Conversational Anxiety And Alienation Via “Musical Passion”


“What kind of music are you into?”

The question is tempting. If acquaintances can agree on one genre or artist they’ve immediately found something great to build off – a rare form of authentic common ground. Musical reciprocity is an acknowledgment of shared subjectivity; it immediately slices through peoples’ surfaces and creates a unique (and underrated) visceral connection. A passionate listener’s taste is one of the most accurate manifestations of their personality – a gateway into their personal philosophy and individuality that goes beyond the genre- and artist-related stereotypes.

Everyone’s somewhat of a passionate listener though; how many people do you know that don’t listen to music at all?

But when asked, many people struggle to whittle down their taste into a one- or two-sentence answer. It can be too complicated and personal, and asking about it in a casual and/or forced conversation instantly devalues it. The more someone cares about music [1] , the harder of a time they have talking about it objectively and casually. They stop dead in their tracks when asked – anxiously gauging how the asker will react to them sharing something they assume the asker cares about drastically less than they do. A divide is immediately formed. Fear of categorization and judgment arises, and the answer that ensues usually involves a contrived sense of detachment and lack of genuine passion.

Too much passion can intimidate people – many would rather reciprocate over ennui. The basic problem with asking people about music is that judgment is too easy.

Yet the question comes up ubiquitously with acquaintances, to the point of it being blurted out thoughtlessly during the first moment of anxiety-inducing conversational silence. Usually people don’t have judging in mind – it comes up suddenly, often in semi-forced interactions, when the only way to survive the conversation is through supposedly harmless interrogations/ questions. It’s like an intellectually higher form of the go-to-males-talking-sports thing, but without the safety and objectivity. Sports and music are similar in a lot of ways – both are used to proclaim individuality and personally invest in knowledge with the intent to eventually share it with other people. But, for a lot of people, the stakes are substantially higher with music – it’s tied into existential beliefs and deep-seated emotions. It feels disappointing and pointless if reciprocity isn’t found.

So if both parties are obviously not equally passionate a divide is instantly formed. Formulating an answer is painful – How can I put this in terms you’ll understand? It’s unnatural, and both parties notice it. Music, for someone who takes it personally, can’t be treated innocuously. It can’t be devalued.

Everyone uses music for similar purposes though, regardless of how much time they spend immersed in it, or whether they found their taste “individually,” with “countercultural intentions,” or genuinely enjoy “what’s on the radio.” It’s used to spoon-feed emotions – to cultivate those rare moments when we’re really “feeling things,” and then to pull us out and into a different (either positive or negative) state of mind when we’re ready. It can be life affirming and self-validating. There seems to be a rampant unawareness of the power of music, and dissociation between people who genuinely care about it and those who don’t.

Maybe we should just appreciate the fact that everyone listens and contracts something positive from it. Tastes and knowledge shouldn’t need to be validated or shown off, regardless of the potential conversational euphoria that might entail musical common ground. People can’t become authentically passionate about something until they realize how much it means to them.

But the most important element of the potential plight of the musical conversation is the knowledge that the alienation that comes out of it can be mutual. If a connection isn’t made, both parties can, and are often, left equally discouraged – regardless of what the asker was expecting. There are tons of possibilities. The “superiority complex” of the self-proclaimed passionate listener objectively devalues another person’s taste as inferior. Both parties maliciously label everything mentioned “good” or “bad.” The passionate listener is left feeling pretentious and needy for putting his/her taste “out there.” The casual listener is supposed to feel  “stupid,” “philistine,” or “not thoughtful.” Stereotypes that coincide with artists and genres are voiced [2], and both parties are left feeling written off and judged. Loneliness is perpetuated. When it comes to music the objective judging of art becomes mainstream and especially prominent, so much so that a person’s view of a genre/ artist will instinctually transmit to anyone who they find out associates with that genre/ artist.

So maybe when music comes up we need to (mentally) acknowledge that, “Yes, I’m going to categorize you, and I can’t really help it, but I’ll give you the opportunity to overcome that categorization.” Whether we can successfully overcome our judgmental inclinations or not, an awareness and understanding of our pretenses seems important, as well as an expectation that we will find common ground. Perhaps we also need to find a way to reciprocate without specific external common ground. In music’s case, over the experience of listening itself, instead of who and what makes our individual experiences tick – something like a cliché focus on the similarities, or a positive emphasis on the differences. We might like different things, but our overarching listening experience shouldn’t be that different. We both listen to music; why not listen to each other? Assume they’re genuinely interested, answer honestly, and see what happens.

Or just let it slide, and move to the next question.

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image – Theoddnote