Musical taste is a vast and complicated topic; I have always believed that there was a part of the brain (perhaps the Medulla Obligato) that controls the part of an individual’s idiosyncratic preferences, as well as external influences, including family, generation, geography, ethnicity and the recording and broadcasting industries that effect when we change the station and when we are crank it up and sing along.
People tend to define themselves, with serious resolve, based sometimes on the music they like, but just as often on the music they “hate.” For many years I would tell anyone within earshot that I “hated” opera; once I actually listened to some operas all the way through, and saw them performed, I was asking for complete recordings of “Carmen,” “La Boheme” and “The Flying Dutchman” as Christmas gifts. I also “hated” country music for many years, having heard nothing other than corny, twangy and ancient recordings by Tammy Wynette and Conway Twitty. Country music represented to me the polar opposite of my urban, Eastern, cool persona; it was the populist choice of hayseeds who saved up their loose change to visit Gaitlinburg. I was fortunate enough to have a good friend who loved country music (and always had it on in her car), and I came to appreciate the quality of the song writing, the vocal skills, and, honestly, the unabashed sentimentality. The detached and ironic music of the 1980s coolly informed us that we could “dance if we want to;” country music openly hoped we danced. The degree to which people vehemently express their dislike for entire genres is always interesting to me; I always wonder to what extent they are genuinely put off by country twang or head-banging metal, and to what extent they are expressing unexamined attempts to portray themselves in the way in which they desperately hope to be seen.
The external influences on my musical taste were led off by my parents, who had a wide selection of music in the house. Classical was preferred, but they also had a lot of hippie-liberal-folk music like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie and Peter, Paul & Mary. My father had Clancy Brothers records, my mother had some Theodore Bikel, and they had musicals – “Finian’s Rainbow,” “Westside Story,” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” to name a few. There was a small smattering of pop music, a Beatles album or two, Simon and Garfunkel and Roger Miller, but mostly it was classical. Most popular music was quickly dismissed as garbage; my grandmother described the entire body of music on the radio during the 70s as being capable of reduction to “baby, baby, wah, wah, wah.” My brother and I were not permitted to play “pop” music in the car with either parent, or in the main part of the house when they were home. What we did with our own radios, stereos and headphones was our own business.
As I grew older, my friends provided me with new music to consider. The most notable of these was my friend Tammy, who introduced me to James Taylor, Carly Simon, Carol King, Don McLean, Joni Mitchell, and the “B” side of the Beatles “Yellow Submarine.” Her influence can be seen to this day; I still listen to all of the things she played for me, or spoke of enthusiastically, and I have a strong predilection for the singer-songwriter from Leonard Cohen to Rufus Wainright. I also have, in a dresser drawer, three mix tapes made in the 1980s (although I haven’t had a cassette player for at least 10 years). Two of them were made for me by my college friend Lisa, who mixed everything from The Everly Brothers to The Cramps with great finesse. The other mix was made by someone I never met, for someone I barely knew, but I heard it once and begged for a copy. Those ancient tapes were played and replayed on Walkmen and car stereos for years, and I’ve never found some of the songs in any other form.
More recently, my husband has taught me to appreciate Metallica and Rush, and clued me in that “All the Young Dudes” was not, as I had always believed, the Beatles, but Mott the Hoople, thus opening a new musical door. My son listens to a lot of hip hop and contemporary R & B, and has led me to The Black-Eyed Peas, Beyonce and various other artists whose names I mix up due to my advanced age. Suffice it to say that he can turn on “his music” in the car, and I give it a try. (Unless I’m in a Very Bad Mood, in which case I control the playlist to ensure the safety of all passengers). I continue to seek out music recommended by friends , magazine reviews and NPR stories; sometimes I don’t love it, but sometimes I do, and there is always a certain sense that life has gotten a better flavor when I find something new to add to my rotation.
Since we are offered music not only by family and friends, but by a steady stream of music on radios, commercials and in the grocery store, it’s impossible to evaluate preferences without giving some consideration to the Music of the Times. Although I have bought, and listened to the music “everybody” was loving, I find that a lot of it was chosen out of peer pressure and habit rather than real love. I do not really like The Eagles or Bob Seger (heresy for a suburban child of the 70s) and although I liked Billy Joel for a long time (and still think he has a beautiful voice) it wasn’t a real relationship. I really love old Bruce Springsteen, but feel complete indifference towards everything from “Born to Run” to the present. I also admire U2, and will sing along to “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” on the radio, but it is not, honestly, the music of my heart. There is nothing objectively “bad” about any of those artists or their work; I just found that I was increasingly not choosing to listen to them. I have also accepted and then rejected Styx, Sarah Mc Lachlan, Gary Numan and the Tubeway Army, Meatloaf, The Dixie Chicks, and En Vogue. I will even admit to having purchased recordings by Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera and Creed. Nothing remains but vestigial shame, but every one of those choices seemed predestined by the aura of acclaim and popularity surrounding the artist. A person just had to love them. (But I didn’t).
