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
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.