Fictions of musical taste

by Rob Horning

17 April 2007


Sociologist Duncan Watts writes up his study on how music becomes popular through network effects for the NYT Magazine. The upshot of his results are this: When we are deciding how much we like a pop song, intrinsic qualities of the music are far less important than our perception of how many others like it.

The common-sense view [of music’s popularity], however, makes a big assumption: that when people make decisions about what they like, they do so independently of one another. But people almost never make decisions independently — in part because the world abounds with so many choices that we have little hope of ever finding what we want on our own; in part because we are never really sure what we want anyway; and in part because what we often want is not so much to experience the “best” of everything as it is to experience the same things as other people and thereby also experience the benefits of sharing.

This conforms with the sociological view that musical taste is predominantly a matter of signaling which social groups you’d like to belong to—that taste is a proxy for class (this notion is elaborated at great length in Bordieu’s Distinction.) Yet we typically believe that our musical taste reflects something unique to us, is an outlet for some inner truth about ourselves that can’t otherwise be expressed. Perhaps both these propositions can be true, that musical taste is both produced by our desire to merge socially and by our own unique methods for performing the merge. But it remains absurd to assert the superiority of one’s taste in pop music; if this study’s findings are right, than such assertions are sheer tribalism—a rallying tool to uphold boundaries and exclusions.

In “Listening to Popular Music” (in the often derided 1957 anthology Mass Culture) David Reisman argued that “the functions of music our social—the music gives them something to talk or kid about with friends; an opportunity for competitiveness in judging which tunes will become hits, coupled with a lack of concern for how hits are made; an opportunity for identification with star singers or band leaders as ‘personalities’, with little interest in or understanding of the technologies of performance or of the radio medium itself.” He suggests that discrete hits allow mass participation in culture and the illusion of equality (we all share the same songs) while at the same time reiterating the atomized nature of society—everybody is isolated and in competition with everyone else. This all seems about right to me—pop music carries water for organizing society into recognizable groups, usually ones required to maintain the status quo—yet music nerds masquerade as connoisseurs. I guess I harp on this frequently because I regret all the time I’ve already wasted arguing that some band sucked or trying to convince people (or myself) that it was imperative to be into a certain album or band. I think of the stupidly smug sense of superiority I’ve derived from having “good taste in music,” as though I knew something others didn’t, when in fact I was the ignorant one—I hadn’t considered or couldn’t accept the reality of the extra-musical influences shaping my opinions. Accepting the reality of those influences seems now to be an integral step toward really hearing what you are listening to.

In his essay, Watts calls our attention to how a few key influencers early in the process of disseminating a piece of culture can have a massive, unpredictable effect on the success of that work, and the future success of all other works by that artist.

if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors — a phenomenon that is similar in some ways to the famous “butterfly effect” from chaos theory. Thus, if history were to be somehow rerun many times, seemingly identical universes with the same set of competitors and the same overall market tastes would quickly generate different winners: Madonna would have been popular in this world, but in some other version of history, she would be a nobody, and someone we have never heard of would be in her place.

A small shift in relative popularity at a key time and place could explode into a massive difference. This seems to justify advertising and payola efforts, targeted at those key places (could they be determined), which can make a thing seem already popular as its popularity is being built. But it’s probably the case that such efforts need to corroborated by a trusted source, by the überinfluencers for instance that Gladwell writes about in The Tipping Point, for the public as a whole to buy into something—word of mouth must confirm the impressions created by media and marketing. This all creates the context in which we hear something, and that context is obviously all important—pop music is more evocative of other things (firends, feelings, places we’ve been, experiences) than it is intrinsically compelling.

Watts emphasizes the unpredictability of what will eventually be popular, hoping to discredit the impression that the market vindicates preexisting preferences rather than contributing to shaping them—in other words the market is not transparent and neutral as a medium; it compounds the rewards it gives and affects the exchanges which take place within it. This is a useful lesson to be reminded of over and over because as Watts points out, we tend to ascribe logic retrospectively where there was none:

sudden shifts in consumer demand can still arise, persist and then shift again. These shifts often come as surprises but are soon explained away as mere reflections of changing public sentiments. Yet while in some sense these markets do reflect what people want, that is true only of what they want right now. If markets not only reveal our preferences but also modify them, then the relation between what we want now and what we wanted before — or what we will want in the future — becomes deeply ambiguous.
Our desire to believe in an orderly universe leads us to interpret the uncertainty we feel about the future as nothing but a consequence of our current state of ignorance, to be dispelled by greater knowledge or better analysis. But even a modest amount of randomness can play havoc with our intuitions. Because it is always possible, after the fact, to come up with a story about why things worked out the way they did — that the first “Harry Potter” really was a brilliant book, even if the eight publishers who rejected it didn’t know that at the time — our belief in determinism is rarely shaken, no matter how often we are surprised. But just because we now know that something happened doesn’t imply that we could have known it was going to happen at the time, even in principle, because at the time, it wasn’t necessarily going to happen at all.

It’s a repeat of the lesson Thomas Schelling’s Micromotives and Macrobehavior hammers home—that the dynamic nature of events alters our preferences over time, so that the choices others make shape our choices and the contribution our behavior makes to a system alters the desirability for everyone, ourselves included.


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