1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Twenty-Two: Taste

Here’s an interesting question to consider: Do I have the same taste — the same cultural likes and dislikes in terms of things like style and entertainment — here in 2018 that I had in 1998? After all, it’s been twenty years. That’s a long time in terms of culture, style and entertainment.

But then again, it’s also true that if you show me a person when they’re a teenager, I’m going to probably be able to tell you what they will like in their 40s. It’s a truism that they styles and tastes we develop early matter for what we like later on in life. It’s one reason why currently, for example, 80s bands who haven’t been “hot” for decades are selling out theaters and raking in money with “VIP” packages — because everyone who loved them when they were 15 and broke now has money and wants to meet their favorite band, even if for a momentary “grip and grin.” Am I any different?

I don’t particularly think so. The bands that were important to me growing up are bands I still like to listen to, to follow up that example — I use Sirius XM’s “First Wave” and “The Bridge” stations (80s alternative and 70s mellow rock) as my aural wallpaper, and more generally the musical forms I liked then are the ones I like now. And more than that; in a larger sense, the forms of entertainment and culture I liked when I was fifteen, I liked when I was thirty,  and I like now. Not only, to be sure, but, yes, still.

But the larger question might be: What sort of things do I like, culturally? I addressed this over the summer, actually, when Athena and I did a couple of podcasts about movies we saw. And what I said then (and she agreed with) is that I’m easy to entertain but hard to impress. Which means that I get to enjoy lots of common culture. I like pop songs, and superhero films, and mindless first person shooter games, and animated shows with farts and puns, and so on. Nor do I feel guilty about liking those things. Not everything one consumes culturally has to be life changing or immortal. Sometimes it’s nice to get out of one’s head, and sing along to a chorus or watch a hot young actor in spandex blow something up in glorious CGI. It’s allowed.

With that said, I’m also not going to argue these things are amazing, either. I love a good pop song; I’m not going to (necessarily) argue that this pop song deserves the same cultural status of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. Superhero films are fun but they’re not necessarily Citizen Kane or Do the Right Thing. They can be! I can think of pop songs I do think deserve to be considered as near-Platonic ideals of the form; I think when Black Panther is inevitably nominated for Best Picture (and not that ridiculous “Best Popular Picture” thing, now withdrawn), you can make a strong and serious argument for its inclusion, for all the things it does right cinematically, for its distillation and critique of superhero film tropes, and for its impact on the common culture this year. Bring it.

But the point is that not everything has to be great, or brilliant, or lasting, in order to be good and entertaining and important to you, in the moment, or as something that brings you joy. If you really like something, you shouldn’t have to then embark on a 14-point apologia, complete with PowerPoint presentation, about why, no, really, it is important. Maybe it’s not! And that’s okay. Enjoy it for what it is.

All of which is to say, coming back around to me, that I acknowledge and am okay with the fact that with a lot of things I have pretty common tastes. I have my pockets of cultural eccentricities and idiosyncrasies — if you like I can do a deep dive into my love of Glenn Branca compositions, or Sally Potter films, or [insert cred-inducing name drop here] — and I’m okay liking them, too. But at the end of the day, while I can acknowledge that, say, Orlando, is a better film on many different levels than Ant-Man and the Wasp, I’m not going apologize for liking the latter or use the former as a shield for credibility.

Indeed, accepting that you can like what you like, whatever you like, opens you up to being able to like more things. When I was younger I didn’t like country music because it wasn’t cool to like country, and I had to get over that sort of cultural anxiety to discover how much I love the music of Emmylou Harris, and Julie and Buddy Miller, and Steve Earle (among others). I can’t say I know enough about rap and hip-hop to be considered anything more than a casual listener, but I know I love stuff from Jean Grae and Quelle Chris, and Open Mike Eagle, and Dessa. It means I don’t worry about being a 49-year-old dude who really digs Charlie XCX songs. I’m not liking any of that to seem cool or relevant or interesting. I like ’em because they work for me on some level.

So, no, I don’t think my taste has changed much in the last twenty years. The individual things I like have — or at least, I try to continue to bring new things into the collection of things I like — but the ethos underlying those choices has been consistent. It’s worked for me.