Finally, there is the matter of internal wiring, of what music trips a trigger and what leaves us cold or anxious or just kind of jangled. There are genres, and specific songs that just plain bother me in ways that cannot be explained away by my history or vital statistics. I have tried, and tried to like jazz, and many earnest young men have spent hours playing me one thing after another, urging me to pay attention, and to hear what they heard. The spark did not ignite, and apart from a vague appreciation for Thelonius Monk and a fondness for the New Orleans/Preservation Hall style of jazz, it all makes me feel an unpleasant combination of irritation, boredom and sensory overload. I am also not a great fan of drippy ballads (“Islands in the Stream), modern R & B with one of those lengthy, loopy roller coaster a capella rides at the end (Christina Aguilera), or hard-core rap. All of these things make me feel agitation, discomfort, boredom, or some other menacing and negative emotion.
Since I am old enough to stop pretending that I like things I don’t actually like, I am perfectly comfortable looking back over the musical landscape of my life and choosing to listen only to what I want to hear, with frequent assays into undiscovered territory. In closing, I will leave you with a list of my favorite songs, and a list of the songs that make me cringe and spin the dial; I am secretly hoping that this post will generate a little controversy, and that you’ll stand up for whatever floats your boat, even if I have “disappeared” it from my own aural life. If you tell me, tell me why; that’s the best part.
- Hallelujah , performed by Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainright or k.d. Lang. There is no more perfect song when you are feeling torn apart. I am in awe of the fact that a human being could write it.
- More Than This by Bryan Ferry/Roxy Music. It’s lush, melodic, melancholy, and I loved it the first time I heard it. It moves me, and I cry every time Bill Murray sings the karaoke version in “Lost in Translation.”
- Nightswimming, be REM. Beautiful, evocative lyrics and the loveliest use of acoustic strings.
- Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, by Rufus Wainright. It makes me smile, it makes me think, and I love his voice.
- I’m Sticking with You by The Velvet Underground. I love all VU that I have ever heard, but this is perfect – child-like innocence, no accompaniment but a piano, dramatic interludes, and a love song at the end. Who could ask for anything more?
- Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell. If you’re a thinking person with a tendency towards melancholy (which I am) this is the theme song for life. I’m still not sure what it all means, but it makes more sense every year.
- Piece of my Heart by Janis Joplin. (NOT by Faith Hill). Ah, Janis, you spoke for every broken-hearted, shell-shocked, obsessed and constant lover ever burned by an infidel. Nothing is held back, and everything is real.
- You Are My World by the Communards. Sometimes, you need to celebrate.
- If I had a Hammer by Peter Paul and Mary. This got me through law school, which may, in retrospect, may not be a compliment. I may not be making much use of my “hammer of justice” these days, but I still believe in the cause.
- Werewolves of London, by Warren Zevon. Could he have been any smarter or funnier? All that, and a hummable tune.
- Twelve Thirty by The Mamas and the Papas. I don’t want to think about what John Phillips may have done. It’s a beautiful song.
- Let it Be by the Beatles. I have spent more time than you will ever know picking just one Beatles song. This song is my ring tone, and my mantra.
- Imagine by John Lennon. Because I do.
- Feel Flows by The Beach Boys. No one else seems to know this song, but I think it’s worth all of the better-known Beach Boys songs put together (although I like them, too). This is something completely different from the earnest goodwill of “Barbara Ann” and “California Girls;” atmospheric, psychedelic…intriguing.
- End of the Line by The Traveling Wilburys. George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. Seriously? Better than “alright.”
Annie’sList of Icky Songs
- “Muskrat Love” by The Captain and Tenille. They were so damned cute, and I love “Love Will Keep Us Together,” but this song is creepy and it just doesn’t make any sense. Why not moles or possums?
- “A Horse with No Name” by America. I know lots of people like this, but I find it dull and pretentious. Symbolism should be subtle.
- “Afternoon Delight” by The Starland Vocal Band. Okay, so we were in 8th grade, singing along to this song about people having sex in the afternoon? Eeeeeew.
- “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” by Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond. So leave, already.
- “Angel of the Morning” by Juice Newton. I don’t get it.
- “Let ‘Em In” by Paul McCartney & Wings. This man wrote and sang some of my favorite songs in the history of music; I guess anyone can have a bad day.
- “Baby I’m a Want You” by Bread. Perhaps he needs her to give him some instruction in grammar.
- “Precious and Few” by Climax. Why?! Is she far away? Married? In quarantine?
- “Delta Dawn” by Helen Reddy. Another case of “great artist, unfortunate song.” (I do kind of like the Tanya Tucker version, for some reason). This kind of maudlin, Miss Havesham theme seems to have been very popular around this time. (“Drusilla Penny,” “Eleanor Rigby,” et al).
- “Touch Me in the Morning” by Diana Ross. Amazing, amazing voice, but again, who are we kidding. “Touch me in the morning/then just walk away” and its fine with her? See #5,above.
- “Wildfire” by Michael Murphy. See #2, above.
- “Reunited” by Peaches & Herb.
- “You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone.I will readily admit that this is a song that appeals to the weepy, crush-prone soul of an adolescent girl. Apparently, though, the song was about God not Robbie Benson. I personally think God prefers it sung by Patti Smith.
- “Sometimes When We Touch” by Dan Hill. This has a kind of creepy, intense, unhealthy relationship vibe. Is he saying that he loves her, or that he doesn’t? Don’t they ever just read the paper and eat bagels?
- “Midnight at the Oasis” by Maria Muldaur. I don’t get it. It’s basically “Afternoon Delight” in the desert.
- “Loving You” by Minnie Ripperton. Beautiful voice, but then she, well, she screams like she’s falling down a mine shaft, and keeps on singing like nothing happened. Wierd.