Bury the Past, Empty the Shelf: How to Destroy Your Music Taste
Column by Tom Ewing | Digg this article | Add to del.icio.us Have you ever wanted to delete or dump or sell all the music you own and start again? I decided to do this once. It wasn't that I suddenly hated the music I liked. It wasn't even thinking about each individual cassette or CD that made my heart itchy. I realized one evening how the blend of colors on their neatly ordered spines had become as familiar as wallpaper. I wanted to hear something new. I wanted to have heard nothing.
How to go about this? I was 20, at University, I had friends who were music heads but among them I was the chief music head. I would give my records away to them! Immediately compromise began to creep in. Maybe I wouldn't give them away for ever-- just for a year. And maybe I'd keep the most recent 20 or 30 albums...so the purity of the plan was lost, the original impulse diluted until what I had left was a faintly baffling gesture that my friends, being friends, indulged. I "got rid of" 90% of my collection, and a year later I got them back.
But despite the compromise, it worked. I listened closer to the records I'd left myself with. I realized which of my comfortable favorites I honestly missed and which ones I just quietly forgot I ever had. I took more risks in buying new stuff, because I knew I'd be forced to give it a proper go. In short I surprised myself.
So I recommend it! Do it now, actually. Close this window, put all your music onto an external hard drive, give it to someone you trust and tell them to use it as a paperweight until next September, or at any rate until you use your safe word. Or be braver than I was, and tell them it's an early birthday present. Of course now you can just go and download everything again but let's assume you don't.
What might you listen to instead? With the metaphorical cupboards cleared you can listen to anything you like, so it's time to start playing games with your taste, messing around with your music fan OS and seeing what happens.
The most obvious thing to do is to explore new genres-- take something you enjoy but neglect and make it the center of your listening for a while. You could also do the same with a year-- become a time traveler, spend a month in 1975 or 1984 or whenever. Indulge an obsession-- pick an artist and listen to them unceasingly. Or pick a song-- someone on music board ILM recently tried to listen to "Temple of Love" by the Sisters of Mercy 1,001 times. (I admit my own taste experiments were never so hardcore.)
Or let go even further and introduce an element of chance. Go to a P2P server and pick a word you like-- or a name or place. Type it in and grab whatever you get. I did this with "London" and found a whole world: pirate crackle, tourist sentiment, punk icons, hump-happy eurodisco, rainy drones, way too much to process. I typed in "penguin" and found a tidy, charming instrumental by Raymond Scott, who did Soothing Sounds for Baby. If you're missing the experience of flicking through dusty vinyl and buying something just because you're wooed by its cover, this is an armchair substitute.
You might alternatively abdicate your will completely and listen to nothing but what people tell you to listen to. Or introduce a game-playing element. Last year, for instance, my friends and I ran a "Pop World Cup"-- we took the soccer World Cup and each player drew a country by lot. The competition was to find the best pop music from that country we hadn't already heard. I got Holland, and spent a joyful week listening to earbleed gabba, ABBA imitators, dodgy trance remixers, hippy veterans Shocking Blue, and a boy band dabbling in goth (Di-Rect, if you're asking). It was marvelous.
Many of these experiments might seem awfully solipsistic. In this column I've generally emphasized the social, conversational uses of music-- but part of the appeal is to see how you can sustain these uses when the bedrock of whatever you thought your "taste" was is removed. Breaking the link between my taste and my social existence was, deep down, the reason I ditched my records in the first place.
At the time I made the break I'd had two or three years of very intense social involvement in music. I'd found myself adrift and lonely at 18, then had made friends with a bunch of people who were as passionate about music as I was. We talked and argued about it non-stop-- sharing bands, gabbling out enthusiasms, crushing each other's perceived mis-steps. Even when we agreed on the worth of a band we'd keep talking and talking-- sitting in parked cars at 3AM wrestling over how precisely to split the difference between our favorite Talking Heads and Pixies tracks.
We turned our tastes into a hothouse and when I went to college I wanted to keep going, keep arguing with the new people I met there, bring them into the hothouse too. But the social life of a University is utterly different from the social life obsessed friends make for themselves-- if I wanted to go to shows, or parties, I had to make compromises with the music played there. With hindsight the gap between the strict art-pop mini-canon I'd bought into at home and the breakout indie bands loved on campus was pretty tiny but it could seem vitally huge. One time I got high and found myself physically clinging to the side of a bar, desperately willing my body not to go and dance to a Charlatans record I knew my sober self disapproved of.
My music taste had become my own worst enemy-- an internal canon I couldn't even have articulated but still constantly betrayed. Second-guessing myself was exhausting-- something had to give. The mistake I'd made was in thinking of my taste as something fundamental in my self, a hip agnostic version of the soul-- rather than admitting I had the luxury of detaching myself from it and trying new tastes as I might clothes or haircuts. So I hit the reset button-- or tried to.
A digital environment has its own hothouse communities and its own pressures but also makes it easier than ever to start experimenting with your music taste. A word of caution, though. My own attempt to hotwire my tastes was compromised-- for one thing, I wasn't truly ready to start relating to people other than as "a music fan"-- and maybe I'm still not ready. But more seriously I was unwilling to try and use the new music I was hearing to shake up my social life-- on a basic level, by getting to know other people who liked it.
I used my friends to break the hold my music taste had over me, but I didn't dare at that time to go further and reforge the link to include new, wider friendships. I "got into" drum and bass, for instance, but it took me three more years to set foot in a drum and bass rave. I started listening to more 60s pop but I wouldn't talk to my parents or their friends about it even though they lived it. This is the only sense in which I think my experiment was a failure: I'm sure you won't make the same mistakes.