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When music is a taboo question

When you’re first getting to know someone, there are certain questions you really don’t want to hear asked. “Why aren’t you married yet?” “Do you actually, um, enjoy being an accountant?” “Don’t you reckon Nick Griffin is right about some things?” “If you don’t mind me asking, what exactly is wrong with your face?” All of the above can sabotage an incipient friendship or first date.

Far worse than any of these, however, is a question that comes clad in innocence. It doesn’t warrant a swift exit from the venue – it’s not gauche, or intrusive, or rude. And yet every time I hear it, I can honestly say I break a sweat. “What kind of music are you into?” asks Potential New Comrade, perfectly pleasantly. “Ummm,” I say, the sweat cascading. “Bit of this. Bit of that. Eclectic tastes.”

Sometimes your new crony makes it easy. They might already have let slip their own allegiances: wrinkling their nose at the surrounding muzak or shrugging off their Band X hoodie to reveal an enormous Band Y tattoo. When that happens, you simply ignore the time at Glastonbury when you chucked bottled urine at Band Y’s bassist, and home in on your common ground.

Other times, however, you’re left floundering. “Dubcore death metal?” you venture timidly. “Oh” says your companion, backing away. “I prefer Snow Patrol.”

It maybe isn’t normal to be this cagey. After all, many friendships are cemented through bickering about bands. Take my colleagues. They split their working day evenly between musical acrimony and work, and when Colleague A lays into Colleague B about his obsession with early 90s shoegaze artists, it’s basically a roundabout way of expressing love.

But then again, they’re already mates. And they absolutely have the courage of their convictions. They’re musical gourmets, as opposed to musical gluttons, dissecting a record’s merits with the fine-honed palate of a Masterchef judge. I’m more of a musical food disposal chute. I love music and can gulp it down all day. But my particular set of preferences aren’t an article of pride.

The way I see it, musical taste goes far beyond what deserves the most acclaim. It’s a carefully curated version of your own life history, taking in your parents’ record collection and your formative playground influences; teenage nights on the town and early romances; one particularly rose-tinted evening in Mallorca in 2005. Songs are so tightly tethered to memories and personal mythology, I don’t see how they translate to dispassionate debate.

So when Potential New Comrade poses that question, it’s hard to nail down a pat answer. “What music do you utterly despise?” might be an easier game.


Categories: Music

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Abi Millar

British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands

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