25 October

Does Taste Matter?

Some readers may have had the pleasure of viewing this picture which has been doing the rounds on social media.

Like many of my musician friends I ‘shared’ it, and that promptly started a discussion with two others, not musicians themselves but both well-attuned to current social mores, as to whether there was anything wrong with listening to music ‘just for the beat’. Now, the chance of having a profound discussion on facebook is about the same as if one were to attempt to conduct it through the partition wall of a public toilet, albeit without the ‘inconvenience’ of having to enter one. I feel better able to respond to my friends’ reasonable points via a somewhat more focused medium.

My reasons for objecting to listening ‘just for the beat’ are principally to do with reductionism — a widespread bad habit of Western culture. We desperately seek simple formulae to sum up why something should be thought ‘a good thing’: ‘antibiotics kill bacteria’; ‘the internet speeds up communication’; ‘using aerial drones means risking fewer American lives’; ‘cutting government expenditure will reduce government debt’. With bare scientific facts, perhaps, such reductive approaches may approximate to the truth. Antibiotics really do kill bacteria, just as the internet really does speed up communication. But where ‘human values’ are involved, such as in the fields of State expenditure and guerrilla warfare, we need a wider cultural context without which the statements are inadequate. Leaving out a moral context from the statement, ‘using aerial drones means risking fewer American lives’, does all of us a disservice.

Granted, music is not as ‘serious’ a matter as fighting in Afghanistan, and probably less so than the budget of H.M. Government. The world will not end because some listen to music ‘just for the beat’. But, just as one’s moral and political outlook would be seriously impoverished by considering only American lives worthy of preservation, so, too, one’s culture and very humanity are diminished by so reductive a reception. In terms of moral value such reductionism might be construed as neutral, and therefore tolerable, but it cannot be considered positive or worthy of serious aspiration.

We do, in fact, tolerate all sorts of rhetorical twists from holders of public office in treating of budgets or warfare, but most of us take a dim view of half-truths forming public policy. ‘I just listen for the beat’ is at best a half-truth; at worst it suggests a drastic narrowing of the breadth and depth of human expression in music. It points up indifference to what one does not appreciate. We can  tolerate such an account of cultural value only because it causes us no grave or immediate inconvenience: in short, because we ourselves have become indifferent. Just because it does no readily measured harm to ourselves or to a third party, we cannot regard it as acceptable. The unacceptable ought to be discouraged. Moreover, as Elie Wiesel observed, it is not hate that is the opposite of love, but rather indifference.

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