A question of taste?

By Becky Matthews

Yesterday, I watched not one, but two things that referenced popular teen Vampire trilogy Twilight. It’s the only thing they had in common too. One was an episode of Parks and Recreation, in which a father cuffed himself to a chair in Lesley Knope’s office. Why was he holding a one-man protest in a municipal office?  It was a desperate bid to get said trilogy into the town time-capsule, of course. This lead to quick fire verbal exchanges about the fantastical romantic lives of its central characters.

twilight

The second was the film The Liberal Arts, where in one well-crafted scene the characters Zibby and Jesse spar over the literary worth of Twilight without actually ever mentioning it by name or showing the cover,  presumably for copyright reasons but it was a great and entertaining piece of writing.

Zibby (Elizabeth, played by Elizabeth Olsen), slaps Jesse (Josh Radnor) down for his literary snobbery.  I found her character a little bit too earnest at times, but I could see her point. It got me thinking: “should I be reading / watching Twilight?”. It wasn’t a thought I lingered on for long, I’m not really a fan of vampire stuff in general (there are exceptions, but I won’t bore you with those), it’s just not my bag. I don’t hate the saga because I’ve never read/seen it, but I have no interest in doing so.

boy

The question it really raised for me is why don’t I want to read Twilight or watch the films?  As a 30-something, technically they’re not for me, I’m too old to be the target audience but I loved the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films and I’m probably not the target demographic for those either.

This isn’t really some fantasy-fiction induced pop culture crisis, it’s an a-road into examining what makes taste. I think I have good taste, of course I do, I’m me. You might disagree, and we can both be right, and entirely wrong. I am endlessly fascinated by what constitutes good and bad taste, why my synapses and mental wires welcome certain sounds and visuals, but reject others.  In many cases, I can explain with passion and confidence to anyone who cares why something is good (the films of Wes Anderson, Blur, 90s comedy like Spaced, Alan Partridge, etc) and for others I have nothing more eloquent to say about why I like them other than I just do.

music

I’ve certainly been accused of music snobbery, and perhaps I have been guilty in the past, but it’s not a label I like. I’m a huge High Fidelity fan (book and film), and I love a top five list as much as Rob Gordon but, to be honest, I have a lot in my record collection that a true music snob would balk at.  Shuffle mode on my phone can give me Good Morning, Captain by Slint followed Evil Woman by ELO and that is brilliant.  A younger me would have be embarrassed to admit certain tastes, but now I reject the idea of guilty pleasures: own your likes and enjoy them, I say.

Even the most open-minded people probably make value judgements, at least on some level about music, films, art etc. I used to think it was as valid to argue about music as it was about, say, football. But is it really? At least in sport there are clear indicators as to what is good and what is bad, there is technique, there are winners and there are losers. In culture, there are mainly just opinions. Sometimes it’s easier to criticise things for being badly made, poor in quality, for misuse of accepted convention and form, but beyond that who among us really has the right to validate what is good and what is bad? Probably no-one, at least not in absolute terms, surely it’s all just subjective.

Cultural criticism, to a certain degree, acts as guardian and gatekeeper of quality or at least argues the case for why a particular piece of artistic material works or doesn’t work in an accepted framework. The tag “critically acclaimed” looks impressive, but it doesn’t always mean commercial success, and popular doesn’t necessarily always mean good.

Personally, I struggle between enjoying things on a purely emotional level and rallying against elitism, but also I consider myself fairly discerning in what I do and don’t like. It can be a tiring balance, both within my own brain and probably for the people in my life.

Music intelligence company Echonest explored this topic in a much more scientific way, they conducted taste profiling in relation to film and music and, even what your music taste reveals about your politics. It certainly suggests that taste amounts to a bit more than just ‘stuff we like’, which is what I have always felt but not something I could quite wrap my head around.

love

Writer and music critic Carl Wilson tackles the subject of taste, using Céline Dion as an example of an artist whose music is adored by millions yet fiercely derided and mocked as well. A description of his book Let’s Talk About Love: Why other people have such bad taste articulates what I want to explore perfectly:

At once among the most widely beloved and most reviled and lampooned pop stars of the past few decades, Céline Dion’s critics call her mawkish and overblown while millions of fans around the world adore her “huge pipes” and even bigger feelings. How can anyone say which side is right?

Who is to say indeed – incidentally, and perhaps unsurprisingly I’m with camp ‘mawkish and overblown’ in the case of Dion but I’m also a massive Dolly Parton fan, and I daresay those same criticisms could be levelled at Dolly dearest too.

Perhaps what I am really examining here is not necessarily how tastes are formed, but how we express them and how they are perceived by others.  For some people, their taste represents everything they hold dear and who they are as a person and even what their values are.  But for others, taste is ever-changing, ephemeral and inconsequential.

I’m constantly excited and surprised by my likes and dislikes and those of other people.  I will still hold opinions about things too, I’m just learning a bit more about when to shut up and let other people enjoy what they like without judgement, even if I don’t like it. Besides, however much I dislike something, I would much prefer to bang on about the things I love.

I do however, reserve the right to disappear for a bit if the Black Eyed Peas or Phil Collins  play out on a stereo or PA system I’m not in charge of – but stick The Winner Takes It All by Abba on and I’ll be dancing, with tears in my eyes, trailing my lack of coolness behind me.

Becky is a writer and digital content producer from London.  She writes about music at www.kidvinyl.co.uk and loves to bang on about pop culture in general.  She writes as part of the Kaylosia comedy collective and has written and directed her first short film Double Word Score, which is a date film for two people who aren’t really sure if they’re on one.  She’s especially fond of vinyl, Kate Bush, Prince, Pixies, red lipstick, Wes Anderson films, Chris Morris, Lena Dunham, Bruce Lee, Bill Murray, noodles, hula-hooping, Hampstead Heath, independent cinemas and puns.  Read more from Becky at www.becky-matthews.com

2 thoughts on “A question of taste?

  1. Some interesting points, I think tastes can evolve in the same way tastebuds change as you age. Some people feel quite strongly that if they like something they will always like them. There are certain songs and films I love for reasons of nostalgia perhaps more than on artistic merit, but that’s not to say they don’t still represent my taste more broadly.

    I hadn’t thought about the linguistic barrier re. music over books etc but that’s interesting, and there is the famous quote “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, which is amusing but if you take that attitude you could discount writing about the arts at all.

    To summarise, I think taste is composite of the emotional response of how something makes you feel and the intellectual response, in which you analyse things rather than an either / or situation.

  2. Nice article. One factor worth thinking about is the perception of ‘sophistication’ regarding taste – my tastes in films, TV etc have changed as I’ve experienced more of them, and developed my understanding. If I enjoyed something at thirteen, or as a student, and yet now don’t enjoy – can it just be chalked down to differences of taste? They’re both *me* after all, my tastes feel like they have progressed or evolved.

    Also interesting about is how some media have different degrees of taste component; one could argue that music requires less linguistic context to be appreciated, which is one of the reasons it transcends language barriers more easily than for instance books (they need to be translated completely to be appreciated at all).

    How does that affect the intellectual component of taste, are there ways in which certain things *can* be objectively better (increasingly sophisticated) but others in which they can’t (pure emotional reaction)?

    Food for thought, which makes sense since we’re talking about taste…

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