February 6, 2012

A matter of taste

Cultural preferences are undeniably social—but don’t let that get in the way of personal enjoyment.

A friend of mine recently bought a T-shirt with a noted musician on it. This is despite the fact that he has only ever heard one song by said musician, and, if pressured, is unlikely to even remember its title. When I asked him about it, he simply told me that he thought the shirt looked cool, and that was that.

The average person might be expected to drop the matter at this point, but naturally I did no such thing and instead got really angry. Tastes matter, after all; they signify so much about you as a person. You can’t just wear a T-shirt with a musician on it because you think it looks “cool”! But I eventually calmed down and reflected on why exactly my friend’s wardrobe choice had upset me so much.

There’s an undeniably social component to taste. Its manifestations are many, but I will only discuss two of them: Trying to convince other people that you like something that you don’t actually like, and trying to convince yourself that you like something that you don’t actually like. The former is far less dangerous, far easier to explain, and ultimately far easier to avoid; the latter, on the other hand, is dangerous, crippling, and probably unavoidable.

When it comes to the former, it’s easy to think of examples. When I discovered rock ‘n’ roll journalism at the (quite appropriate) age of 14 and began reading Rolling Stone, I was introduced to the notion of a canon of rock music. This being Rolling Stone, it was an undeniably white and frankly boring canon, but nevertheless, here was a list of recordings that I needed to familiarize myself with simply to be educated. So I set about listening to every single Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Rolling Stones album I could find; I learned about the Velvet Underground, The Clash, David Bowie, and so on. Basically, I learned what I was supposed to like, and whenever I encountered a fellow music nerd, I knew exactly what artists I was supposed to say I loved, even if in my heart of hearts I had always thought that Pink Floyd was sort of boring and the Rolling Stones sort of overrated.

Pretending to like something just so you fit in is undeniably lame, but at the very least it’s simple. You know you’re lying—you know you don’t actually consider Exile on Main St. a masterpiece, but you pretend to think it is one just to avoid an endless argument with no resolution. I understand the motivation for this relatively harmless lie, so in the end, it doesn’t really bother me.

But there is a point at which you start to fool yourself when it comes to taste. Once you’ve experienced the idea that there’s a certain list of things that you simply must like in order to be educated or cultured or whatever—then it really gets dangerous. I’ve reached the point where I’m not sure if I “really” like Beethoven and Coltrane or if I’ve just internalized the idea that I’m supposed to like them, and as a consequence have managed to convince myself that I do.

I don’t even know what it means to really like something anymore. Maybe it’s something tantamount to: “You would listen/watch/read it even if nobody knew that you were doing so,” but that would exclude the case that really worries me, which is precisely that, even if I don’t share my love for David Lynch with anyone else, I only like him because I think that I’m supposed to, because I like to feel intelligent and cultured, even if absolutely nobody else in the world knows or remotely cares.

This kind of anxiety is crippling because there’s never really a way to assure yourself that your love of something is genuine, and not ultimately a façade, whether to other people or to yourself. There is no way to test for something like this. And so truths that were previously absolutely certain to me have been undermined; am I watching The Wire because it’s a great work of art or is it because I want to be the kind of person that watches The Wire?

My guess is that, as always, the answer is an unsatisfying compromise. On the one hand, I don’t think I could spend hours watching a TV show or reading a book without enjoying it at least a little, but on the other hand, if I had read hundreds of reviews in entertainment magazines that continually talked about Breaking Bad being a horrible show—well, then I have no doubt that I would view it in an entirely different light. Maybe I wouldn’t think it was horrible, but I don’t know if I’d be so willing to identify it as my favorite TV show of all time.

And that’s why my friend’s T-shirt upset me. Because it affirmed my worries that taste is something vague and ill-defined, existing only to differentiate us from the herd and to signal to others (or ourselves) that we are refined, even when we aren’t. I don’t want taste to be like this; I want my favorite music and movies to indicate things about my personality and “who I am,” even if this seems like an absurd and rather adolescent demand.

At the end of the day, these reflections shouldn’t be taken too far. At a certain point, it gets absurd to wonder whether or not you like something genuinely or because of social cachet; at the very least, I’m not particularly worried that my parents only love me because they think that they’re supposed to. To get through life, you’re going to have to enjoy some parts of it, and so you may as well try not to waste too much of it wrapped up in pointless considerations without clear answers.

However, for my sake, take the time, when the new season premieres later this year, to ask yourself whether or not you really like Mad Men.

Peter Ianakiev is a fourth-year in the College majoring in math.