The end of taste 

With greater access to online music, we got what we wanted -- if only we felt better about it

The snobbiest record store I ever went to was Other Music on East Fourth Street in New York City, circa 1999. They filed everything by genre, for example: "trance" versus "dream." There was no ska section. They did, however, have "two-tone," "third wave," "skacore," "trad," and "ska-jazz." To look for The Slackers within this system was to confront your own ignorance, and to ask a clerk was to turn yourself in to the Inquisition.

Other Music was kind of awful, but it was much better than what I grew up with: Musicland, a mall chain store eventually purchased by Sam Goody. Musicland did not sell ska of any kind, much less divided into five subgenres, but at least they had Public Enemy. In 1990s Des Moines, you could not hear Public Enemy on the radio. All you got from the radio was contemporary country and classic rock, a format for people who wish that music had been outlawed after 1985.

In a now-famous essay for The Baffler, Steve Albini called this phenomenon "The Problem With Music." Bands love music—difficult, obscure, experimental, their own. A large number of listeners also love music, but between them and bands lay a massive industry determined to market music to people who didn't like it at all.

The major labels did not want to ship Camper Van Beethoven CDs to Des Moines. They wanted to sell Paula Abdul singles to people who heard "Opposites Attract" in Target, and they had the radio, MTV, chain retailers and a distribution oligopoly to make it happen. Then dorks invented the Internet, and all that disappeared.

I'm simplifying events, obviously. But the way people get music now—from a list of literally all digital recordings, without the physical distribution schemes of major labels and, increasingly, directly from musicians themselves—is completely different from how things worked 15 years ago.

Steve Albini won. The major labels lost their stranglehold and barely cling to life, to say nothing of hegemony. There is a mainstream, but it has shrunk so much that the term is questionably meaningful. People who don't like music listen to the radio, as they always have. Those of us who do like music can use Spotify, BitTorrent, blogs or even iTunes to listen to whatever we want, all the time. The music industry stopped being a stultifying mass entertainment and became a market of pluralities, just as we always wanted it to.

Or so we said. I'd like to return to Other Music for a second, and note that every woman who worked there was fascinating. The men were less so, at least for people not prone to getting fascinated by dudes, but I still wanted them to think I was cool. Mandarin and scary though they may have been, the clerks at Other Music were valuable to me, because they knew about bands and albums that I didn't.

Previous generations called that taste. We now know that taste is completely arbitrary—or, worse, an instrument for reinforcing class distinctions—and Vic Chesnutt is not objectively better than Randy Travis. Except if you made me listen to Randy Travis for the rest of my life, I would shorten the rest of my life to as long as it took to get the cap off a bottle of Drano.

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  • illustration by Jonathan Marquis

In 1994, I understood the world as a machine for making me listen to Randy Travis. I defined myself against that machine, and as a result my tastes—what I listened to instead of, in spite of Randy Travis—became a large part of my identity.

The particular bands were important, but it was also important that whatever I listened to simply was not on the radio, and ideally not on a major label, either. It was an aesthetic position that bordered on ethics. I refused what the industry tried to sell me because I didn't like the songs, but also because I cared about art, about self-expression, about my esoteric little life.

It followed that other people who listened to weird bands were like me. Even if they didn't like the same bands I did, they cared enough about sound as art to find what wasn't available at Musicland. A person who liked a bunch of stuff I hadn't heard of was doubly valuable, as a source of new music and as a sort of comrade in arms. Even if our tastes differed, we were working on the same project: keeping major labels from wrecking music forever.

When I first came to Missoula in 2004, I went to the grocery store and then Ear Candy. I hardly knew anyone, and wandering around a record store comforts me. I flipped through what was on offer, heartened to find that people here seemed way more into Mr. Bungle, and did not strike up a welcoming conversation with the clerk—precisely because we were both the kind of people who would rather go home and listen to records. We nodded at each other in passing for the next two years.

Ear Candy still exists somehow, selling not so much the music as the vanishing habitat of the music store. Most of the merchandise can appear in your house at the literal push of a button, but your house doesn't smell right. There's no dude working there who kind of looks like you, who likes a band that you would love if only you heard them, and who one day will be playing that band when you walk in.

Back when we labored under The Problem of Music, there were two kinds of people: radio listeners and us. The power of this kind of affinity can be seen in the most successful music marketing scheme of all time: punk rock. When mainstream rock reached its nadir ("Hot Blooded" by Foreigner, 1978) punk rock emerged as not just an alternative genre but an alternative identity.

Nobody liked The Ramones and Journey. You listened to one to the exclusion of the other, and eventually you started dressing punk to the exclusion of mainstream fashion, and then dating punks to the exclusion of your high school girlfriend, and so on. It was taste as a way to organize not just your record collection but your life.

Punk rock codified a foundational principle of music consumption after 1980: Cool music cannot be heard on the radio, and ideally it should be something other people don't know about. The corollary to this principle—music other people don't know about is therefore cool—is called hipsterism and will not be discussed. The point is that A) liking obscure music showed you cared, and B) since we all got what we wanted and the major labels fell apart, this system of values that once guided our lives is useless to us.

By "us" I mean "me." Now that there is no meaningful mainstream in music, the possibility of knowing whom I like just by knowing what they listen to feels remote, even kind of laughable. Of course it makes no sense that we would be friends just because we both like Jay Reatard. Everybody likes Jay Reatard, now that they can listen to him.

When the occupation is over, the members of the underground don't recognize one another anymore. Here we are, everyone free to listen to what music he or she likes, the way we always wanted. Now we just need some way of remembering who we are.

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