Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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In a Perfect World: An Answer to the Unanswerable Question

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 11, 2008

There’s no use talking at all

(Note: Not The Good Dr.’s Actual Last.fm Chart)

So as I’ve alluded to recently on this blog, I’ve started a three-month Music Programming internship with Sirius Satellite Radio. It’s oing pretty well so far–I still can’t believe that someone actually read the application I submitted online half on a whim, since I never really expected to hear back about it, but I’m certainly glad they did. It’s a combination of cool geek-out assignments (crafting elaborate song transitions!) and mindless grunt work (CD filing!), but it’s all music-related at the very least, and it’s all stuff I understand pretty well. Plus, the people are pretty cool–the closest thing I’ve had thusfar to a genuine work environment, and aside from a couple moments of regrettably inevitable frattiness (this is the home of Howard Stern, after all), I’ve got nothing but nice things to say.

But there’s one problem with the job, one which seems pretty much unavoidable and which I doubt I’ll ever actually solve to my satisfaction. Sirius is, of course, a house of music, and with each person I meet for the first time, the subject usually tends to come up as a discussion topic. And then comes the million dollar question:

So, what kind of music do you like?

No question strikes fear into my heart quite like this one. I’ve been actively listening to music for at least 11 years now, and I don’t think I’ve had a halfway decent answer to this question. If you’re a certain kind of music fan–the kind that doesn’t really belong to any specific music scene, and is never satisfied sticking with one radio station for too long–you probably know what I’m talking about. It’s a question that has so very, very many answers, and trying to cover all of them in one sentence is a virtual impossibility. And yet I’m almost certain to be judged point-blank by the questioner on the merits of my answer–and, to be fair, I probably do this to others as well, so I can’t really fault others for doing it to me.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that my taste in music is so complex and unique that I couldn’t possibly hope to pigeonhole myself. But let’s analyze some of the most viable answers to this question, OK?

“Rock, I guess, mostly.”

Advantages to This Answer: It’s probably true–if I broke down the music I listen to on a day by day basis by genre, the Rock umbrella would most likely cover the majority of my music listening. Plus, the majority of the people that have asked me this question over the course of my life have by and large been white, middle-upper class males, and demographically speaking, this is the odds-on answer least likely to alienate an MUCWM of any age–it’s specific enough that they know you’re probably not a raver, wanksta or country fanatic by nature, but vague enough to allow further communications with metalheads and jam band freaks alike.

Disadvantages to This Answer: It’s a very purposefully vague answer, and implies that either I don’t care enough about music to ally myself with a more specific subgenre, or simply don’t know enough to keep up with a more in-depth taxonomy. Hence, true rock fans would likely dismiss my taste outright if confronted with such an answer. Plus, if I was to talk to someone who was primarily a dance, hip-hop, country or whatever fan, I wouldn’t want them to think I only had token interest at best in their genre, a conclusion they’d almost have to reach if given this answer.

“Indie Rock, I guess, mostly.”

Advantages to This Answer: It’s probably true–if you wanted to break the rock music I listen to on a day by day basis down by subgenre, independent rock music would generally have the biggest chunk of the pie chart. Talk to anyone that knows a fair bit about rock music, and even if they won’t necessarily be the most knowledgeable about the subgenre, they’ll know you generally mean business with your music listening if you say you’re an indie fan. And if the person you’re talking to happens to be an indie fan as well, you’ve got an instant Brother in Arms, a fellow soldier in the war against the corporate homogenization of the soulless mainstream.

Disadvantages to This Answer: A big one–a large, large number of human beings on this earth have no idea what indie rock is. Either that, or they think it means bands like Something Corporate and Coheed & Cambria, which is arguably worse. Plus, say this to someone who’s a rock fan but decidedly not an indie fan, and they’ll be likely to dismiss you as a high-brow snob that’ll probably just look down at their pedestrian music taste. And even if you do make that connection with a fellow under the radar-er, you’ve set an anti-mainstream precedent that, for someone who listens to as much Top 40 music as I do, would ultimately be impossible to live up to.

“Alternative Rock, I guess, mostly.”

Advantages to This Answer: This answer might have the highest upside of any of the answers discussed in this article, simply because it sounds specific while actually being almost as vague as the blanket Rock answer. To me, Alternative Rock will always mean Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and Green Day–the music I grew up on, and the music that when you get down to it, is still closest to my heart–but to someone listening, alternative rock could mean just about whatever they want it to be. It’s not specific enough to discount the possibility that I might listen to punk, metal, emo, jam, or indie, but it does carry enough weight to imply that my rock interests might go beyond Linkin Park and Matchbox20.

