Starting a new job involves a unique set of anxieties. The stress of being the one unknown in a (hopefully) functional homeostasis of knowns is overwhelming—especially when you’re entering a personality-driven business. Every perfunctory exchange, every seized or missed opportunity for witticism, every innocuous question takes on a level of dire significance.
So you can only imagine my horror when one of the very most senior people at my new gig asked me the most sinister, invasive and unanswerable question in the modern world: “What kind of music do you like?”
Jesus fucking Christ, Man, what kind of Herculean sense of self-assuredness do you think I possess? You really think I’m capable of spitting out an answer that is a) accurate and b) won’t make me look tasteless, lame, uncultured or, worse yet, as if I care what you think? That I could do this on the fly while managing all the specific new job anxieties weighing on me already? Not only am I destined to fail in this moment, but the onus of introducing the realization that your new hire might not cut it now falls on ME. WHY DIDN’T YOU GUYS DO A BETTER JOB VETTING AND SAVE ME THE BURDEN OF FACING THIS IMPOSSIBLE SITUATION?
There is no productive way to answer this question. One common response is: “I listen to everything,” which rolls off the tongue nicely but is as stupid and untrue as it looks on paper. No one listens to everything. This answer is meant to imply that someone has a pure and unironic sense of cultural appreciation and that the notion of personal taste or bias is beneath their virginal palette. Except that having personal taste and a few biases is inherent to human nature. The everything answer is a copout that only passes in the most critique-weary, subjective and bless-you-for-trying arena of music. Can you imagine answering the question similarly in reference to television? “I watch everything.” Exactly.
But for whatever reason, people love the open-ended answer when it comes to music. It’s as pervasive as its elitist metro-Northeastern variation: “I listen to everything, except country.” The idea here being not to degrade country music—because that would be unnecessarily belligerent—but to admit a smidge of cultural bias insofar as it relates to upbringing and exposure. In other words, the things that you can’t help. This answer is often qualified by the common follow-up: “I appreciate country music, I just can’t get into it.” The assumption being that there’s nothing sexier or more self-aware than confidently admitting to a fault you can’t help, thereby transforming flaw into noble burden. What this answer really shows, however, is a feigned sense of perspective communicated via a grotesque nod to your own mortality.
So why can’t the average human being answer the listening question in a genuine, thoughtful way? Is our inability to answer truthfully and accurately a latent trend, or a timeless cultural truth? Apologies to my millennial compadres, but I’m leaning towards the former. We’re in an era of cultural cross-pollination that has made music much harder to describe, but, through technological advances, has also expanded the reach of different genres. In my parents’ day you could pretty much tell what type of music someone listened to by how they spoke and dressed—where they were from, essentially. Now people seem to take pride in keeping those things as disparate as possible. And rather than acknowledge our powerlessness to label things that emerge so quickly and ambiguously, we add suffixes such as “core” and “wave” to words like “mumble” and “chill,” then pat ourselves on the back for creating something Wikipediable. Our musical discourse is structured sort of like those magnetic refrigerator poetry kits, and no one wants to get caught putting together something derivative or unfunny.
Is there some kind of nuanced, post-genre approach to answering this question that can save us all? Am I just here talking shit, or can we do better?
I asked a friend, a guy who takes his playlist curation very seriously, the same question without preface. His response: “That’s the worst question in the world.”
Well yeah, but I can’t exactly say that to this very most senior person at my new gig.
So what did I say? I said something honest—admittedly more out of panicked resignation than gallant fortitude. After a moment’s hesitation, I said, “I don’t know how to answer that question.”
I meant it. I was lost, and I figured I’d be better off looking stupid with integrity than without. Instead of a flat fastball, I threw a hanging slider. Thank God, he took the pitch.
“That is kind of an impossible one,” he granted.
Shortness of breath subsiding, sweat glands contracting, euphoric relief.
Then, a curveball: “What have you been listening to lately?”
Son of a bitch…
Featured image courtesy of Seacat