(And as for style: Well, I used to wear a lot of t-shirts and now I wear aloha shirts, which are functionally the same thing, just for middle-aged dudes. So, yeah.)

27 Comments on “1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Twenty-Two: Taste”

  1. I suppose I’m not that different, except that I have far less patience with “pop”, be it music or literature, mostly because I feel like I’m wasting an increasingly scarce resource: my time. So I ask myself: Would you rather be doing something else right now?

    I also listen to far less music these days. Part of that is I’m less able to attend to more than one thing at a time. Part of it is that much of my music collection is, to be blunt (begging your pardon), drug paraphernalia. I’m much more sober than I once was.

  2. I’ve read that the music you love between sixteen and twenty-two will be the music you love for life. In my case at least that’s true. I’ve expanded my tastes–I now enjoy quite a bit of classical and jazz, which I never listened to in my younger years (began listening to the classical and jazz stations on my hour-long commute into work when I had grown tired of all the DJs trying to become either personalities or my friend, instead of focusing on the music, back before there was satellite radio), but straight-ahead late 60s/early 70s rock with screaming guitars is still my first love.

  3. I think John’s attitude towards popular culture is a common one. At any rate, when I express my own opinion – that the stuff designed purely to be entertaining, nothing more, doesn’t entertain me, because it’s not good enough to entertain me – I am usually roundly denounced, and told to “turn off my brain” and enjoy it. To which I reply that my brain doesn’t have an off switch.

    But a lot of high-brow stuff doesn’t entertain me either. The best works operate well on both levels, a skill perfected by Shakespeare long ago. But I find it hard to get this point across.

    As for liking the music of your age 16-22? I loathed the popular music of my time. Only came to like some of it later when my tastes had matured and the 90% of it that was pure dross had been swept away with the dust of history.

  4. 22 out of 20? Scalzi, dude, you just can’t stop! But hey, not complaining here; keep ’em coming! :)

  5. Waiting for 14 point PowerPoint apologia for PowerPoint…
    And “Quelle Chris “? I wonder if there’s any connection to Quellcrist Falconer intended?
    But as for tastes.. still like the same music (but added steampunk to fill), the same books (but read mostly books now), the same hobbies (but added stuff like Raspberry Pi) and the same sex stuff.

  6. ‘Chacun a son gout’ which loosely translates as ‘Whatever makes your toes scream’. My tastes were formed in the mid-60’s to mid-70’s but I still find enough ‘new’ stuff to not be hopelessly stuck. I have no real interest in seeing geriatric versions of bands I dug 40 years ago.

    But at 64 I still wear tee’s, ‘aloha’ shirts be damned.

  7. so John to begin I have never replied to a blog or even read one in my life. Wooo. all about firsts today I guess. I looked you up because I have recently listened to your old man war books and about half of your hate mail will be graded. At this point I know I’m suppose to say something demining and chuck you under the bus. I regret not my style and I have enjoyed all that I have read so far.
    I first became interested in you when you did a sequel to Little Fuzzies. I own a small delivery company and buy my e-books to keep me awake at night. I’m about to begin the Locked in series and hope to enjoy it as much as Old man war. My question is do you plan to continue with more of the old man series or has it run it’s course.

  8. Finally got to see Black Panther last night. I thought it was pretty good. Felt like I was watching a Bond film. There’s the government agent, a geek a la Q, a love interest, a bad guy who has some weird plot to take over the world, an underground gambling establishment, car chases, a climatic battle, etc.

    One thing that was… weird was how on one hand it had one of the most morally complex representations of isolationism versus interventionism I have seen in just about any movie. The story revolves around the push and pull between isolationism for generations causing injustices and allowing injustices to continue, and on the other hand, some punk ass kid who goes way too far towards violence and wants to start a world war. With the result being the protagonist rejects both approaches. It is clearly presented as a not-black-and-white problem.

    On the other hand, wakanda has what might be one of the more grossly oversimplified forms of government, (tyranny ruled by whoever wins a fight to the death) that yet somehow manages to produces a civilization that is highly advanced, functioning, peaceful, noninterventionist, yet has more advanced weaponry and technology than anyone in the world.