Disadvantages to This Answer: Despite being definitely preferable to the Rock answer, it does come with several of the same issues. People that really know what they’re talking about will instantly judge you as being full of shit, and people that aren’t principally Rock fans will likely conclude that you don’t listen to any music not made by middle-class northern Honkies. Plus, you’re probably not gonna forge too many legitimate connections with an answer this vague–no one’s going to respond “You listen to alternative rock? Oh my God, I listen to alternative rock too!” That’d just be weird.

“Just about everything, I guess.”

Advantages to This Answer: This has generally been my go-to answer to this question as of late. And by it, I don’t mean to imply that I actually listen to every form of music available for mass consumption–the lack of klezmer, bhangra and 20th century classical in my mp3 collection sort of disqualifies me for this–but rather, I’m trying to imply with this answer that I would listen to ANYTHING. In other words, I don’t define myself so much by the genres that I listen to that I would preclude other types of music from my potential rotation–I don’t let my Pantera appreciation preclude me from listening to the Spice Girls, I can rock jams by Mobb Deep and Will Smith back to back, I can have both The White Stripes’ Elephant and an album made only on keyboards created after the 1960s on the same year-end list. That’s not to say that I don’t have genre biases–we all do–but I try to make my listening decisions based solely on musical grounds, not ideological. And hey, if you handed me a polka album and said it would change my life, I’d at least give it one listen. Probably.

Disadvantages to This Answer: People you give this response to won’t infer any of that nonsense. More likely, they’ll hear it, and think to themselves, “this person doesn’t even like music that much.” Because in addition to being the kind of answer that people like myself who think about music too much would give, it’s far more commonly the kind of answer that people who don’t tend to think about music at all would give–the kind of answer that implies not only might you not care about the difference between a top 40 station and a classic rock station, you might not even really know what the difference is. Sez Chuck Klosterman, “Do you know people who insist they like ‘all kinds of music’? That actually means they like no kinds of music.” If Chuck doesn’t even understand, what chance could I possibly have for comprehension in the real world?

“Well, if I had to break it down by absolute favorites, I guess I’d say, like…60s Garage Rock, 70s Soul, 80s Synth-Pop and 90s Alternative. Those are like my golden standards. And I’m not really sure what my favorite music from this decade is yet.”

Adavantages to This Answer: It’s the closest to the truth that I can come up with without writing an entire essay.

Disadvantages to This Answer: I know what you’re thinking–yeah, ha, joke answer for the final possibility, there’s no way I’d actually use this one in conversation. But last Thursday night, I got so frustrated with a week of giving people variations on these non-committal, boring answers, that I decided to actually go for the gold and answered the question in almost those exact words. The look on the guy’s face in response was one of being absolutely mortified–a look which basically said “Wow…you’re going to be alone for the rest of your life.” He managed to stammer some kind of “Yeah, uh…that’s cool” type response, and we actually carried on a fairly decent conversation afterwards, but it was clear that this was to be a one-time only experiment for me. The only thing worse than giving an answer that implies you’ve never really thought about the question before is one that makes it clear that you’ve spent countless hours agonizing over the perfect answer.

C’mon, I know some of you out there must be in the same boat as me on this one. How do you answer this question? I’m dying here.

16 Responses to “In a Perfect World: An Answer to the Unanswerable Question”

  1. Jake said

    I know exactly what you are talking about and have gone through the exact same internal conversation. I generally go with the indie rock answer because I feel as though it is most accurate, but I also see the contempt with which people react to that with.

    I have similar issues when people inevitably ask to look through my iPod. Being in high school, I know that most of those looking through it do not recognize three fourths of the stuff, but the fourth that they do recognize they frown at and say “that doesn’t fit your tastes.” It is definitely frustrating.

  2. Millie said

    I usually answer with “A Little Bit of Everything” and yes…get the look of “she doesn’t really appreciate music”. Then if I am lucky said person will spend enough time with me to hear some of music collection and it turns to “this chick has shitty taste in music.” I suppose I bring this upon myself for loving 80s hair bands as much as I do.

    Sounds like a cool place to work.

  3. Jason L said

    I usually don’t limit myself to one genre, but use three when describing my music. Right now I’d say “Indie rock, pop, and rap, mostly”. Not only is this fairly succinct, most people understand what I mean, and I don’t limit myself to only enjoying a single kind of music. I also save rap for last so that people won’t immediately judge me. This works great for me because it always allows me to switch one of my choices without forsaking the other two; maybe one day I’ll substitute folk or electronica for one of my current three, who knows? I don’t think I could ever say something as vague as “rock” or “alternative” though, because, like you said, those could mean such different things to different people. As a side note, it’s fun as hell to substitute your last choice for a singular, out-of-left-field artist, especially when feeling mischievous/intoxicated. Saying something like “Indie rock, pop, and Yoko Ono” will get some awesome reactions, believe you me.

