“A little of everything”
When I ask people what kind of music they like, often they respond “a little of everything.” Usually, the more questions I ask, the more limited people’s notion of “everything” seems.
When I was in high school and someone asked me what kind of music I liked, I would respond “everything but country music.” I wasn’t the only one, it was a pretty common answer in my east coast school. I don’t know what association I had with country music at that time, but I certainly hadn’t heard much of it. Despite the little I had heard, I knew that there was no way that I would ever like it.
During my junior year of high school I spent a month at a Navajo reservation in Arizona. I stayed with a host family who had a son that was my age. He was a big fan of country music, as were many of the other students I met and hung out with. Mostly it was modern, poppy country music. Billy Ray Cyrus and Brooks and Dunne are three singers that I remember. My first impression when I heard this music confirmed all of my prejudices. Country music sounded ridiculous and sappy. It portrayed a reality that was foreign to me, and that I did not have any interest in exploring.
But I was in Rock Point Arizona to learn about a culture that was very different from my own, a culture that I knew nothing about. It was my first time further west than Washington D.C. I was in a completely foreign setting- the desert landscape was different from anything I had ever experienced. The people I met there had a culture and history that was so vast, I barely scratched the surface of it. But I could certainly perceive that we had things in common. As a Puerto Rican, I was somewhat familiar with having an uneasy history and relationship with the United States, and the ambivalence that can come along with that.
I met and connected with fascinating and generous people at the reservation. By the end of my stay, I had heard “Achy Breaky Heart” and “Could’ve Been Me” so many times that I had memorized the lyrics. Not only that, I actually enjoyed listening to them.
When I returned to the east coast I changed my answer to the question about music. Now that I had liked several country songs, I could safely say that I liked everything. I didn’t go out and buy any Billy Ray Cyrus CDs, but I had gotten over the initial knee-jerk reaction. I had gotten past my aversion to the style, the accent, and the instruments used. A few years later I was ready to explore the genre more and I made my first country music purchase, Hank Williams’ greatest hits.
But the lesson I learned from this went beyond an appreciation for country music. I learned that, from having made up my mind to hate country music, after spending a month listening to it, with people who loved it, I had changed my mind. Often when people talk about tastes, they talk about them as if they were hard-wired into their DNA. Almost like each person is born with a capacity to like only certain types of things. Learning to like country music taught me that I could learn to like a genre of music that initially didn’t appeal to me. I put that lesson into practice the following year.
All that Jazz
During high school I listened to a lot of different types of music. But one genre that never really caught my ear was jazz.
My father listened to jazz, and I even liked some of the things he listened to. He had “Puente Caliente” by Tito Puente on cassette, and we listened to it many times during long drives. Another of his favorites that I enjoyed was Claude Bolling and Jean-Pierre Rampal’s “Suite for Flute & Jazz Piano,” which was jazzy classical music with awesome cover art. There were also a few seventies jazz albums that I eventually grew fond of, stuff like Gato Barbieri “Caliente” and Stanley Turrentine “Pieces of Dreams.”
But my brother, who studied saxophone in high school, played and listened to stuff like Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis, and I just couldn’t enjoy it. I wanted to like it, I had no doubt that these musicians were talented. People whose opinion I respected liked jazz. So when my brother went away to college, I asked him to make me a jazz mix. He made me a 100-minute mix, and wrote the following on Side A and Side B, respectively: “Keep your worldly troubles outside…” “…and come in here and Swing…” It was a quote from Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers at the Jazz corner of the world, and it perfectly described the exuberance that I discovered in the songs that he taped for me. Cannonball Adderley, Clifford Brown and Max Roach, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Wes Montgomery… That mix was my gateway into the wonderful world of bebop.
It also confirmed my suspicion that, if I wanted to like a type of music, I could learn to. The desire to like the genre was not vital, but it certainly helped. You had to listen to the music repeatedly for your ear to get used to it and start to notice the patterns and the differences. It helped to see fans of the genre listen to that music. It was instrumental in the Navajo reservation to listen to country music with my friends who liked country music, to hear them sing along to the songs and experience their enthusiasm and their enjoyment. With jazz, listening to people talk about what they liked, or point out a specific solo, bass line, or drum pattern helped me understand it in portions that were easier to process.
Eat the world
Music is an acquired taste, just like so many things in life. Learning to like a different genre of music is like learning to like a new food. Many of the same people who wouldn’t conceive of learning to like okra, or mushrooms, or cilantro, taught themselves to like alcohol and coffee. They didn’t like these things the first time they tried them, they put in time and intention into learning how to like them.
The question that boggles my mind is why not try to learn to like new food, or a new genre of music? Learning to like something new means opening ourselves to another source of pleasure in the world. If I can learn to like bananas, or okra, or sea urchin, why shouldn’t I? If I can develop an appreciation for country music, or jazz, or salsa, why limit myself to only listening to rap, or classical music? The more things that I enjoy, the more enjoyable life becomes.
Music is not just for the kiddies
Recently, I read an article about how people stop listening to new music at age 33. Although that is certainly not true for me, I believe it may be true for most people I know who are not in the music industry. What’s more, it seems like a lot of people listen to music much less frequently around that age too. A lot of people tell me they listened to a certain genre a lot in college, but these days they don’t listen to music much, they listen to podcasts or NPR. But often when those same people are in a setting where they hear music they like, they remember how much they used to enjoy listening to music. Sometimes they even vow to listen to more music.
What makes all those people stop doing something that they enjoy? It’s too easy to say that people become busy- those same people have time to watch TV or play games on their devices. Plus, you can listen to music while you’re doing a lot of different activities, so it doesn’t really take time away from you.
You may be wondering why I care. It’s because I think everyone would be happier if they listened to more music. And if we were all happier the world would be a better place.
And if we all started dancing more, the world would be an even BETTER place.
Related question, maybe for a future post: why don’t people spend money on music any more?