You kids like the wrong music

I saw this image posted to a music education group on Facebook. The caption was something like, “Typical middle school/high school student.” I’ll leave the poster anonymous, because I’m sure they meant well.


Let me offer a translation of the translation: “I, the maker of this image, think that kids should enjoy music with tempo variation, triple meter, no groove, and long orchestral forms. I loathe pop music and can’t imagine why a person might enjoy it, so I condescendingly presume that the kids are being suckered in by marketing and image, and that they’re too lazy and dumb to pay attention. Furthermore, not only are the kids enjoying the wrong things, their listening preferences are performing sexual violence against the arts.” That’s a lot of anger for an internet meme! Let’s unpack.

I feel some of the meme maker’s pain. I don’t like all of the music that the kids like. If I controlled the universe, everyone would listen to Duke Ellington and nineties hip-hop. I believe that music has some influence over the listener’s emotional state, and I find extremely angry or abrasive music disturbing. But why should any young person care what a middle-aged nerd thinks of their taste?

Let me see if I can list all the assumptions in this meme.

  • Listening to music mainly for the beat is dumb and wrong.
  • Social dance is not a valid reason for music to exist.
  • If you only listen to the music of your own time and place, you are hurting the entire art form.
  • Current pop music is intrinsically worse than the music enjoyed by the Western European aristocracy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
  • Metronomic dance grooves and pop song structures are fundamentally incompatible with legitimate musical expression.
  • The point of lyrics is to provoke intellectual effort.
  • Preferring contemporary pop to other kinds of music is lazy, ignorant, and infantile.
  • Good music has to be longer than four minutes.
  • It’s wrong to care about what musicians look like.
  • Listening to music on iPods is dumb.
  • When you see a kid expressing enthusiasm about music, the appropriate response is outrage.

One of those assumptions does actually make sense to me. The pop world favors attractive people, especially women. It’s unfair, since being good-looking has nothing to do with musical ability. Though it’s worth pointing out we’ve preferred attractive performers to unattractive ones since the dawn of history. Also, some subcultures (hip-hop, metal, EDM) gladly embrace ugly performers, at least if they’re male.

The rest of the assumptions are dubious at best and silly at worst. Also, there’s a not-too-subtle undercurrent of distaste at the increasing Afrocentrism of pop, at the expense of “traditional” Eurocentrism. You don’t need to be racist to be categorically contemptuous of groove-based music, but you are not in good world-historical company.

But even if the meme maker is totally correct, what’s the imagined outcome here? We, the music teachers, mock the unsophisticated tastes of fifteen-year-olds until they suddenly realize that they like the wrong things? And then they delete their iTunes libraries and Spotify playlists, and replace them with Beethoven, or Coltrane, or Stockhausen, or whatever? Has that method of changing someone’s tastes ever worked? We can do better, music nerds.

9 thoughts on “You kids like the wrong music

  1. While I don’t think that elders should look down on the music of the youth, I think that it is good to expose them to other forms of music in their youth as well as other forms of culture. I think it helps to give them something to compare it to. When I think of the music that I used to like, I found that I didn’t really have the best discernment and when I started to listen to other music I begun to broaden my musical tastes. Many things I used to like, I don’t and music I didn’t understand, I like. I think the same is true to television show I love or certain movies I like when I young. When I see them, I say “how could I like this crap”. I think that when people grow up they look for other things than when they were young.

    • No doubt, tastes change. In my case, however, that was more a function of my horizons broadening than my basic aesthetics being transformed. I remember listening to pop radio as a kid and feeling bored or annoyed by a lot of it, but being thrilled by certain songs: “Electric Avenue” by Eddy Grant, “Beat It” by Michael Jackson, “I Need You Tonight” by INXS. As an adult, now I can understand and articulate why I loved those songs, and still do. Fortunately, I’m dining off a much bigger menu now, and don’t have to sit through hours of radio to hear the music I actually like. Kids today have an easier time of things.

      • I think that this is true that as an adult I can say that why I like the music I still like, the Beatles, the Stones, etc., and a fair bit of hard rock metal like BOC(Blue Oyster Cult), and Deep Purple. When I look at the disco record(Saturday Night Fever), I do like at it and can’t believe I liked it(a lot has to do with the Bee Gees, whose voices drive me nuts). It is try that some of the eighties music I didn’t like, I don’t hate as much, but my thinking is still pretty much the same. I think younger people always reject music that wade before their birth as being old(and this is true, to some extent of not appreciating literature, theatre, history and many other things in the past)without trying to understand why other people do like it. I think it is important to have a bigger exposure.

  2. In middle school a friend of mine had a crush on a girl who already had a boyfriend. For months he tried to snipe her away by attempting to outperform/ridicule the existing boyfriend. Obviously that did not work, it only strengthened their relationship since now there was a common enemy. That’s kinda what happens when you tell a fan that Katy Perry’s music is “stupid.” The fans circle the wagons and huddle for safety from the outside non-Perry world. This may explain why she is still producing awful music…..

  3. Ethan – good post, but it’s arguably factually incorrect to state that “being good-looking has nothing to do with musical ability”.

    Good looks are correlated with body symmetry and athleticism, both of which may offer an advantage to attractive musicians.

    Visual factors of performance also have a tremendous impact on how we interpret what we hear, and this is as true in the classical world as it is in the world of pop.

    Finally, even with blind studies, where listeners can’t see the musicians, performances by attractive musicians tend to be rated higher. Researchers have speculated that good-looking musicians may get more encouragement, reinforcement or opportunity.

    I prefer an alternate theory, though – that being a musician just naturally makes you hot!

    As always, keep the great posts coming.

    • I didn’t know that about the blind studies, that’s fascinating. I don’t doubt for an instant that attractive people get more encouragement and opportunity. But I agree with your alternate theory. The list of ordinary-looking people whose musicality make them beautiful is endless.

      • I seem to remember Christopher Cross on some infotainment show in the 90s, griping about how the video era had effectively killed his career. He was a pretty plain looking dude, but probably punk/new wave had as much to do w/ deep-sixing his at-the-time ubiquitous flavor of yacht rock.

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