  4. “Oh, y’know. Stuff.”

    The key, Andrew, is to stop caring about people who will actually judge you based on this question. I mean, I ask it too, out of curiosity, but I base who I’m going to be sticking around enough to find out what they actually like (because NO-ONE has a good answer for this one) on whether or not they seem like a nice person.

    Among people I already know who love music, we’re a hell of a lot more likely so ask each other “so what have you been listening to lately, which is a hell of a lot more interesting (on both sides) and productive.

  5. And on the same note as Jason’s Yoko Ono thing, if really drunk I’ll probably just respond “Joy Division and the Ronettes,” because that covers it, doesn’t it?

  6. jonathan said

    I’m with Mathers’ “stuff,” but sometimes I’ll try to refine the “just about everything” response. It doesn’t really work; I end up prattling on along the lines, “Well, I definitely don’t like *everything*, but I will like *anything* if you know what I mean. Although there’s a lot of stuff I don’t like…” by which time the other person is usually backing away, saying, “uh huh… yeah… shutupnow.”

  7. Victor said

    Electroclash. Nothing but electroclash.

  8. Skitch Winchester said

    “You know, like, Motorhead”. They cover several genres at once while actively resisting a concrete label, the use of “Ace of Spades” in pretty much everything ever guarantees a fairly high amount of recognition, and your endorsement of their love of rocking means that folks will know that you also love to rock. The answer also demonstrates a certain amount of depth in that you are able to look beyond the pretty gnarly physical appearance of the band members to acknowledge their inner, heavily rocking beauty. Plus, they’re goofy and self-aware enough (and toured and recorded with Girlschool) to avoid the strident, easily parodied confrontationalism of other heavy groups, an advantage when asked the question by small women and men who wear scarves indoors. I also usually get a positive reaction with, “Effin’ Motorhead, dude”.

  9. Jack H. said

    It’s the exact same problem when someone asks you for your favorite band. Most dedicated music listeners know that that depends on time of day, time of year, mood, books reading/ recently read, the weather outside, etc. So usually the default answer is: “Do you want a list? I have a lot.” Usually the other person will say, “C’mon! You can name a favorite!” That’s the tricky part: do you go with bands that they surely will have heard of? Or do you try and get them to drop the question by answering, “Well, you probably haven’t heard of them?” That never works either, because then they’ll want to know even more. “Well, one of my favorite bands is Guided by Voices.” That only means more and more explaining.

    Basically, my solution is to try and not talk to anyone about music until I have thoroughly stalked their facebook profiles and made sure they don’t like lame shit. And as much as I’d like to say that’s a joke…it really isn’t.

  10. Jack H. said

    The more and more I think about this, the more I think my answer (if I have to talk to someone I haven’t facebook-stalked) should simply be “The Wu-Tang Clan (and any and all associated acts).” I’ve never actually tried this as a serious answer, but it wouldn’t be too far from the truth.

    (Side note: speaking of facebook, joined a group called “My Love for the Wu-Tang Clan is simultaneously ironic and sincere”…maybe I could just go with that…)

  11. Art Fleming said

    Yeah i do that facebook stalking thing too and its kinda wrong and sad.

  12. Justin said

    I just got a Wu Tang CD, it’s pretty kickass. And my friend made me an electroclash mixtape!

  13. Anton said

    You know what people are thinking when you say “I listen to everything”. They are thinking, “he probably think listening to Weird Al is the same thing as having listened to everything”.

    So my trick is to say “I only listen to Weird Al”. That way, they will either realize that I am joking and be impressed with both my humor and the worldliness of the type of music I must listen (leave it to the imagination, boy), or they will think I’m totally serious and spread rumors around the office that I’m some sort of militant Weird Al punk. Win/Win.

    I feel like you have the best possible response of anyone, though. Can’t you just say “I’m a music journalist, so I pretty much just have to listen to anything”. It’s probably the most snobby answer you can give, but it is probably the most accurate. “I’m a music junkie” also gets the same point across.

  14. Haley said

    Crazy that you are posting about this, I was flirting w/ a guy in the music department of Barnes and Noble and the inevitable question came up… well I gave the “everything” anwser, and man people really don’t appreciate that one too much, and I didn’t even delve into explaining what “everything” meant to me. Luckily we were in the music department and we went around telling eachother what we liked… but it was totally one of those “oh man I should’ve said more” situations. Nice to hear that others think way too much about trivial nonsense too.

  15. Bertson said

    The best way I’ve found to answer is mention a broad genre or two, then a few specific bands, and try to direct the conversation to those bands.

  16. Mitchell Stirling said

    My go to answers are

    1) Stuff that John Peel liked / would like
    2) I don’t know yet, I’m still working through it.

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