    Generally, if you have a culture who believes the strongest individual to win in hand to hand combat is the best individual to rule that culture, i.e. might makes right, then that culture tends to take that reasoning and extend it to those outside their culture. And yet, wakanda is, for the most part, a highly functioning, efficient, isolationist, and for the most part, just society. TChalla appears to be the very essence of a benevolent dictator.

    It just landed a bit weird how the movie shows such complexity when it comes to isolationism versus interventionism (too much isolation can be bad. Too much intervention can be bad.), but shows the political makeup of wacanda to be such an over simplification. (Benevolent dictator is benevolent because he’s the protagonist and a good guy.)

    As for tastes over time, i have definitely changed some of the things I like. And some of the things I liked as a kid make me cringe today. But even then, nostalgia makes me like some things that i wouldnt like if I first heard them today.

  9. We’ve been lucky enough to see Emmylou and Steve Earle and Buddy Miller in the last few years so, yeah, good taste, dude. And as a geezer with 20 years on you I still enjoy seeing Dion in concert, as well as people closer to my age, like John Fogerty, Jackson Browne, and Steely Dan.

    If anyone doesn’t like it, f#ck ’em if they can’t take a joke. As long as you don’t say Nickelback, you’re OK.


  10. Greg,

    Black Panther criticizes his ancestors for their isolationism but it was probably because they were so indifferent to the rest of the world that they didn’t take the typical route of using their advanced technologies to conquer their neighbors. But why didn’t they? Because of post hoc justification. Wakanda doesn’t rule the Marvel world today so they didn’t in the past. Same reason that the wizards and witches of Harry Potter don’t rule the world despite their near-miraculous powers. There’s no real way to get around this oversimplication when it comes to secret societies.

    But I do agree that the Black Panther movie did a great job of showing the complexity of isolationism vs interventionism.

  11. Having grown up in the 60s, my kids were always jealous that their mother and I were there on the frontlines, waiting for the next Beach Boys, Beatles or Rolling Stones album to come out. My whole family is big on 60s and 70s classic rock, but it didn’t stop there. Too many great 80s bands to ignore: The Police, The Cars, Oingo Boingo, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Talking Heads, The Pretenders, Van Halen, GnR, AC/DC, and on and on.

    Also, fell in love with southern rock and California soft rock: Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, CDB, Marshall Tucker Band, The Outlaws, then Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and on and on. In the 90s is was the wave of great grunge bands coming out of Seattle and Cali: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and on and on.

    Call it an eclectic taste in music if you’d like. My neighbor (who’s older than me) always brags that he’s seen the Eagles seven times, but he never saw them until they were touring as old guys. My wife and I saw them in concert for every album through The Long Run; saw The Who during the Who’s Next and Quadrophenia tours and another half dozen times; saw the Stones at Soldier Field; saw Pink Floyd at Soldier Field; saw Free and Bad Company; Buffalo Springfield and Poco and CSN&Y and CSN and Neil Young; Genesis with Peter Gabriel and Genesis without Peter Gabriel and Peter Gabriel without Genesis; The Police and Sting without The Police; AC/DC with Bon Scott and AC/DC with Brian Johnson; KISS during their heyday; Frank Zappa a dozen times and on and on. And as a treat to top off a lifetime of great concerts, we saw The White Stripes in a small, acoustically perfect auditorium and Jack White was every bit the guitar God Jimmy Page was when we saw Led Zeppelin a number of times.

    And thanks to the beauty of “festival seating” we saw a lot of them from the front row or darned close. Did I mention that tinnitus now occupies about half of my hearing space and everything else sounds like it’s coming through an ear full of cotton? (Thanks a lot, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep.) A lot of great music though!

  12. Vincet: “Same reason that the wizards and witches of Harry Potter don’t rule the world despite their near-miraculous powers.”

    If the first book said Dumbledore killed the previous headmaster to get his job, most readers would likely imagine wirzarding is violent, and the more peaceful world we see in the rest of the book wouldnt line up with that kind of job application.

  13. “I’m easy to entertain but hard to impress.” I love this quote so much that I’m going to steal it when I talk about my tastes as well. Hope you don’t mind, Scalzi!

    People constantly say stuff like, “You talk and write about movies/TV so much, how can you possibly like [Random Popcorn Flick of the Month]” As if I somehow don’t discern the difference between what’s good vs what’s enjoyable. Thanks for giving me a new maxim to use with my elitist friends who didn’t love the gobs and gobs of fanservice in Solo (which I loved) because they couldn’t get past that the movie was kind of meh (which I would agree with).

