One of my favorite songs, “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins, came on the radio today. After a moment of happiness at hearing it, I remembered how South Park had mocked it, and instead of enjoying the song I started brooding about cultural curators of ‘cool’.
We’ve all encountered it. You meet someone cool. Sussing each other out, you start chatting about music. Naming names. You mention that you like band X. He says with disdain, “Oh, you like that?” You get a sinking feeling as your cred sinks. It has been decreed by the tasteocracy: band X is decidedly not cool. You’ve missed your chance at membership in this social group.
Curating Ourselves: Crafting Personas through Our Taste
Creative types and ‘cultured’ people try to distinguish ourselves from the masses who listen to Top 100 hits by expressing discriminating tastes…but discriminating according to whose standards?
Humans base our standards for good taste on those we want to emulate — what I’m calling the tasteocracy. The tasteocracy might be celebrities, or might be regular people who’ve coalesced into a subculture, whether that’s goth, hipster, or hippie.
We allow the tasteocracy to shape our aesthetics. We curate our tastes and activities to reflect what that group has deemed worthwhile or acceptable.
We mimic the judgments of the tasteocracy, even training ourselves to discriminate against what might be our natural tastes and even to censor ourselves in service of a desired identity. To come off as cultured, you wouldn’t admit to enjoying Twilight; you’d discuss Dracula instead.
In the facebook era, we define ourselves explicitly by our “likes”. We list our favorite books, movies, and bands as a way to express ourselves and let people get to know us better. And funnily enough, our taste in music, possessions, and clothes does reflect our personalities and identities, according to Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, by psychology professor Sam Gosling. For example, displaying maps in your home usually indicates a high degree of open-mindedness. Liberals’ homes tend to showcase more books and art than conservatives’. Without social emulation — copying the taste of those who we want to be like — these trends might not be so identifiable.
Next, we become enforcers of taste. I catch myself judging others based on their aesthetic sensibilities. Do they fit with my definition of good taste? Are their tastes discriminating enough?
Don’t Apologize for Your Taste
In Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing and Stephen King’s On Writing, both authors describe being ridiculed for things that they loved — respectively, comic books and writing horror — because they were uncool or ‘trash’ that wasn’t worth the time. Fortunately, both authors decided that their loves trumped their social standing, and became massive creators of content loved by many.
Trust your own taste.
Your opinion is valid. You don’t need to be told what’s good.
Ignore Pitchfork reviews and listen to the album yourself. Skip the reviews and see the movie if the trailer looked decent. Ditch the New York Times bestseller list and ask your librarian for personalized recommendations.
Don’t reject others based on their taste.
Embrace eclectic aesthetics. Accept your own preferences, even if they don’t fit your idealized version of yourself. Don’t force yourself to listen to Miles Davis if you’d rather throw on Coldplay.
Remove the concept of ‘guilty pleasures’ from your reading list, activities, and listening. Replace it with plain, simple, pleasure.
Enjoy things for what they are. You can still be ‘cultured’ and listen to pop music. Not everything needs to be a masterpiece to be appreciated.
Go even further and try to change the tasteocracy. Show them that science fiction and graphic novels are respectable formats. Prove that the new aesthetic is legitimate. Make it clear that mashups can transcend simple goofing off.
What art or activities do you enjoy that others have belittled?