We seem to speak about our musical taste in two contradictory ways. We often discuss music it as if it embodies something essential about ourselves; we think we are naturally drawn to the music we like, as if it expresses something that we too feel, as when we say for example, that it ‘strikes a chord with us’ (to use a musical phrase.) Its common to get ‘emotional’ at such moments, feeling perhaps that the songs embodies something that we already felt. Even the word ‘taste’ applies an ideology of nature to music, implying we might instinctively respond to music as we might think of responding to food. Indeed, we can have a ‘palate’ for both.
The other less spontaneous explanation that we give for our musical taste is that we like the music because we ‘grew up with it.’ Perhaps we think it invokes specific memories, or perhaps we just mean that we like it because we have heard it (or music like it) many times before. Usually little more than an excuse to like culturally less credible types of music, this way of discussing our tastes at least recognizes that they are culturally constructed, rather than choices dictated by our nature. This view recognizes, even if it might not always notice itself doing so, that the music constructed your taste, rather than your taste choosing the music.
We may prefer this second explanation, but it is still inadequate, since it seems that both are in play at the same time; when I enjoy a piece of music I do so because my tastes have been culturally honed in that direction, making the sounds appealing to me, and yet I still feel ‘emotional’ and like the music somehow embodies something essential about me. Perhaps this is why we care so much what music potential friends and lovers like, because we believe that our shared tastes relate to our deeper essential selves, and we like the idea of connecting on that level. This shows us that there is a certain narcissism in emotions themselves, which helps to explain the narcissism in most musical discussions, in musical pretentiousness for example. Because I see myself as ‘emoted’ in the music, a sense of myself as that which the emotion ’emotes’ is affirmed; in order to be an interesting and unusual self, I will need to be made emotional by interesting and unusual music.
But isn’t it rather that the music we listen to actually produces an emotion, which then seems to have been stirred up by that music? Music produces us as subjects who feel emoted by the music. This would explain how we can feel both ways at once, that the music we hear dictates our taste in music, and that this taste is somehow our own, that it ‘emotes’ how we really feel. It would also explain how we can enjoy music completely unlike our normal taste when ‘in the right mood’ or ‘after a few drinks,’ or how we can feel emotional listening to people whose music comes from a completely different place and context to our own. Listening to a piece of music produces an emotion which we did not have access to before, perhaps even making us feel like someone else or someone new, by producing us as the subject experiencing the emotion created by the music. We listen to the song and narcissistically enjoy experiencing ourselves as the subject who has the emotions produced by the song.
What we’re left with is a sense that there is a sort of databank of ‘emotional’ musical presets that bands and artists (however inadvertently – or not, in the case of X-Factor, and alike manufactured musical products) work from, and then these hook the listener into that subjective position. This is made explicit by Katy Perry’s latest single ‘Roar,’ which has a version of its video (shown on music channels across the world) which shows the lyrics of the song as if presented in a text message, with emoticons replacing the words like a rebus book. Music and emoticons are connected, both produce an emotion which is then experienced and shared by individuals, each of whom is somehow tricked into feeling that it is their own.