Conversational Anxiety And Alienation Via “Musical Passion”

“What kind of music are you into?”

The question is tempting. If acquaintances can agree on one genre or artist they’ve immediately found something great to build off – a rare form of authentic common ground. Musical reciprocity is an acknowledgment of shared subjectivity; it immediately slices through peoples’ surfaces and creates a unique (and underrated) visceral connection. A passionate listener’s taste is one of the most accurate manifestations of their personality – a gateway into their personal philosophy and individuality that goes beyond the genre- and artist-related stereotypes.

Everyone’s somewhat of a passionate listener though; how many people do you know that don’t listen to music at all?

But when asked, many people struggle to whittle down their taste into a one- or two-sentence answer. It can be too complicated and personal, and asking about it in a casual and/or forced conversation instantly devalues it. The more someone cares about music [1] , the harder of a time they have talking about it objectively and casually. They stop dead in their tracks when asked – anxiously gauging how the asker will react to them sharing something they assume the asker cares about drastically less than they do. A divide is immediately formed. Fear of categorization and judgment arises, and the answer that ensues usually involves a contrived sense of detachment and lack of genuine passion.

Too much passion can intimidate people – many would rather reciprocate over ennui. The basic problem with asking people about music is that judgment is too easy.

Yet the question comes up ubiquitously with acquaintances, to the point of it being blurted out thoughtlessly during the first moment of anxiety-inducing conversational silence. Usually people don’t have judging in mind – it comes up suddenly, often in semi-forced interactions, when the only way to survive the conversation is through supposedly harmless interrogations/ questions. It’s like an intellectually higher form of the go-to-males-talking-sports thing, but without the safety and objectivity. Sports and music are similar in a lot of ways – both are used to proclaim individuality and personally invest in knowledge with the intent to eventually share it with other people. But, for a lot of people, the stakes are substantially higher with music – it’s tied into existential beliefs and deep-seated emotions. It feels disappointing and pointless if reciprocity isn’t found.

So if both parties are obviously not equally passionate a divide is instantly formed. Formulating an answer is painful – How can I put this in terms you’ll understand? It’s unnatural, and both parties notice it. Music, for someone who takes it personally, can’t be treated innocuously. It can’t be devalued.

Everyone uses music for similar purposes though, regardless of how much time they spend immersed in it, or whether they found their taste “individually,” with “countercultural intentions,” or genuinely enjoy “what’s on the radio.” It’s used to spoon-feed emotions – to cultivate those rare moments when we’re really “feeling things,” and then to pull us out and into a different (either positive or negative) state of mind when we’re ready. It can be life affirming and self-validating. There seems to be a rampant unawareness of the power of music, and dissociation between people who genuinely care about it and those who don’t.

Maybe we should just appreciate the fact that everyone listens and contracts something positive from it. Tastes and knowledge shouldn’t need to be validated or shown off, regardless of the potential conversational euphoria that might entail musical common ground. People can’t become authentically passionate about something until they realize how much it means to them.

But the most important element of the potential plight of the musical conversation is the knowledge that the alienation that comes out of it can be mutual. If a connection isn’t made, both parties can, and are often, left equally discouraged – regardless of what the asker was expecting. There are tons of possibilities. The “superiority complex” of the self-proclaimed passionate listener objectively devalues another person’s taste as inferior. Both parties maliciously label everything mentioned “good” or “bad.” The passionate listener is left feeling pretentious and needy for putting his/her taste “out there.” The casual listener is supposed to feel  “stupid,” “philistine,” or “not thoughtful.” Stereotypes that coincide with artists and genres are voiced [2], and both parties are left feeling written off and judged. Loneliness is perpetuated. When it comes to music the objective judging of art becomes mainstream and especially prominent, so much so that a person’s view of a genre/ artist will instinctually transmit to anyone who they find out associates with that genre/ artist.

So maybe when music comes up we need to (mentally) acknowledge that, “Yes, I’m going to categorize you, and I can’t really help it, but I’ll give you the opportunity to overcome that categorization.” Whether we can successfully overcome our judgmental inclinations or not, an awareness and understanding of our pretenses seems important, as well as an expectation that we will find common ground. Perhaps we also need to find a way to reciprocate without specific external common ground. In music’s case, over the experience of listening itself, instead of who and what makes our individual experiences tick – something like a cliché focus on the similarities, or a positive emphasis on the differences. We might like different things, but our overarching listening experience shouldn’t be that different. We both listen to music; why not listen to each other? Assume they’re genuinely interested, answer honestly, and see what happens.

Or just let it slide, and move to the next question. TC mark

image – Theoddnote

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  • Guest


    • Theonlycloan

      definitely. black, latino, etc. people never talk about music.

