astley. One minute, you're a guy with a bunch of Top 10 hits; the next you're the unwitting godfather of the Rickroll; and finally, here you are, functioning as the only available shorthand for, "I can't name a single cool song." I know it took a few decades, but that is a Greek tragedy right there.

The first and most important advice I can give you also happens to be the least specific. It's tempting to throw up your hands in these situations — whether it's music fandom, cooking, or any other desired life skill — and let self-deprecation form a preordained result. But, while there's something to be said for knowing your weaknesses, "I don't, therefore I can't" is never going to get you anywhere you'd like to go. Besides, everyday so-and-sos become music fans every day! Why couldn't you?

The next step is to let go of the dreaded not-one-of-the-cool-kids crutch. I swear, the very idea of cool kids does way more damage than all the cool kids in the world combined. By the time you're a thirtysomething law-school graduate whose soul has been reduced to char, you've been well and truly liberated from the burden of coolness and the pursuit thereof. Therefore, you get to aim far lower than you might if you were, say, trying to impress someone. You get to aim for actual enjoyment of music, which is way better for you in the long run anyway. So don't think of yourself as trying to become a "music person," whatever that means to you, and focus instead on simply learning more — and, ultimately, enjoying more.

Song-recommendation engines — Pandora, Songza, Rdio, et al — are great for beginners, and you don't actually need to go into them with a list of your favorite musicians. These services are built around the idea of remedial hand-holding, bless their hearts, and therefore come equipped with lots of generalized playlists, from Pandora's "Today's Hits" to Songza's more mood- and situation-based programming. Set aside a notebook for the purposes of documenting which songs strike your fancy, and then use that list of favorites to send you down rabbit holes. It'll feel like homework, at least at first, but the rewards will be worth it.

Finally, at the risk of promoting the very site you're currently perusing — don't close that browser window! — I'd strongly encourage you to find yourself a nonjudgmental curator to point you to music's current highlights. This could be a friend or, depending on the quality of your friends, a website or series whose sensibility or scope seems to match your own. NPR Music's own Tiny Desk Concerts, for example, provide a great way to absorb heavily curated cross-genre artist recommendations, from pop stars to a jazz bagpiper to a cappella choruses — and if you don't like one, the next is only a click away. Rick Astley not included.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at allsongs@npr.org or tweet @allsongs.

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