Why we likes what we like

what we like“I like what I like.”

Several weeks ago I was at home petsitting for the parents and watching Coldplay’s performance on Austin City Limits on PBS. I was thinking about writing a blog post on the band and the surprisingly intense emotions they tend to inspire in people (both positive and negative). One of my coworkers was online at the time, so I asked her opinion of the British lads. For some reason I pegged her as a hater; turns out that she’s a big fan. This led into a discussion of the different bands that we like and dislike, whereby two revelations stood out:

1. She hates Arcade Fire
2. She REALLY hates Snow Patrol

The first one surprised me because, well, I was under the impression that disliking Arcade Fire was a practical impossibility. But the second one really struck me as odd, because let’s face it, Snow Patrol are doing pretty much the exact same thing that Coldplay are: third generation Brit-Pop by way of early Radiohead and Travis. There’s differences between the two bands, absolutely, but they’re more similar than not. So how can someone LOVE Coldplay but HATE Snow Patrol?

“I like what I like,” was her response.

I share this anecdote not to embarrasses or demean this coworker, because her thought process is hardly unique or rare, nor does she have bad taste in music as a general rule of thumb. I share her perspective with you because it’s a good entry point into a discussion about the ways in which we engage with art in today’s world.

In my analysis of truthiness a while back, I briefly touched upon the tension that often arises between emotional reasoning and intellectual reasoning. Unlike most species, whose actions are motivated primarily by instinct, human beings act based upon a complex system of emotion in conjunction with cognitive thought. When faced with a problem, we can engage with it on an emotional level (how does it make us feel?) or an intellectual one (what is the problem?), and usually both. Rarely is there a clear-cut dichotomy between emotion and reason, but few would argue that a great deal of the time we tend to emphasize one or the other when faced with a certain problem.

Which brings us to music and art in general. Most people (myself included) tend to emphasize the emotional over the intellectual when it comes to artistic consumption. Very few music listeners take the time to ponder or critique or self-reflect on what ends up on their iPod, and why should they? All that matters is how music makes you FEEL, whether it inspires you to get out of your chair and dance or lie in your bedroom and mope. We use music, in the same way that we use all art, as experience experimentation.

Music triggers our emotions – making us excited, happy, sad or angry – without having to actually experience those emotions first-hand. Instead of breaking up with a lover, you can hear a song about it and get a light dosage of what it feels like; same goes for songs about falling in love or getting ridiculously angry and smashing things. Yes, sometimes we use music to amplify or heighten an emotion that we’re actually feeling, but again, it’s the FEELING that’s the whole point of the experience.

So here’s the thing: if music is an emotional experience, what right do I have to use “logic” to point out my coworker’s seeming contradiction in taste? Moreover, what business do I, or anyone else for that matter, have critiquing music in the first place? Isn’t all that matters is that someone else enjoys it? “I like what I like.”

As a quasi-critic, I struggle all the time with this sort of relativism, and not just because it would force me to stop complaining about bands that I don’t like. The struggle comes from the fact that there is a strong shred of truth to “I like what I like.” However, its simplicity does a great disservice towards our collective understanding and discourse of art.

Let me explain. This coworker, as I mentioned earlier, does not like Arcade Fire. I asked her to explain her hatred, trying to understand where she’s coming from. In response, she cited the “I like what I like” principle. Lacking any insight to help me comprehend her feelings towards my current favourite band, I have decided that if she doesn’t like Arcade Fire, then I don’t like her anymore.

I exaggerate, of course, to make this point: that if we refuse to rationalize, understand and communicate the reasons behind our tastes in art – WHY we like what we like – then the only discourse that we can engage in is on the personal level, and that discourse has absolutely nowhere to go. True, it’s impossible to discuss music on a purely objective level because no one listens to music objectively. But we also can’t discuss music on a purely subjective level either – it would amount to nothing more than: “I like Band X”; “I dislike Band X”; (end scene).

The compromise, then, is to accept that taste in music, as in all art, is subjective but to try our best to rationalize it; to come up with explanations and reasons for our individual tastes so that we have some way to engage with one another about it.

For example, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, I do not like Nickelback. I could proclaim this without trying to rationalize it, choosing just to dislike what I dislike, so to speak. But instead, I’m willing to discuss my dislike of Nickelback in a way that allows me to engage with others: that their music is repetitive and shows no sign of creative ambition; that Chad Kroeger’s philosophy that celebrates album sales as recognition of success is artistically bankrupt; and that the macho masculinity that embodies their work (“Figure You Out,” anyone?) holds absolutely no appeal for me.

Is such rationalization phony? Am I just intellectualizing something that is purely emotional to begin with? Perhaps. But what is the alternative? If we accept “I like what I like,” then we lose the ability to talk about art as anything more than an individualistic, personalized experience. Great art, be it a Picasso or a pop song, is created to inspire discussion, debate, dialogue, discourse. Without encouraging that discussion, we become mere consumers of art instead active participants in the process. Heck, art without the aftermath is barely worthy of the name “art” in the first place.

We may like what we like, but if we’re not willing to explain to each other WHY, then really, what’s the point?


One response to “Why we likes what we like

  1. I’m sure you’ve seen the potentially discontinued Stereogum feature “It’s OK To Like…”, right? In the recent Forkcast piece on the tribute album Guilt By Association, Pitchfork wrote “It’s OK to like…independent musicians covering oft-maligned pop hits…Dudes, if a song brings you pleasure, why the hell feel guilty about it?”

    For me, now that I’m willing to admit to kind-of sort-of liking Justin Timberlake and Kelly Clarkson, all bets are off. I’m not willing to write off ANY musicians now.

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