We all do it, myself included.
Somewhere along the line — most likely between the ages of 18 and 21 — we became who we are musically. We determined what we liked and what we didn’t, and we haven’t strayed much from those areas. The mere mention of music from outside that particular comfort zone sends us scrambling for the virtual exit, because clearly that music was never meant for us.
There’s no kind way to say this, so I’m just gonna say it: that thinking is unbelievably stupid.
To dismiss a particular style of music because it’s not something you would normally enjoy is to deny yourself the limitless possibilities music offers. Like I said, we all do it. The trick is to break free of that habit.
I’m not a fan of country music. It doesn’t reach me. I’m not saying it’s terrible. It’s just not my cup of tea. Still, I have nothing but respect for the instrumental abilities of artists like Zac Brown, Vince Gill, and Brad Paisley, among many others. Had I dismissed Bluegrass out of hand, I would have missed Alison Krauss and Bill Monroe. Do I have any of their records? Not yet. But that doesn’t stop me from taking a moment to listen when I hear them. And there’s no way my musical life is complete without Rhiannon Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The woman has the voice of an angel!
Country is not my default, but I’m a big fan of Johnny Cash. His music transcends the genre to which he was assigned. He had a presence which commanded the listener’s attention, whether he sang his own brilliant songs, or someone else’s, like he does here:
So you see, there are gems to be found everywhere. You just have to take the time to listen.
In my new book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This, I mention talking to a friend who refused to listen to the music of Steven Wilson. Why? Because I made the mistake of saying his music had origins in progressive rock. It would seem my friend tried listening to prog rock stalwarts Yes a couple of decades back for all of about 30 seconds. He didn’t care for it, and therefore decided the entire musical genre wasn’t worth his time. This makes absolutely NO sense to me. And because of that, I was unable to introduce him to amazing music like this.
As I said, I’ve been as guilty of this as the next person. The Top 40 and I haven’t shared company for more than three decades. It’s a safe bet you will find little to nothing on my CD shelves that ever graced the Billboard Hot 100. If you do, I can assure you it was a fluke. Still, once in a very blue moon, something from K-HITS (or whatever the popular music station likes to call itself) worms its way into my earhole, grabs hold, and won’t let go! The Black Eyed Peas had a brief moment or two, but it was Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars who really sank their musical hooks into me. “Uptown Funk” reminds me of the things I loved about James Brown in the ’70s. The music will NOT leave me alone, regardless of how hard I try. Curse those two! I HATE how much I LOVE this song!
Why do we deem it necessary to define our music, or force it to fit inside a neat little consumable box? A lot of music is just too big for that! And because of that, people tend to miss out. How many stations are flocking to put post-rock on the airwaves? How many people can even define post-rock? Why should you have to? The music comes from so many different directions, its impossible to confine to one space. That’s what makes it great! And that’s why bands like Tortoise can offer amazing music like this, which defies easy definition.
I belong to more than a couple of online music forums. They can be an invaluable source of information on the music they emphasize. They can also be unbelievably maddening, as more than a few people in those groups spend chunks of their time denigrating music they know little about, or have taken the time to try and understand. A progressive rock group will be very quick to dismiss a genre like hip-hop or rap. There have been times when I did it, too.
There was a period when I was certain this whole rap thing was a ship passing quietly in the night. No sense getting into something that wouldn’t be around for very long. Well, I got that one wrong. And while rap still isn’t a fall-back position from me, I’m glad I took the time to explore it. Otherwise, I would have missed out on a group like Public Enemy, who not only innovated the sound of the genre, but gave me a lot to think about while they did it.
What kind of music does Ben Harper play? I’m a big fan, and I’m telling you I have absolutely no idea! All I know is I really enjoy it! And I think anyone who can look past the attempt to define his sound would feel the same way. This is the kind of artist who should be all over the radio airwaves.
One of my favorite albums form 2015 — released by a band called We Lost the Sea — also defies easy definition. They came out of metal, but the album is considered post-rock. There’s also more than a little ambient influence in the album, too. What difference does it make? The music really only needs a one-word description: beautiful!
The same can be said for a band like Snarky Puppy. Calling their sound jazz makes it easy to put into a box. It also alienates people who might otherwise enjoy what they have to say musically. So when people ask me about this band, I tell them to stop trying to define the music, and just enjoy it. That’s what it’s there for!
When I visited Val’s Halla Records in Oak Park, Illinois, the last thing on my mind was investing in a Ska group. But since Val herself told me I needed to check out The Crombies, that’s just what I did. And you know what? That Chicago-based band is a lot of fun! They’re definitely on my list of bands to check out live when I’m back up that way (which seems to be quite frequently these days).
Music is all around us, all day every day. To shut yourself off from one style or another is to risk missing out on something special. There’s a reason the word “miss” is buried within the word “dismissal.” Do yourself a favor, and don’t fall into this trap. You’ll be happy you took the chance.