by Ben Shine
"When you talk about music, your face becomes beautiful." -- excerpt from an NPR This American Life interview
People in my Facebook feed were horrified this week at news coming from another part of the world. They were angry, confused, nauseated and brought to ALL-CAPS, expletive-laden rage.
The terrible news in question? The Flaming Lips announced the lineup for a tribute album with a bunch of other artists -- including, for the love of god, Miley Cyrus -- that is a re-creation of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and will benefit an organization that helps sick people take care of their pets. The Lips simultaneously marred a golden calf (The Beatles) and touched a third rail of hipster taste (Miley Cyrus). I can't say for sure who is mad about which part, but I can say that the outrage was extensive. Close on the heels of that news, riot girl icon Kathleen Hanna's declaration that she, too, wished to collaborate with the former Hannah Montana star was all too much for some people to bear. The virtual gnashing of teeth over nostalgia going crossways with reality was nearly audible.
The mindset that any one person's taste should be 1.) irrevocably correct or 2.) unchangeably set has bothered me for quite some time. Locally, it rose up like a tidal wave when NUVO published its 100 Best Hoosier Albums Ever article, as people questioned the writers' right to even have an opinion on the matter. Personally, I see it in my life a great deal, even in myself. Maybe we're too busy trying not to be wrong about picking sides in imaginary musical debates or staking our identities in our iTunes playlists (or vinyl collection) that we end up making a bigger mistake. The greatest failure of taste might be closing ourselves off to new music, to condemn it before we even hear it or to be indignantly angry at those who disagree with our opinions once we do hear it.
I want to be thoroughly open to musical experiences. And I've created a personal three-point plan for making that a reality all the time.
Everyone knows the well-worn expression about what happens when you assume. When it comes to music, don't prejudge a genre, band, album or song before giving it a shot. Unlikely combinations can bring about great results. They can also be disastrous. It's OK to just listen to them before you outright say they're a bad idea. I generally know how I will feel about something before I hear it, but I've been wrong plenty of times. I didn't like The Flaming Lips' version of Dark Side of the Moon (which featured Henry Rollins and Peaches), so I'm not especially hopeful about the new tribute. But I'll listen to it before I say that it's bad.
Don't Be Mad.
Music is a big part of who I am, but I don't think that gives me the right to tell anyone else what they can do with their creative output. If Kathleen Hanna wanted to rerecord Rebel Girl with Miley Cyrus on lead vocals, well, it's just not that big of a deal, and it doesn't have to change what her music meant to me in the past. I also don't have to listen to it. My wife claimed long ago that I have a "pop culture bubble" where I don't let things I don't like from popular culture into my mental space, and it's true. I started this practice right about the 500th time I heard Don't Worry Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin. I'd had enough and simply turned off to music I didn't want to hear and turned toward music I wanted to explore. But I can't be mad at any of the artists for their creative output or collaborators (why not work with anyone you want to whenever?), and I can't be mad at people who like stuff that I don't like. There are way better things to be mad about, and I'm not even trying to be mad about those things anymore. There's just not enough time.
Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but I've found that the more I open myself up to music, or the arts in general, the more I find to like. That includes former victims of my pop culture bubble, such as later REM, Justin Timberlake and post-Bleach Nirvana. Once upon a time, when my taste and identity were more tangled together, I would write off things wholesale because someone I didn't like appreciated them. Now, I'd prefer to make curiosity the greater part of myself instead. If someone thinks something is really great and I don't, it's better to ask why they like it. I'd rather get excited about someone else's loves than put them down. On occasion, a friend's heartfelt explanation of, say, a Cheap Trick song will make me see what's fantastic about it. Curiosity wins every time.
I think we need to put our cultural tastes into perspective. I pulled the quote at the beginning of this post from a 1996 episode of This American Life. It's an episode about love -- of music, of life, of others. And in one little snippet, in a story about an unlikely romance, a man discovers that his beauty is most visible when he talks about what he loves most -- music. I don't want to take that moment away from anyone. If my teenage nieces love poppy boy bands, I don't want to laugh at that. If a work friend loves a band that "used to be cool," I don't want to think that she isn't tremendously cool.
Taste shouldn't be a barrier. Music, art and culture bring beauty into the world. I refuse to be a barrier or naysayer about that. A critic, at times, yes, but not an old man yelling at kids to get off my lawn.
Here's the source of this post's title: