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February 9, 2016

GOLDFINE | Unlearning Everything My Dad Taught Me About Music

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In every music-happy kid’s upbringing there’s a parent who they learned about music from. You know — the one you inherited your weird decade taste-quirks, vinyl or (in my case) illegally-downloaded CD collection and general music-related perspectives from. You spent car rides exploring albums together, they shed tears of joy when you got really into their favorite old crooner and you showed them how to use Spotify (which they either never really took to, or began furiously trying to ruin your reputation as a Person with Pretty Cool taste by jacking your account and playing solely the Bee Gees and Mariah Carey).

For me (and probably for most of you, although that’s another column), it was my Dad. My dad had a tremendous and hazardous impact, not just on my music taste, but on the way that I thought about music in general. Just like he taught me how to walk, parallel park, make stir-fry and fill out a W2 form — from him I picked up the whole business of consuming, savoring, rejecting, adoring, debating, paying attention to and loving music. I was, I think, under the impression that my Dad knew just about everything about music. I imagined him as having intimately experienced the musical 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, accumulating unknowable depths of music wisdom and opinions along the way. All music-related queries were referred to him. He was my Lester Bangs, my Pitchfork and my Grammy’s: all rolled into one very short English teacher.

Unfortunately, the thing about listening and relating to music is that it is not at all like driving a car (it is much more like making stir-fry): everyone does it differently and there are no rules. I suppose I never consciously considered what rules I might have been following, as I began to pursue music: which kinds of music I sought out and allowed myself to enjoy, and which kinds I ignored or dismissed. But, what is the subconscious but a nasty place where creepy and precarious shit goes down, that, in your 20s (or 70s) you realize profoundly affected your entire consciousness, and which you hate yourself for. Because of this subconscious mess, I have spent a lot of time, energy and conversation unlearning everything my Dad ever taught me about music.

See, my dad (because he is an English teacher in his 50’s) listens to music like an English teacher in his 50’s listens to music: academically, with tried-and-true and yet totally arbitrary ideas about what is quality and interesting and desirable in music, and what is not: what music is good and what is “predigested fast food mush” or any strung-together phrase of the words “sugary” “cookie-cutter,” “cotton-candy,” “frosted flakes.” He thinks in hierarchies, echelons, pecking orders, rankings, superlatives, ceilings and whole-heartedly in genre. He finds “complexity” and the quality of being “difficult to like” to be unduly valuable in music. I have a lot of memories of him sermonizing this Tom Waits or Eddie Vedder or Nick Cave album, praising them for being “challenging,” “complex,” “nuanced” and “intellectual.” Music he finds good is deemed “world class,” music he doesn’t is “intolerable, and that which he likes, but cannot justify by its superiority to other music, like (inexplicably) Bruno Mars is “just totally fun.” “Bob Dylan made five good albums and the rest was mediocre,” “x or y is one of the greatest blues album of all time,” “jazz and classical just have a higher ceiling than rock, which has a higher ceiling than rap and pop,” and this song is perfectly fine but it’s just “candy.” He speaks this way about music: loudly, frequently and with a reckless certainty that makes whatever he’s saying sound suspiciously like the truth.

I guess what I’m saying is that my dad is an establishment music snob. An old, happy music snob — so comfortable and confident and self-righteous in his snobbery, that, as a burgeoning music-lover, I mistook his for the ideal subject-position to music. His mythologies of complexity, unlikeability, realness, challengingness; and his denigrating “comfort-food” construction of popular music were ones I grew up on, and internalized. “Some, like “rap is bad” (the more glaring products of generational difference) were easier to discard than other, more subtle implications of his jargon and attitudes: like that good music is complicated and challenging; and the corollary, that one should be skeptical of music that is simple and easy to like.

But at some point, I realized that I’d grown up trying to listen to music like a 50-year-old English teacher, instead of allowing myself to listen to music like a teenage me. There’s nothing wrong with how my dad listens to music; he loves and engages with music in a way that brings him a lot of pleasure. But in learning about music through his lens, my own subject-position to music; my reactions and gratifications and sweet spots became muted, fuzzy and hard to identify.

A.O. Scott says, “We all like different things. Each of us is blessed with a snowflake-special consciousness, an apparatus of pleasure and perception that is all our own.” I take him at his word. I want to worship, not the specters of quality or complexity, but my own apparatus of pleasure and perception; my own weird, changing, neurotic, young female subjectivities without one ounce of guilt or hesitation or the need to justify what it washes up.

I like the sound of women singing sincerely and vulnerably. Leonard Cohen can make me cry, and so can Taylor Swift. So can Girlpool and god damn it, so can My Chemical Romance. I think Avril Lavigne’s Under My Skin is a stunningly candid portrait of human pain. The Avett Brothers, Carly Rae Jepsen and Azealia Banks all make make me want to get on a table and dance. Almost everything Radiohead has ever made bores me and it’s not because I don’t get it.

At least in the spaces I travel, we are having these conversations more and more; about rejecting hierarchies of taste, and the machine of pop-shaming pretension. However, a musically-passionate parent might be an unlikely source of ill-fitting ideas and pretenses about music — a set of rules you’d been following so long, you mistook them for your own.

Jael Goldfine is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Objectivity Bites appears alternate Wednesdays this semester. She can be reached at arts-and-entertainment-editor@cornellsun.com.

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