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THE VILLAGE IDIOT | Alt-J, Socrates, and Why My Taste in Music is Better Than Yours

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During my senior year of high school, on the recommendation of a friend, I checked out Alt-J’s 2012 album “An Awesome Wave.” It only took two listen-throughs to steal my musical obsession away from my autumn fixation on Coloring Book and Beirut (I am fully aware of how late to the party I am on these, for the cynics out there). I lived, breathed, and shat Alt-J for the next few months, evangelizing their music to everyone I knew.

I thought they were an incredible band, and I wanted to know what critics thought of their music, so eventually I searched for reviews of the album. Expecting approval and admiration, I was dumbfounded when the first review I saw, by a critic from Pitchfork, assigned it an unimpressive 4.8. Some soul-crushing, pseudo-intellectual she-devil named Laura Snapes had the bravado to attack the album I loved. It didn’t strike me as a differing opinion it struck me like a personal attack on my faith. (Disclaimer: My experiences in that arena are fairly limited.) The only thing worse than her severe criticism was that – more often than I would like to admit – her points were legitimate.

“Sometimes they sound like Bombay Bicycle Club playing in a submarine. Comprehensible intonation is out the window, which is probably a good job seeing as very few of the lyrics make any kind of sense.”

“…strip all extraneous sparkle and amplification away, and the songs are exposed for the draining, elongated MOR tunes they really are.”

Now I’ll be the first admit that Alt-J’s relationship to voice-layering is a bit like Batman’s relationship with his utility belt, but something about their intricate percussion, unique style, and enigmatic lyrics brings me back day after day. I thought about this disconnect between her argument and my feelings for a while, but I couldn’t put it to rest until I mentioned to my girlfriend that I was using this article to rant about the (very first-world) injustice I had endured. She was quick to remind me of a conversation we had about the difference between opinion and argument, and how it began because I was sick of people using “well that’s just my opinion” as defense for a claim.

The most important thing I’ve learned from the philosophy classes I’m wasting my liberal arts education on is that it’s easier to attack someone else’s argument than to defend your own, and I wasn’t playing any defense. As Socrates once said, “If you’re going to try to argue something, you better be able to back that shit up.”

The lasting impact of that album review wasn’t contained in the doubt that my music taste was any good (it was just one negative review, after all). By contemplating why I liked certain music in the first place, I realized that other people’s opinions matter a lot less than we let them. I used to take a great deal of pride in my music taste, but, in retrospect, doing so is pretty pretentious.

Why does it matter how many other people know about an artist? Or if their music is mainstream or not? Music is an entirely subjective affair. Curating your music taste like a restaurant curates its wine selection is incredibly pompous, and it loses sight of music’s ability to let us lose ourselves. There’s no room for self-consciousness in appreciating music.

You might say that withholding all judgement allows someone to consider outsourced, mass-marketed pop music “good.” I’m not denying that there are some standards for measuring musical “taste,” just that, unless you are a prick or regularly attend the symphony, then all that really matters is emotional awareness. I should have no problem having The Avett Brothers, Ed Sheeran, and Dawes on the same playlist, because they all share an ability to convey the nuances of human experience. I take issue with *most* pop music because I don’t think there is anyone who is legitimately moved by the music of Charlie “Dr. Seuss” Puth, Justin “Expired Milk” Beiber, et al. I’ll admit that I sometimes catch myself singing along with the Biebs, but his music is by no means cathartic.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates explains that he started his investigation into virtue after the revelation that he was the wisest man alive only because he didn’t claim to possess expertise he didn’t have. Similarly, by letting go of any musical elitism, you may find a new song, band, or genre that you may not have been willing to listen to before. So stop bragging about your taste in music, you ninny.

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