      • Guest

        #whitepeopleproblems has little to do with ethnicity.  The term was coined to describe problems and discussions of shallow nature. In this particular article the author talks about judging people based on their musical preferences. Judging people based on musical preference=shallow and thus can be constituted as a #whitepeopleproblem.

      • xra

        yikes, sounds pretty racist then

      • Anonymous

        Oh cool, I am hispanic and a music major. I feel special. Also, do you really believe that black and latino people never discuss music? What?

      • Anonymous

        Oh cool, I am hispanic and a music major. I feel special. Also, do you really believe that black and latino people never discuss music? What?

      • Theonlycloan

        my bad, i forgot to include my sarcasm disclaimer. no, i don’t believe
        that ethnicity has any effect on whether or not music is discussed by an
        individual. i find the term #whitepeopleproblems to be pretentious and
        ignorant, because we are not living in a post-racial world.

        however, i do agree that there is no accounting for taste and judgment based on musical preference is somewhat shallow.

      • Anonymous

        Oh cool, I am hispanic and a music major. I feel special. Also, do you really believe that black and latino people never discuss music? What?

  • Gregory Costa

    Sometimes I have trouble choosing between two of my favorite radio stations.  One plays 70s and 80s, while the other plays 60s, 70s, and 80s. 

  • Michael Koh

    I’m sorry, what? Deerhoof? *high-five*

  • Jordan

    This was really great.  I’m one of the passionate listeners and despite the question being on something I consume 18 hours a day, I loathe it!  Like you said, you’re immediately guaging what you think the OTHER person will connect with, out of the myriad of options in your mental musical rolodex.  Hopefully you land something the first try, or at least name bands/genres they recognize, otherwise you’re just throwing out bands names with less and less enthusiasm, and eventually you give up and the whole thing was a waste. 

    • Louis Scuderi

      yeah. i think a lot people use music to proclaim their individuality and draw satisfaction from their ‘obscure’ tastes alone, but in the end everyone is looking for some kind of  ‘connection’ to be made in that realm. this is true for many ‘passions,’ i think.

  • brittany wallace

    if people discuss music for more than a minute, i walk in the other direction

    • RH

      you sound boring

      • brittany wallace

        you sound really exciting

  • Anonymous

    “The more someone cares about music [1] , the harder of a time they have talking about it objectively and casually.”

    this is just dumb. that’s like saying, the more someone likes cats, he/she is less likely to ever get married. just because i can list off my top five favorite artists of all time in two seconds flat, doesn’t mean i care less about music less than you, it just means i care less about what other people think of me. if you’re having a hard time talking objectively and casually about music, it’s because you lack confidence in your own beliefs and preferences and i’d suggest you stop trying to make an excuse for your own self-categorization. you’re judging yourself more than anyone else cares to.

    • Louis Scuderi

      i think there’s some truth to this – but i also think there’s a certain ‘level’ of passion/love where it becomes difficult not matter how confident you are in your own beliefs/tastes. especially if you actively ‘want’ that reciprocity or empathy. i guess parents talking about their kids comes to mind as an example, but that’s a little extreme.

  • Kathryn Stahl

    I dunno why exactly, but anytime someone asks me what kind of music I like I give vague answers. Probably because my tastes tend to lean toward the obscure and/or indie and I don’t want judgement. If I know the other party has similar tastes, I do a little better. Really though, all small talk feeds into my social anxiety.

  • Anti-Climacus

    It doesn’t matter what your musical tastes are, as long as they are exactly the same as mine. 

  • Sophia

    I think people who are into alternative/indie music (like myself) tend to be purposefully vague because they don’t want to be labeled a hipster, which has a bad connotation but is inextricably linked with obscure and alternative music.

  • guest

    everyone thinks they have the best taste, blah blah blah

  • Tom Smith

    I’ve definitely been in this situation. When you can have a huge discussion with somebody about bands you’re mutually excited about, you can make a really memorable and strong connection with them, but there’s so much pressure to not fuck up that I tend to avoid specifics until I can tell what the other person likes.
    The best conversations I’ve had about music have been at parties where I provided the music. When you have “oh I love this song!” as a jump-off point, the conversation can go everywhere. When all I have is “so what music are you into?” I get a bit paralysed by choice and say something dumb and meaningless like “oh I like most genres y’know…”

    My point is: great article.

  • Kat Lalisan

    Come to think of it, I rarely, if ever, get a satisfactory response to this question, nor am I able to give a satisfactory response myself. Most people – myself included – tend to answer with vague mumblings and general statements, and prefer to have the other person take the lead, say by naming a band they’re into. Pity, because if one person does, and tastes converge, BINGO. New friend.

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