Why do our musical tastes freeze over?
Lary Wallace for Aeon
Some of us are more susceptible than others, but eventually it happens to us all. You know what I’m talking about: the inability to appreciate new music – or at least, to appreciate new music the way we once did. There’s a lot of disagreement about why exactly this happens, but virtually none about when. Call it a casualty of your 30s, the first sign of a great decline. Recently turned 40, I’ve seen it happen to me – and to a pretty significant extent – but refuse to consider myself defeated until the moment I stop fighting.
I’ve been fighting it for more than 10 years now, with varying degrees of vigour and resolve. Sometimes the fight becomes too much – one tires of the small victories that never break open into anything larger – and the spirit flags. I continually if not consistently stay abreast of what’s deemed the best of the new – particularly in rap and rock and R&B (which I stubbornly and unapologetically refer to, like a true devotee of its 1960s incarnation, as ‘soul singing’). These ventures into the current and contemporary have reaped dividends so small, they can be recounted – will be recounted – with no trouble at all.
But why should I care? Why should any of us care? Maybe it’s about the fear of becoming what we’ve always loathed: someone reflexively and guiltlessly willing to serve up a load of things-were-better-in-my-day, one of the most facile and benighted of all declarations. If you take pride in regarding yourself as culturally current, always willing to indulge the best of everything wherever it’s found, such taste blockages can be pretty frustrating, even embarrassing. And that hoary old consolation for the erectile dysfunction of the slightly older – ‘It happens to everyone’ – is no consolation at all.
For one thing, it doesn’t happen to everyone. Musicians seem particularly immune, for obvious reasons, and so do certain types of journalists, for reasons touched on in the paragraph above. Still, it’s a very real phenomenon, as real as anything that transpires in the mind. Famously, something similar happens to us with sports, particularly spectator sports, and at a much younger age. But no one really feels too badly about that, because of the inherent meaninglessness of watching other humans engage in physical activity. It’s like ruing the day you ever stopped liking porn. But music is different. Denounce the music of the present day, and you’ve instantly become a walking, talking, (barely) breathing cliché, ripe for ridicule, a classic figure of parody and invective.
It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it could certainly happen to you.
t’s axiomatic in our culture that a sense of wonder is something to be encouraged in others and coveted for ourselves. But a sense of wonder is dependent on an ability to experience surprise, and if as an adult you’re still surprised by certain things, then you haven’t been keeping up the way you should.
Most of us stop responding to new music because we know better. You can read that sentence and its last word any way you want; it’s still going to apply. But even if we don’t know better, per se, we still know just as good, and so we know enough to understand that it’s been done before, whatever this is we’re listening to. All of which is another way of saying: you lose your virginity only once.
This is only compounded by another factor, and it’s something I’ve never seen or heard mentioned in any discussion of this topic. It has to do with the callowness (perceived and real) of musicians younger than ourselves. As something that by its very nature appeals to our emotions, music requires that we be emotionally engaged. This can be a very difficult thing to achieve on behalf of someone who hasn’t endured as much of the world as we have.
I’m talking here about music made by those who were younger than us when we first heard them. Anybody who listens to a Beatles song today is listening to a song made by someone in his 20s, but we don’...