As an omnivorous musical enthusiast, I listen to a wide array of sounds, some of them popular and melodic, some of them dissonant and obscure. When asked to name my favorite bands or genres, I’ve generally round-shouldered the question by answering “I like anything done well.”
Which is a true statement: I listen to extreme metal, experimental hip hop, cowboy songs, Southern gospel, vintage jazz, indie shoe-gaze, guilty-pleasure pop, ’70s funk and soul, and all sorts of other sounds, and generally enjoy them all in equal measure, depending on my mood at the moment. There are many ways to make a joyful noise, and I don’t discriminate.
I’m used to people either giving me the blank stare (or the eye-roll) when I talk about (or when they listen to) my music. I can live with that, since I’m sure I make the same faces when other people press their wildest enthusiasms upon me, and I don’t get or don’t share them. To each their own, with tolerance, and respect, amen.
There are two common phrases, however, that I’d really prefer not to hear from folks when it comes to my listening tastes: “It all sounds the same to me” and “That’s not really music.”
I generally find the latter phrase to be the more offensive of the two, since nine times out of ten, I hear it said about hip hop, rap or other beat-based musical forms that have arisen largely from African, Caribbean and American urban culture. While it’s certainly okay to not like these sounds (and I know a lot of people who don’t), denying their very status as music seems to represent a degree of cultural absolutism that treads precariously close to out-and-out racism. Such a position denies the validity of cultural artifacts embraced and adored by millions and millions of listeners, and that’s just wrong.
The “it all sounds the same to me” response, however, is more challenging to me, as it is rooted not in the dismissal of any particular musical culture, but rather in an admission by the speaker that they simply don’t understand or appreciate the musical genres in question. At best, this statement forces me to explain, defend or justify the subtleties within said genres. At worst, this statement implies that something’s not quite right with me (or others like me) who find nuance, shadow, texture and finesse in what normal people perceive to be a faceless, monochrome slate.
I most often hear “it all sounds the same to me” about rap and hip hop (which is preferable to “that’s not really music,” at least), jazz and extreme metal. I’ve come to consider that an appreciation of the subtleties within these genres is very much an acquired taste, just as developing an appreciation for, and an ability to tell the differences between, various types of coffees, wines, cigars, olives or caviar requires experience and effort.
The thing is, you really have to want to acquire such experience to get past the difficult and sometimes distasteful introductory experiences. Nobody likes the taste of their first cigarette or beer or cup of coffee or spoonful of fish eggs. Nobody! But societal pressures and values inculcate in us a desire to partake of these substances, so we keep at it, until we begin to appreciate flavors and textures that were first masked by our gag and/or cough reflexes.
And then, one day, we’re able to make a smart choice of wine at dinner, or prepare a dish with the right olives, or offer guests the perfect beer for a barbecue. Great success! We have persevered through discomfort to develop important life skills!
Unfortunately, the ability to select the perfect Napalm Death or Dälek or Albert Ayler song at any given moment isn’t culturally imprinted upon us in the same ways, so if we’re repulsed by our first encounters with such artists, we’re not as likely to keep working at them in the hopes of gaining expertise, context or perspective.
But I think it’s worth it to make that effort, as the rewards that I gain from perfect musical moments in those challenging genres are just as rich and meaningful as the rewards I receive from a great glass of wine or a perfect tapenade. Had I given up years ago after gagging at my first canned black olive or my first sip of box wine or my first spin of Napalm Death’s Scum, I’d never have known such delights.
So the next time you find yourself saying or thinking “It all sounds the same to me,” I would recommend you take that as an opportunity for personal growth and exploration, to try to figure out just what it is that people like me see behind the off-putting facades such musical genres may offer.
If you need a guide, I’m a cheap date, as I will work for olives and wine . . .