  14. Thing about getting older is that every year adds things that are worth paying attention to, even without pursuing What’s Happenin’ Now, Baby. I’ve excavated the history of Western musics backwards and sideways and ventured a bit into non-Western traditions, and I’m sure that there’s still stuff out there that I would enjoy if I were to find my way to it while my ears hold out. I mean, I have extensive accordion and bagpipe sections in my library. . . . (Won’t be revisting gamelan, though. Nice but too trancey for me.)

    What I do notice about things I don’t bother with any more is that most they prove to be not-particularly-engaging retreads of things I “got” a generation or more ago and don’t really need to get again. (Thing about being over 70–I have neckties that have been in fashion *twice*.) If getting old means becoming more yourself, it also means streamlining your cultural baggage, being harder to surprise. And being-surprised (at least a little) is one of the things art/entertainment is supposed to deliver: “the same only different” is a primal part of the art experience. (If it’s just “the same,” then I wonder whether we’re looking at art or some kind of ritual behavior.)

    I still listen to the Beatles with enjoyment and increasing appreciation of how skillful they were. Bach is bottomless. Shakespeare grabs me every time. So does G. B. Shaw. Moments in 8 1/2 reduce me to tears for reasons I don’t quite understand yet. (I saw it on first US release.) The Marx Brothers, Lauren & Hardy, and W. C. Fields are all comedically balletic. So are the Three Stooges. Doo-wop still works for me–because, I suspect, it was a genuine adolescent folk music before it became a commercial category. And those falsetto lines! The Great American Songbook is still Great. These are all part of the through-line of my life.

  15. I realized relatively early in life that life is waaay too short to spend any of it apologizing for what you like and dislike. Took me a bit longer to explore the consequences of that line of reasoning, but eventually I got to the point where just because everyone liked something didn’t mean I had to reject it (Prince fell there for me, so I missed out on some things I might otherwise have really enjoyed), and that if I enjoyed something, it didn’t matter that other people didn’t. All too short a time for finding things that appeal, so when you do enjoy them guilt-free.

  16. In my teens and twenties I was a folkie and I spent far too many years in smoky pubs listening to bands who later became trendy. My tastes still fall that way and Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and similar styles of music can still move me. On the other hand I can spend happy days listening to Bach and Handel and Mozart. So call me eclectic.

    Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan hold me entranced. Neil Young speaks to me directly and I absolutely love pretentious prog rock (Emerson Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, Yes…)

    But tastes do change. I find myself less willing to accept experimental literature (these days I want straightforward stories where once I wanted avant garde experimentalism). I was (and I remain) a fan of the British New Wave but I still love traditional SF. Do I contradict myself? I am large. I contain multitudes.


  17. I am generally unimpressed by music from the 1980s, but this post explains the absurd nostalgia for its music and attire. The ’80s mostly make me think of Ronald Reagan and CIA-funded civil war in the Old Country. Death squads and refugee camps do not provoke fond memories.

  18. As a former academic in the field of film and television I often found that my tastes were held to a different standard by others, surely if I did serious research I couldn’t possibly enjoy a made for the masses action film. Sigh. I enjoy my own choices and won’t defend them. Plus… I have tickets to see Phil Collins in January and I am ridiculously excited!

  19. RE Brian P Chu – ““I’m easy to entertain but hard to impress.” I love this quote so much that I’m going to steal it when I talk about my tastes as well. Hope you don’t mind, Scalzi! ”

    I’m not so easy to entertain. I like good movies, good music, good books. Whatever it is, I want it well written, well produced, and not repetitive.

    I’ve long found Sturgeons’ Law holds true – 90 % of everything really is crap.
    I want the 10% and to hell with the rest.

    I’ve gone almost five years without television except what creeps in around the edges, and when people talk about the inane crap they watch last night I have to restrain myself from being rude.

  20. Took a girl to see Orlando in the theater as a first date. She liked it as much as I did. We’re coming up on our 21st wedding anniversary shortly.

