This article originally appeared on Noisey.
On the morning of my 11th birthday, my mum presented me with a gift. It was small and square and solid, and even before I had ripped off the shiny wrapping paper, I knew it would be a CD. But which one? Avril Lavigne, I hoped. Or Sugababes’ second album, which I had seen advertised on TV. Maybe a standard NOW compilation? I tore off the sellotape. But when I peeked inside, what I saw staring back at me wasn’t anything I recognized, but a solemn black and grey image of a single candle. “It’s Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation!” my mum announced excitedly, as if those words made any sense. “I was going to get you Goo, but I thought you might want this first.” We then sat on the sofa and listened to the slow, grim textures of “The Sprawl” while I wondered, for not the first time, why grown ups enjoyed depressing themselves like this.
It would take another ten years before I genuinely started to enjoy that album. When I was in my third year at uni, I’d stick a sock over the fire alarm in my room then chainsmoke like a miserable goth to “Silver Rocket” while smashing out essay bibliographies until I fell asleep. I started to like how bleak and enveloping it sounded, how that whole album felt like heavy clouds and bleary eyes and escapism via little snatches of erotica, Z-grade horror movies and cyberpunk sci-fi references that I didn’t understand, but would reveal themselves upon each listen. I also liked the idea of my mum passing on this object, which took a long time to sink in, and the feeling of satisfaction when it eventually did. To me, that has always been a signifier of something “good”: something that takes a while to bury you within its nuances, something rich and satisfying; not something you want to rinse and spit out almost immediately once it becomes stale and starts to sour.
That said, though, as something that’s subjective, the term “good taste” can often feel redundant or indefinable at best and problematic at worst. As has been discussed at length elsewhere on the internet, the tastes of enthusiastic young girls, for instance, are often derided by mainstream arbiters of culture, which miss the point of music entirely. And when so much of our music press and media has historically been ran by old middle class white dudes, the idea of “tastefulness” as an overarching concept can make me feel skeptical. Who's to say what I should and shouldn't like? That said, I’d be lying if I said I thought taste was meaningless. For starters, I probably wouldn’t be writing about music so much. And if someone I was dating bought me two tickets to see Ed Sheeran live at Wembley, alongside a card that contained the message “Live, Love, Laugh” and a book of political Banksy postcards, I couldn’t just shrug it off. But what exactly is “good taste” in music anyway? And what do we really mean when we say it?
“It’s a really tricky one because who are these objective arbiters of taste?” agrees Hattie Collins, features director at i-D and author of This is Grime. “Taste has definitely become more culturally democratic. Radio 1 and Top of the Pops and all those institutions that used to influence what people listened to have dissipated because people’s tastes have expanded as there’s much more availability to discover your taste through different websites or YouTube or playlists. It used to be that you were into one thing; you were an indie kid or a hip-hop kid or into garage or whatever. But now, when I look at young people, they are into everything because the limitations aren’t so set by the ‘powers at be’ anymore.”
However, just because the concept of “taste” is murky or democratic, doesn’t mean it’s redundant. As Hattie explains, it definitely has its individual uses. There’s a reason a lot of us consider taste in our day-to-day lives. “I think people’s taste in music impacts your understanding of them, culturally. If someone’s into a certain kind of music you assume they must be into a certain kind of art or film—sure, if someone likes Young Thug doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to like the art of Kehinde Wiley, for instance, but you just assume that if they have an interesting taste in music, they’re also going to have an interesting take on film. They’re not just going to be satisfied watching Dirty Dancing; they’re also going to want to watch Nocturnal Animals. So, for me, this idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is more about whether people are exploratory and interested in going beyond music that’s hand delivered to them on a plate by mainstream arbiters of culture.”
From a scientific standpoint, however, the idea of “good” taste obviously doesn’t really hold up. “Scientifically speaking, there is no objective way of determining, defining or measuring ‘good’ or ‘bad’ taste. It very much depends on time, place, and the person giving the definition.” says Jonna Vuoskoski, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in music perception and cognition at Oxford University. Like Hattie, though, Jonna doesn’t do away with the idea of taste as a useful sociological concept. “Our musical preferences are the result of a multitude of factors: The type of music we are exposed to in our environment, as well as our personality dispositions,” she explains. “Shared musical taste also plays an important role in the membership of groups and subcultures. Research has documented consistent, broad correlations between certain personality traits and preference for certain types of music. For example, people who score high on a trait called ‘openness to experience’ tend to have more varied musical tastes, and prefer more complex and reflective styles of music.”
But also, surely the idea of ‘taste’ is far more nuanced than just having a set of interests that also act as cultural signifiers. Because sometimes, what is considered ‘bad’ can become ‘good’ purely because of that, and vice versa. Ione Gamble, who runs Polyester zine, which goes by the tagline ‘Have Faith in Your Own Bad Taste’, thinks “good” taste is more about being into whatever the fuck you want. “When you’re younger you’re subconsciously taught what things are ‘good’ and what things are ‘bad’; especially if you have creative interests,” she says. “I studied fashion journalism at uni and they were teaching us about Japanese minimalism and all these clean, sleek things that you’re supposed to like if you’re clever and I suppose that transfers to music in the sense that you’re not ‘supposed’ to like pop music because it’s not intellectual and all of these things.”
She continues: “That [Polyester] tagline comes from a John Waters quote which is like ‘Have faith in your own bad taste, get on the nerves of your peers, not your parents; that’s the key to leadership.’ I think I found that quote quite liberating, because if you have weird interests or naturally lean towards things that aren’t considered ‘cool’, you’re often shamed for them. So I chose that as a tagline to hopefully inspire people to just like what they like and not be ashamed of it.”
So… what does it mean to have good taste in music? There’s not really a definitive answer, is there? It’s just about adhering to a bunch of generally accepted standards, but those standards are different among different people, and it's cool in itself to actively deviate from them, even if that means your tastes are basic as hell and all you like listening to is Sam Smith. Nothing else. Just Sam Smith. As Ione pointed out earlier, and as Hattie Collins said to me during our conversation, “Really, good taste is actually about being honest… even if your choice isn’t popular, but you’re into it and you’re sticking to your guns. To me, that’s really, really good taste. If you’re passionate about it, and firmly believe in it, then that’s cool.”
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