There’s a scene in Hulu’s adaption of High Fidelity that sums it up pretty well: season one, episode four. Strangers clad in feather-adorned coats with glitter on their cheeks swap phones and stories across a dinner table. A girl saddles up to Rob, main character and an owner of a record store, and flippantly starts conversation. “I’ve always been shy of my musical preferences for like, fear of judgment,” the girl mentions, glancing lazily in Rob’s direction. Looking to the camera for an escape, Rob then relays an important anecdote: “Most of it comes down to just blind conviction.”
Blind conviction pretty much sums it up. Most of us can relate to believing in the supremacy of an artist, song, or album in comparison to another. Lately, however, there’s been a surge in hyper-elitism when it comes to music taste. Our most intimate musical preferences—the songs we listen to for comfort, the artists with whom we’ve formed connections, and the albums in which we’ve found relief—are not so intimate nowadays.
Music became less universal when we started treating it as a doormat for our needs for validation. Most notably, large streaming platforms such as Spotify have commercialized and commodified these personal preferences of ours through services like Spotify Wrapped. Spotify Wrapped is the perfect vessel for music lovers to feed their id: people rarely shy away from an opportunity to gain insight into their personalities (think of our obsession with the Myers-Briggs personality test). We’ve become hyper-aware of who listens to what and for how long, fueling the innate desire to compete with our peers over the number of minutes spent listening to music. Spotify Wrapped also urges new users to consider using Spotify in part due to FOMO; if everyone you know is sharing a personalized graphic detailing their musical stats from the past year, you’re going to want to join in.
But big corporations like Spotify aren’t the only ones who are at fault for this trend. We’re all culprits in contributing to the shame and embarrassment that have become synonymous with listening to specific artists. Rex Orange County has become the unofficial pinnacle of a wannabe-indie girl who’s a regular Urban Outfitters patron. A Smiths fan is egotistical and decidedly unable to get laid. Bon Iver attracts the coffee shop connoisseur with a God complex.
Think of The Pudding’s A.I. bot that captured the internet’s attention this past December. The purpose of the visual essay was to jokingly detail how “bad” your Spotify listening patterns were, but the only thing it seemed to highlight was how subjective music taste truly is. Whether you were verbally accused of having “tay-tay-fangirl”or “boomer-relaxation” listening tendencies, one thing was clear: shame is becoming synonymous with music taste.
It’s important to admit there is a very real need for validation when it comes to our music taste—a raw, grabbing desire that others will approve of something as frivolous as what songs we listen to. Our taste in music can act as a deciding factor of who we are, who we want to associate ourselves with.
Of course, this isn’t the case for everyone. Among a plethora of other reasons why one may be compelled to share things on social platforms, some take genuine pride in their preferences or just enjoy musical banter. But one thing is sure: nobody wants to be the person that still listens to certain artists, songs, or records that others have deemed unappealing.
Though such discourse can be intriguing, what is the realistic outcome of this musical rivalry? Is this type of elitism more damaging than it is beneficial?
And what is it that makes music instantly unattractive when it was popular with the masses weeks, months, or even years prior? I asked my Instagram followers to describe what they thought made an artist objectively “bad.” The answers I received seemed to fall within three categories: quality of sound, lyricism, and meaning. Essentially, anyone who consistently writes tacky lyrics atop the most mediocre of beats with a clear intention to appeal to a specific audience is capital-B Bad. It is one of the 21st century’s greatest ironies: our clawing desire to deviate from music that appeals to the general public contradicts the validation we crave from our peers when we upload song recommendations to social platforms.
Before the late 2000s, the radio was the arbiter of what was cool to listen to and what wasn’t. In the late twentieth century, live recordings and swapped mixtapes swayed popular consensus. In the forties and fifties, music taste was influenced by what was available on the jukebox. Music, of course, is universal for a reason; its malleability in meaning is what makes it so great. But regardless of how it was once shared, rivalry in music taste has persisted throughout the decades.
The shared practices of the past—jukeboxes, CD swapping—are all behaviors that encourage a specific kind of pride in music taste. This sense of elitism is nothing new, sure, but the widespread sharing of musical preferences we see online today is notably different from past practices. Though this isn’t anything groundbreaking, the internet is a cesspool of differing opinions. Today’s memes, stereotypes, and more have all inflated our musical egos, whether we like it or not.
The warped musical rivalry of today is suffocating. Rather than uplifting one’s opinions, we unknowingly silence others to feel better about ourselves. It’s time to acknowledge that the only “bad” music taste out is an inability to be-open minded to new things and other people’s preferences. Holding your own music taste above others (and hence holding yourself above others) is dangerous, allowing egotism to taint the most universal language out there. So whether you listen to Miley Cyrus or an alternative band with a microscopic following, let any feelings of shame roll off your back. In the end, it all comes down to blind conviction.
Illustration by Julian Alexander