  21. How does a person’s changing tastes relate to the Suck Fairy? https://www.tor.com/2010/09/28/the-suck-fairy/

    Because some things I liked 20 years ago have definitely been visited by the Suck Fairy. It doesn’t really feel like my tastes have changed since then, but then there’s that darn Suck Fairy cropping up and then I think, well, maybe they did change.

    Black Panther: it was a mixed bag of mostly meh and way overrated. Its Afro Futurism looked like the usual cartoon corporate techno with old timey African textures painted on. Robert Jackson Bennett explained why the writing and plot disappointed. http://robertjacksonbennett.com/blog/black-panther-was-okay

  22. Dear John,

    Taste is so weird. I like music over a wide range of periods from the 40s through the 90s, although my “formative” years are the 60s (note to others – I’m almost exactly 20 years older than John). I’m cutting it off at the 90s only because I stopped listening to the radio much and buying much music in the late 90s, for reasons that were unrelated to the music. I’m just not that familiar with the last two decades.

    The only two musical genres I cannot abide are opera and rap/hip-hop. The former are doesn’t speak to me at all, and my mind latches onto the latter as poetry, which means I end up concentrating on it so it’s not relaxing – listening to it’s work!

    I know my tastes have changed a lot over the years… Except when they haven’t. A half dozen years back I digitized all my vinyl because physical circumstances were such that I hadn’t played any of it in a decade and most of it in 2+ decades. The process of digitizing required me to listen to all the transcriptions to make sure they were good. To my surprise I still liked over 99% of the albums. Apparently 20-30-something me and 60-something me are musically compatible.

    But another weirdness—I listen to most of your recommended/favorite cuts when you post them, and most of them don’t do anything for me. There’s nothing wrong with them, they’re just not… me. So I figured our musical tastes didn’t overlap very much. Then I listened to you DJ at the retro Hugos, all 80s stuff and… OMG! We are totally in sync. Every single cut you played was in my win book. Why? Beats me. They were your “formative years” but 20 years past that for me.

    Apparently one can go in and out of taste-compatibility with someone else. Possibly when the 40s roll around, we will be in sync again.

    Side note to readers–even if you’re not simpatico with John’s contemporary musical recommendations, you’ve gotta go hear him DJ – He totally rocks!

    – pax / Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. http://ctein.com 
    — Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com 

  23. This is true: I have a huge collection of didjeridu music. I’ve got an album of theremin music too, and one of Jew’s harp music. I think I’m somewhere far away from the above conversation…

  24. Regarding music, a (younger) friend says, “Too many people like only what they liked at age 17.” And it’s not surprising. The amount of new content appearing daily, in no-matter-which medium, is crushing. Some portion thereof will repulse a person whose taste was formed long ago. Other portions will seem formulaic, or worse, derivative: “Rashomon in outer space. Yawn.” Or: “Wishbone Ash was doing this same thing – way better – back in the 70s.”

    For the longest time I avoided seeing the film “Avatar” precisely because of the media beat-up (i.e. hype) surrounding its release. Watching it last night, I regretted this. The astonishing visual beauty compensated almost entirely for the clunkiness of story & dialog.

    Echoing rmichaelroman above, time is a precious resource, not to be squandered filtering the massive output of the sausage factories in hope of finding something worthwhile. With luck I can find critics whose taste approximates my own and let them curate for me. The Big Idea feature in this blog is about fiction I’m predisposed to like. Then, too, I could spend less time as a passive consumer of other people’s creativity and make things myself. That can be most satisfying.

    Side note: The title graphic looks to me like a Petyarre painting. Nice!

  25. One of my strong musical preferences is for what I call “danceable beat and jangly guitars”. This taste was formed in high school in the 70s, but I also like a lot of later groups that use the same styling.

    I don’t listen to country-western if I can avoid it, because (1) I spent 26 years living in Nashville and got completely burned out on the sound, and (2) I despise most of the culture that’s formed around it, the misogyny and the jingoistic “AMERICA FUCK YEAH!” hyper-patriotism and the conflation of Christianity with patriotism in general. And also because I hate the way it sucks in and ruins good folk artists, even though I can’t blame them because the money is so much better there.

    When you get beyond pop culture, my musical tastes are pretty eclectic — early music, classical, world, techno, and a lot more. My partner’s daughter’s friends have occasionally been rather gobsmacked by the range of CDs on our racks.

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