Sometimes friends ask me what music I’ve been listening to, and I always feel lame when I tell them, “Justin Timberlake.” I put a brave face on it and try to make no big deal out of it, change the subject. I certainly don’t expect anyone to congratulate me for it, as pop-oriented music critics some times seem to expect in their columns when they present their embrace of top 40 as some kind of radical position, as if they’d just endorsed Lyndon LaRouche for president or something. My suspicion is the vast majority of pop-music consumers are not especially reflexive about their tastes and enjoy music that much more for it. They are operating from pure praxis; whatever rationale drives their taste has become completely automatic. Of course, some assume that means there is no rationale, and they are mindless sheep consuming whatever they are told, responding mechanically to hype—a very seductive position, because once you come to this conclusion, you have exempted yourself and transcended such sheep, making your tastes (even if—perhaps especially if—they are for misogynistic rap or Satanic metal) automatically a sign of your higher consciousness. This position makes solipsistic thinking about yourself, what you like and why you like it, a supposed signal of your analytic prowess and your nonconformity and superiority to the mass—narcissism becomes a sign of genius. Arguments about musical taste are inevitably about the participants seeking recognition for their individuality; by persuading someone else to concede your taste, we vindicate our right to our own opinions. The tragedy is that we are ever convinced that we don’t already have that right; the process by which we are inculcated with that notion sadly goes unexamined.
Pop music’s popularity can generally seem as though it requires no explanation. Its “goodness” seems self-evident—just look at the sales figures. Then many questions go unasked: Why this kind of music now? What enabled it to give pleasure to so many people? What does it deliver along with the pleasure? What systems secured the mass exposure the music required to become popular? etc. These questions depersonalize music because they reveal that what songs actually sound like is ultimately insignificant to the economics of the entertainment industry and expose “pop-music taste” as a red herring. But this taste is a crucial tool in self-definition within a mass culture—it differentiates one while simultaneously making a case for one’s belonging to a group; it lets you conform and be different at the same time, which resolves one of the fundamental contradictions we confront. So critics and listeners alike reject such questions and get defensive when they are asked. (“I don’t have to defend my taste to anyone”; “I’m not a robot consuming automatically what music companies spit out; I identify what is truly great.” “The best pop music is art, and here’s why…”) The questions are threats to our sense of individual autonomy; the aesthetic is our cultural system for protecting that sense, even if it is illusory. Shifting discussion to the inherent quality of purposely disposable music (ie, arguing that something about the song itself has made it popular or great rather than the conditions in which it was produced and distributed) masks its disposability, and more important, ours as well. (Side note: consider how much pop music is about the singularity or indestructibility of some unique and timeless love.)
Defensiveness about materialist dismissals of the significance of taste protects us from contemplating what may be an irresolvable existential condition of participating in a society, how to partake of social benefits (e.g., everything that commercial culture produces without having us specifically in mind) without dissolving into a crowd or becoming a mere number to that society. As much as we talk about shopping to construct identity, it is also at the same time a self-annihilating process in which we admit at some deep level that we are willing to conform our desires to ones anticipated in us by manufacturers that know nothing about us, and to the desires of thousands or millions of others who are making the same admission by buying the same product. When we enter consumer society, we surrender or suspend much of the pretense of our uniqueness; then we struggle to get it back in the process of consumption. One way to do this is to build arguments for our tastes, to try to find a unique reason for being a Justin Timberlake fan. But really, there must be better ways for me to distinguish myself than that.
Addendum: This cartoon is a more concise exposition of my argument.