Music Lovers and Musical Tastes

Posted: June 14, 2013 in Nick's Philosophies on Nirvana

Phew, one heck of a day…

Just a gentle muse for a mellow Friday afternoon…We’re all aware of the relatively tightly bound and specific tastes of Mr. Kurt Cobain. His music adopted and abandoned multiple styles over the years but all from a relatively limited range stretching across various modes of alternative rock music with a few token representatives from other genres (The Beatles, Lead Belly) standing out for actually being exceptional (though integral) to his taste. At the core of his professed taste in the latter years of his life stood the kinds of bands who, like his own music, were straddling the boundary between the alternative and the mainstream; The Breeders and PJ Harvey for example. He never abandoned his commitment, however, to the bands who had accompanied his rise – Melvins, Mudhoney, Sonic Youth – or the K Records style of ramshackle pop he had grown to love apparently in his Olympia years.

I’m fairly sensitive to the cliches of everyday life. One of my favourites is when people state “I’m a little bit crazy,” which is truly about the most ordinary, average and utterly typical statement ever made – I hear it at least once a month. All it reflects is that everyone, at some point, feels there’s a disconnect between some part of the massively diverse and intrusive reality around us and their personal beliefs, perceptions and desires. Anyone sane enough to claim the “I’m a bit crazy” tag is totally normal. Be more worried about the people who clearly don’t realise there’s something unusual about them.

A second cliche I enjoy, an equally common one, is the empty sentence “I have pretty wide taste in music.” Again, anyone making that claim in a public forum is presenting the idea that they are open-minded and willing to try new things. The problem being that the statement is a way of being non-confrontational, of avoiding pledging to a specific direction or style. It’s not actually a statement of taste, it’s a statement of social politeness – a subject Kurt Cobain took significant issue with and presented in songs such as Blew (“if you wouldn’t mind”/”if you wouldn’t care”) or Come as you Are (“come as you are, as you were”/”take your time, hurry up, the choice is yours, don’t be late”).

By making such a clear statement of lack of commitment and unwillingness to engage in anything that might be seen as a critical or thoughtful judgement on the topic, if someone says it to you then you can be sure that the person in front of you isn’t actually interested in music. The development of musical taste, the discovery of music new to the individual requires a deeper probing and a greater commitment to uncovering music. It’s rare I’ve met someone who would make such a facile comment as “I have wide taste in music” without discovering that what they mean is “my taste ranges between whatever’s in the top 40 and/or popular at the moment.” It’s a statement that they will listen to anything because everything they hear is just ‘musical wallpaper’, a shifting of tone, texture and hue that hangs in the background without intruding on them enough to make a choice or to focus in any direction.

While trying not to confuse personal experience with scientific fact, most music-lovers do have a core to their interests, a location from which they reach out to new places while staying grounded. In the case of Kurt Cobain, while his pre-teenage years were a typical child’s mash-up of rock, metal, pop, whatever; his teenage tastes solidified around the early 1980s evolutions of punk erupting out of small U.S. scenes and that formed the focus for the 13-14 years that followed. To use Metallica as an example, the bonding that led to the band was around the New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands – again, a core commitment was the driver.

To borrow a concept from work I’d suggest the T-shaped music lover; a deep focus in a particular area with a wide awareness and cherry-picking of other genres – lose one or the other and the result is either a stick or just a thin coating…Similarly, within each genre, I’d propose my favourite concentric ring model. At the core of each genre are those who create and define it, the rare geniuses who forged the path and made a particular sound into an identifiable genre – whether one likes the genre or not it’s usually possible to accept the talent of those individuals. If one likes that genre then there’s always a second wave of bands, talented, committed and popular without ever crashing over the barriers into the combination of mass acceptance AND critical reputation and recognition that defines the core bands – one might like one or other of these bands but only a fanatic will know and love all of them. Beyond that lies the outer ring of lesser lights, spin-offs, forgotten heroes, local favourites and post-hoc torch-carriers who might have worked for years or may linger forever without ever being more than a derivation of the core sound (therefore not receiving critical acclaim) and always too early, too late, or simply not good enough (thus not gaining the popular acclaim) to cross over into the inner circles. I’ve done it as a graphic for fun…

Genre Breakdown

Anyways…I digress. My tastes? Oh definitely cored. My pre-1993 tastes are a combination of Prince, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Vanilla Ice and The Transformers The Movie soundtrack with a chunk of Elvis plus my favourite song was Centerfold by the J. Geils Band (found it on a compilation from my aunt who was a key funnel for music.) Nirvana really did act as Ground Zero leading onto Sonic Youth and Swans and outward toward industrial, noise, experimental avant garde stuff while a separate strand (via Rage Against the Machine and Beck) was taking me over to hip hop and then recombined with Throbbing Gristle to open the door to various electronic avenues culminating in Coil and old British 1960s-70s TV electronica and library musics. The core is still there, however, the ramshackle, aggressive, loud, fast, hard (or even aggressively quiet) edge holds it all together neatly. I made small walks into jazz without ever enjoying much of it, I still can’t stand dance music or foregrounded electronic drums even if Burial is indeed wicked, pure blues really bores me, most old style rock n’ roll and most massed orchestral music leaves me cold. It’s hard to be diverse and a true music lover; if one walks too far dilettantism awaits. I’ll never love country n’ western music but most of the non-U.S. world is with me on that one.

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