Taste versus curiosity

by Rob Horning

10 December 2007


I used to make the mistake of thinking that people with a small record collection had no particular taste in music. I’d assume that they just didn’t care about music or else they would be going about assembling an encyclopedic collection. If they knew how much good music was out there, they would know they should have a lot more. Now of course, this is hardly indicative. Anybody can borrow a hard drive from someone else and amass instantaneously a music collection that would dwarf anything even the most astute record collector would have had circa 1996. 

In the old days, a small collection seemed to suggest indifference, as though the discs in the collection were just so much flotsam and jetsam that drifted into their possession—random birthday gifts and impulse buys and the like. And sometimes that is the case. I often forget that not everyone is afflicted with the anxiety of a collector—the secret egoistic suspicion that if something is not in your possession, it might somehow cease to exist or worse, reveal a weakness, a vulnerability in your base of knowledge. They don’t have the peculiar sense of responsibility of needing to have anything you could possibly think to play for someone on hand and ready. Instead they are content to take music as they find it, trusting in the many DJs out there to supply something reasonably entertaining when music is desired, which for a substantial number of people, I’ve discovered to my absolute shock, is not particularly often.

But other people with spartan music collections are not indifferent; they are just operating with a much more stringent filter, working with assumptions much different than the ones I usually have about music. I’m typically guided by curiosity, and since I am listening to music almost all the time, I can make the time to hear anything, no matter how annoying or uninspired, just to know what it’s about. Part of this is to maintain enough familiarity with what is out there to continue to pass as a credible music snob, along with the sheer pleasure of simply knowing things, regardless what it is. But part of this is also indifference, not holding the music you’re hearing to any standard. Falling prey to the sort of consumerist thinking I often complain about, I find I prefer hearing something new to something good. I want to consume novelty rather than appreciate music.

So it often seems like I have no particular taste in music at all, as I will listen to anything, and what comes up on the shuffle of my iTunes gives no indication of the music that I actually think is best. Some find this incomprehensible—why not listen only to the music that you really are into? They are confounded at the idea of spending any time listening to something patently awful or second rate and can’t countenance it. Their collections, a few albums in heavy rotation, explain a lot about their taste, which is revealed to be distinct and well-formed. Meanwhile I maintain a protective distance from anything so definite, always hiding my true feelings behind a mask of comprehensiveness.

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