I Don’t Know What I Don’t Like
I just came back from my third trip in so many days to Footlight Records in the East Village. Presumably until the seemingly endless piles of LPs and CDs become manageable enough for Footlight to close its doors and transform itself into an online-only retailer, they are offering a 75%-off sale on vinyl and a 20%-off sale on CDs.
For 30 years, Footlight has been the No. 1 store in New York City, if not the rest of the country and the world, for folks interested in Broadway original cast albums and film soundtracks as well as crooners and other vocal icons from a bygone era. While some of this music is of immense interest to me—I’m a Sondheim and Loesser fanatic—most of it has remained on the periphery of my musical diet and some of it I even blatantly dislike. Yet for three days I’ve been shoveling piles of it home and probably will go back there again tomorrow.
Because for years my response to encountering music I don’t like has been to keep listening to it and the best way to do that is to buy a record of it.
I usually blame the “tastelessness” of my record collection and subsequent listening time on the influence of John Cage, although he would undoubtedly have been horrified by much of what I keep on my walls. (Indeed, he was horrified of recorded music in the first place despite the myriad compact discs of his music that are now available for public consumption.) But Cage’s full emancipation of all sound as potential music must mean that if everything is music, so is “bad music.”
As a John Cage-loving young composer turned Columbia ethnomusicology graduate student in the late 1980s, I was already prepared to be swayed by William Brooks’s 1982 essay “On Being Tasteless” (Popular Music 2, Cambridge University Press) and John Blacking’s 1985 book A Commonsense View of All Music, texts which argued that we would understand music better if we objectively analysed it as a universal human phenomenon rather than constantly trying to evaluate it based on something as precarious and egocentric as personal opinion. For the last twenty years, these texts became the Little Red Books of my own still-ongoing personal cultural revolution.
I still remember hating the not-quite-in-tune and horribly mannered sounds made by many rock vocalists, which can be as jarring to someone unversed in the genre as bel canto operatic vibrato to folks who aren’t Met subscribers. Yet now I can think of few experiences more intense than listening to Johnny Rotten in his prime. Through being tasteless, I’ve opened my mind to hip-hop, country-western, Frank Sinatra, and a good deal of so-called contemporary classical music since we’re probably even more guilty of exclusion within the genre than we are outside it.
How can you possibly have your mind open to a brand new piece of music if the only music you’ll allow into your life is music that you already like?
Yesterday I bought a couple of records worth of music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, whom I have never liked. And today I picked up an album featuring Teresa Brewer, a singer I only remember as one annoying voice passing by among many others on a TV commercial for an oldies collection I saw some 30 years ago. To this day, I still haven’t come to terms with Billy Joel, Elton John, or most so-called soft rock but every now and then I keep trying. Maybe tomorrow.