We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the fruit baskets welcoming us to our new office is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, how to reconcile a person you like with musical tastes you don't.
Ashley Cissel Lee writes: "How do you cope with finding out that someone you really like has, according to you, horrible taste in music? It's like the idea from High Fidelity about how it's what you like that's important in defining you — not what you are like. Do you think that's true?"
Before we get to High Fidelity and how we define ourselves in relation to art, I should say that I wouldn't exist if it weren't for common pop-cultural loves: My parents first met and bonded over a shared love of comic books, science fiction, movies, folk music, and on and on. Theirs was the happiest marriage I've ever seen up close, and much of their connection — personally and professionally — was rooted in shared appreciation for the work of others. I know that loving the same stuff as the one you're with can go a long way toward a long, happy life.
But taste isn't everything. I've seen too many happy relationships in which the two parties liked different music — or voted for different politicians, or rooted for different sports teams — for me to declare anyone incompatible based on cultural preferences. As important as all of that stuff can be (which is to say: important), it's got a lot less to do with happiness than how well he or she treats other people, how happy and secure you feel in the relationship, and the ease with which the two of you can hold a conversation. It's great to never have to fight over the car stereo, but if the person you're with makes you feel rotten about yourself, what's the use?
Besides, most of us are at least somewhat malleable in our tastes — especially those of us who are less obsessive about them — and malleability means room for common ground. Take, for one example, the surfer-turned-singer-songwriter Jack Johnson. I've never heard anything but nice things about the guy, whose music is benignly pleasant and, at least to my mind, more boring than silence swathed in unsweetened oatmeal. When faced with a dear friend bearing a passion for Johnson's music — hardly an insurmountable obstacle, given the quality of the company, but a listening experience I'd just as soon avoid — I found myself staring down two options: 1) I could act like a big snooty baby and sniff about my distaste for his music; or 2) I could find artists in a similar vein whose music I do like, and see if I could make a new fan for a musician I enjoy. In this case, I didn't have to look beyond Johnson's own record label, as I pulled out a copy of an album by Release the Sunbird, a warmly sunshiny 2011 side project of Rogue Wave's Zach Rogue. Everybody wins! Heck, even Jack Johnson probably scored about an eighteenth of a cent off of Pandora in the process of my putting on a record he put out.
Finally, as for High Fidelity, I've certainly been guilty of using popular culture as shorthand. I often say that my favorite albums are litmus tests — not for whether I'd like you, but for whether you'd like me. But it's just that: shorthand. You can glean a lot about a person's earnestness, empathy and capacity for emotional openness based on the music he or she likes, but all you're getting is a hint. Being around people who like great stuff is marvelous, but I'd prefer an actual great person every time. The music is just a bonus.
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