One of the first things I told my college roommate was that I liked really weird music.
It wasn’t a warning. I wasn’t telling him he might want to get some earplugs for when I started cranking my homework playlist. I wasn’t even apologizing ahead of time for what he’d have to listen to, since I obviously couldn’t wear headphones.
No, I was bragging. My love of weird music was a badge of honor.
I cranked my Saviour Machine albums, partly because I thought they sounded cool, but mostly because they were operatic goth-prog, and that felt sufficiently “out there” to me. I even listened to bands I could barely tolerate simply because their names were just bizarre enough to earn me some Weird Music Cred if anyone asked what the heck was coming out of my speakers.
I had a lot invested in this musical identity. Pretty soon, I progressed from digging up unique music to criticizing anything that wasn’t as unique as my current favorite band. If you could describe a band’s genre in one word, it couldn’t really be that special, could it? And heaven forbid one of these bands had enough mass appeal to get some radio play. I got pickier and pickier until I could hardly listen to anything without thinking of a reason why it was beneath me.
I was probably really obnoxious.
This is the part of the blog where I usually say something like, “And then I read this really interesting thing, and it changed everything.” I wish I could write something like that, but unfortunately, the truth isn’t quite so succinct.
The fact of the matter is I’d already read the really interesting thing.
It just took a few years to sink in.
The really interesting thing in question was a scene in Voltaire’s satirical novella Candide. At one point in the story, Candide and his companion Martin visit a senator named Pococurante. Pococurante lives in a palace filled with the finest of everything. There are paintings by Raphael, literature from Homer, and even a group of musicians who play beautifully when commanded by Pococurante.
Candide ends up spending his entire visit pointing at everything in sight and saying how awesome it is. Pococurante, on the other hand, spends the entire visit telling Candide that nothing in his collection is all that special. And I’m not talking a humble, “It’s okay, I guess,” sort of response. The dude outright trashes everything he owns. Raphael isn’t realistic enough. Homer bores him to sleep. The music is just noise that’s difficult to execute.
Candide and Martin leave after Pococurante has finished telling them about the utter worthlessness of all his possessions, and, oddly enough, Candide is thoroughly impressed:
“Well,” said Candide to Martin when they had taken their leave, “you will agree that this is the happiest of mortals, for he is above everything he possesses.”
“But do you not see,” answered Martin, “that he is disgusted with all he possesses? Plato observed a long while ago that those stomachs are not the best that reject all sorts of food.”
“But is there not a pleasure,” said Candide, “in criticising everything, in pointing out faults where others see nothing but beauties?”
“That is to say,” replied Martin, “that there is some pleasure in having no pleasure.”
Candide was onto something. It’s fun to criticize stuff. In most cases, when you criticize something, you declare it to be beneath you, not-so-subtly elevating yourself over it. Even better, criticizing something doesn’t take nearly the vulnerability it does to express appreciation for it. Putting something down distances you from your target, while expressing appreciation requires you to link yourself to it, if only in a small sense.
It took me a few years to realize it, but I was becoming Pococurante. I’d gotten great at finding things to dislike, declaring more and more music to be beneath me in the hopes that people would echo Candide’s words: Taylor is just so sophisticated. He’s above everything he hears.
And you know what? Maybe there were people who thought of me that way. Maybe my relentless criticism earned me some admirers. But at the end of the day, what good is music if you listen with the goal of criticizing it? Why even listen if your goal is to keep from enjoying yourself?
I love Martin’s zinger at the end of the passage: There is some pleasure in having no pleasure. Besides just being fun wordplay, it really gets to the heart of why my musical superiority complex was so weird. I was actually taking pleasure in my inability to enjoy stuff. I’d gotten to a point where it was hard for me to find music I liked…and somehow I’d managed to spin that as a good thing.
Those stomachs are not the best that reject all sorts of food.
So here I am, a recovering musical elitist. I still listen to some pretty weird music, because I genuinely like music that’s a little off the beaten path. I still bristle at a few of the singles that get played on Top 40 radio, because some of the chart-toppers really don’t do it for me.
But I also really like some stuff that college-freshman-Taylor would’ve been embarrassed to have in his playlist. I’ve stopped listening to music for the sole purpose of crafting an identity. And I’ve stopped looking down on people just because they’re able to enjoy something I can’t get into.
It would appear they have the better stomachs, anyway.