Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Musical taste

We have all grown up trained to consume, and our consumption is thoroughly socialized, that is, we consume for others (to be noticed consuming by others) at least as much as we consume for our own sake -- our identity is bound in what we consume and what others think of how we do it. As one of the primary things one consumes, popular music is crucial. The music’s intrinsic quality is almost always a mirage, at best superfluous if it can even evr be established by any credibly objective point of view. Whether or not a song is intrinsically "good" is beside the point of whether a person likes it. As Reisman points out in The Lonely Crowd, “tunes meant people: roads to people, remembrances of them.” He argues further that one’s preferences in songs is more important then the songs themselves -- in other words, our opinions about music matter more to us than music itself in its sensuous quality, in its theoretically intrinsic capacity to please. “Preferences in consumption are not viewed as a development of the human ability to relate oneself discriminatingly to cultural objects." -- i.e. one doesn’t learn about music to appreciate it more, one learns about it to talk about it with others, to relate to others, to rank oneself against other consumers -- "For the objects are hardly given meaning in private and personal values when they are so heavily used as counters in a preferential method of relating oneself to others." --i.e. music is only important insofar as it makes others think certain things about you. The song means that to the listener, a relation with a peer not a relation to the music itself or the artist. The songs are “mementos that somehow remain unhumanized by the force of a genuinely personal, idiosyncratic attachment” (77-78). This is why faddish music is so shallow, its very popularity puts it in play in the sphere of arbitrating relationships and removes it from one which could be private. The songs can be readily abandoned when they no longer foster or signify or concretize any kind of relationship or any kind of sense of how one wants to be identified -- that is, when it no longer buys one admission into a certain group, when it no longer signifies a certain identity. One’s relation to popular music is already mediated by the time one discovers it -- what it means is already assigned, so no “humanizing” or lasting relation to it can be formed; the songs can’t really become meaningful to you (as songs, as music, as personal discoveries).

Regarding hyped, gimmicky music: Reisman claims that “wherever we see glamour in the object of attention, we must suspect a basic apathy in the spectator.” Glam rock is a reaction to listener apathy, to the presumption that listeners should be apathetic. It therefore doesn’t seek to eradicate that apathy but to flatter it into knowing cynicism, into a proud, transcendant, kitsch sensibility. It preesrves boredom as a state of alleged camp fun.

Whether or not they'd admit it, most music fans are trained not to be too impassioned about the very music they are interested in. They don't have the technical understanding of music to have a passion for music as music. Again, they are passionate about their preferences, but not the music itself.

The interest in the sincerity of the performer. Reisman thinks it might have to do with attracting the audience’s sympathy for the performer’s vulnerability, or that the performer is allowing the listener to experience emotions vicariously that the listener is generally too apathetic or guarded to feel for real. But more than that, he believes it indicates the shift of evaluation from what is performed, the music itself, to the performer and his personality -- something we can share or excel the performer in. After all no one is more sincere than ourselves when we choose to be, our own truth is inevitably the truest, and the measure of all other sincerities. So we shift the ground of judgment to something we believe we have mastered, and something we can’t ourselves be judged on -- sincerity being subjective, musical skill theoretically objective.

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