Many of the best conversations of my life have been about music. Reflection reveals that the best of the best have always been choruses of agreement—mutual appreciation for this band or that songwriter magnified, elucidated, and stacked up, tongue-in-groove-style, into monuments. The element of competition lies in who can declare their love more perfectly.
And though I always defend the virtue of argument, the perfect illustration of the essence of most musical disagreements can be found in the following exchange, which I witnessed on an elementary school playground in 1983. Literally.
Kid A: "What's your favorite band?"
Kid B: "Styx."
Kid A: "Styx sucks."
Kid B: "You suck."
'Twas ever thus, and it's getting thusser every day thanks to social media and the steady collapse of civil human interaction it has wrought. But what does writing about music have to do with civil human interaction?
It's a fair question.
Though I may look like a coltish teenager, I find I have been writing about music for some percentage of my livelihood (between 10 and 80 percent, depending on circumstances) for 22 years now. And I'm pleased to find that the proportions of what one might call my "archives" (daubing away a few tears) generally follow those of the conversations I alluded to above: The most and the best of what I've written (here come those tears again) has been an effort to find words for the feeling of awe and rapture that still attend my experience of great music.
Aaaaaand then there are all the Styx sucks/You suck-es. Which are fine. But I remember the feeling when Lou Reed died in 2013 that the last thing I'd written about him was a slam of his Metallica collaboration, Lulu, entitled "Master of Bation." It was kind of funny. But in retrospect, it seemed small in light of Reed's astonishingly complex life and work. Not that he would ever have known or cared. But I did. I do.
Over the past two decades, the impulse to talk shit about bands and the people who like them—the impulse, that is, to delegitimize other people's pleasure (yeah, you know me)—has largely, though not entirely, disappeared from my critical consciousness. So has the anger I used to feel rise up into my mouth like thrush when unworthy artists got a free ride on the respect wagon. This has plenty to do with getting older, and with having a parallel (mostly—the sides touch a lot less than I thought they would) career as a sometimes musician. Plus therapy, medication, resignation, assimilation, etc.
It also has to do with the particular shape of online argument about music, which, like all forms of online discourse, has become simultaneously hugely personal and weirdly abstract. In our recent Year in Music 2015 issue, I wrote this:
Social media and streaming services allow us to share and share alike, but they also make it easy to do so without listening. I don't mean "really" listening or listening closely—I mean literally listening at all. In the same way people are forever commenting on and sharing news-feed stories without actually reading past the headline, I suspect the phenomenon of "this"-ing new songs by given artists is increasingly a function of self-decoration, affiliation without obligation, an Instagram heart followed by an unkind Tinder swipe. In every conceivable sense, it costs you nothing.
I think caring about music should cost something, and it's worth striving to articulate objections to art and artists that maintain a measure of respect for their endeavors. Even and especially when I don't viscerally feel it.
So if the next year goes according to plan, Why Don't I Like ___? will be a weekly column dedicated to the premise that I simply can't get behind a number of canonical artists, whose greatness is generally agreed upon by most sane adults.
I hope it will matter that the title of the column is built in the form of a question and not a declaration. In many cases, I suspect it will take the form of a confession as well.
There are many ways not to like music. I'm hoping this one will be productive.