April 20, 2009

Judged by the Content of Their Playlists?

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An old roommate of mine just visited for the weekend, and for the larger part of the two days we were together our conversations centered solely around music. It’s not that we were lacking for other topics; we would discuss our lives, our friends and the magical transformation that Ithaca undergoes in the sun, but every time we would circle back to bands and LPs. Music, it seems, is one of the foundations of our friendship.
This constant discussion got me wondering about the role musical taste plays in social life. For the most hardcore fans, similarity of musical preference is indispensable — a diehard punk rocker will not be caught dead with a Coldplay aficionado. For others, music is at best a conversation starter — it simply doesn’t enter into the equation when judging someone’s character.
I lie somewhere in the middle. I mingle freely with fans of U2 and other cringe-inducing bands, but I won’t deny that good musical taste is important for my friendships. For those who consider music an important aspect of their lives — not just listening, but finding new bands, digging up hidden treasures, identifying with a certain musical culture — the lack of shared taste (or worse, the lack of any taste at all) means sacrificing a whole arena of potential discussion.
But the danger inherent in prioritizing musical affinity in friendship is snobbery. Serious music fans, especially those of the indie variety, constantly feel the need to be ahead of the game, keeping track of up-and-coming bands and monitoring the coolness factor of the old ones. As such, their conversations on music are often no more than trivia contests, each person trying to prove their credentials as a bona fide fan. Taken far enough, this type of pretension ends up having nothing to do with music and everything to do with feeling superior.
That said, there is a certain justice in judging people on their musical taste, because what you listen to can say a lot about you. If you like Alanis Morissette, you probably enjoy exposed brick and wool sweaters. If you listen to the Buzzcocks, chances are that you drink PBR and don’t celebrate Christmas.
It may or may not be a good thing that a glance at someone’s iPod can be as valuable as the first fifteen minutes of any date. In a sense, identifying someone’s personality based on what albums they’ve bought is just as superficial as dismissing out of hand a girl who wears Uggs or liking someone because they have neon green wayfarers. But if someone professes to like any and all music, you know that it’s likely not one of their priorities, whatever that’s worth. If they do seem committed to music and have playlists full of Abba, that tells you something else as well.
I think one of the first things potential freshmen should ask on any college tour is what type of music the students like. The tour guides would probably gives some vague answer about how there’s a niche for anyone, but the bands that come through town or the most downloaded songs on campus would be a great barometer for the cultural composition of the student body. If I had come across a college full of My Morning Jacket fans in high school, even if it had been in rural Kentucky, I would have committed in a heartbeat.
So what about the musical culture at Cornell? Let it suffice to say that the Hill is not hipster heaven. Fanclub Collective and the late No Radio Records excepted, there’s never been much of a demand for obscurity or exoticism in our live music scene, and Perez Hilton gets a lot more hits than Pitchfork. This is both good and bad: we sacrifice musical curiosity for a lack of snobbery, and we trade the stress of indie one-upsmanship for Top 40 complacence.
Still, one could wish for a bit more musical tolerance on our campus. The tunes featured at parties are, by and large, tired and trite, and it often seems as though no artist is accepted who has not been endorsed by MTV. The other night I went to see my friend’s band from IC play at a frat party; before I even arrived, they had been kicked off the stage for playing too much “jazz” — that is to say, funk and reggae with live instruments (a novel concept, I know). A laptop was set up and low-grade dance music put on, and my friend was ignominiously sprayed with spilled Keystone by girls dancing on the table. Maybe we deserve the Pussycat Dolls.
Of course, all this is just a matter of opinion. Before you can even judge someone on their musical taste, you have to accept musical taste as a fair guideline. For some, that’s a ludicrous idea. For others, it’s all that matters.