Let’s Talk About Love Week: Excerpt: Giving Up On Giving Up on Good Taste by Jonathan Sterne

Welcome back to Let’s Talk About Love Week. On Day 4 we visit an excerpt from one of the essays that make up the revised and expanded edition, this one from renowned Sound Studies scholar Jonathan Sterne.


It’s easy to overlook that all our experiences of art works are mediated by the physical forms and devices that embody them, which have their own designs and subtexts. Jonathan Sterne’s expertise on the ever-evolving history of communications brings that element to the foreground. Sterne is a Montrealer who teaches in the Art History and Communications Studies program at my alma mater, McGill University, as well as a former longtime member of my favorite ongoing academic-subversion collective, Bad Subjects, and has published many books and articles about sound, music, media and technology, most recently MP3: The Meaning of a Format (2012). – C.W.

It was early 2002, the place was a nondescript classroom somewhere in a gothic skyscraper at the University of Pittsburgh, and the class was “Media and Music.” It was already dark out, at 6:15 or 6:30 p.m. As part of their tasks for the semester, each of the students had to use an idea from one of the assigned readings to analyze a recording of their choice. One of my best students that term had just gotten up to take her turn. The song and the concept have long ago left my recall, but I do know that it was from the Broadway musical Cats.

In the past, I had always hated Cats. I hated Andrew Lloyd Webber. I remember the feeling of hatred. It was a rich, all-encompassing revulsion that enrobed the performers, the composer, the song, the arrangement, and the production – especially the production.

I had warned students not to choose music they liked too much, since I wanted them to consider it critically. Being undergraduates at the beginning of their twenties, most of them ignored that warning, preferring to perform their tastes for their peers. To that point, a  certain omnivorous hipness had ruled over class discussions, led by the plurality of college-radio music nerds who had enrolled. It didn’t help that my tastes ran pretty close to theirs, and that I was at that time a young university professor still figuring out how to teach music in a media-studies curriculum. In choosing my own musical examples for lectures, I probably encouraged the music nerds. As Pierre Bourdieu has written, even as we criticize “the games of culture,” we can’t help but take part.

My Cats student delivered a solid academic presentation, but the class reacted badly. Either she hadn’t read the room, hadn’t read it right, or didn’t care. There was a total disconnect with the most vocal students in the class, who couldn’t quite hear what she was saying about the music because they couldn’t get past their own distaste for it.

Just as many corners of youth seem to demand the pursuit of one or another kind of cool, many corners of middle-class adulthood, at least, require a great deal of its renunciation.

In the cultural-studies-professor playbook, there is a standard response to these classroom situations, which is to step back and remind the students that we should take popular culture seriously on its own terms in order to understand people’s investments in it. By doing so, we can get a better grasp on how people experience and express the conditions of their own lives. After this reminder, I ask a question that returns them to academic abstraction, like, “What would Christopher Small have to say about a Broadway musical?” Honestly, it’s too many class meetings ago to remember whether it worked in this case, or whether I handled it well. What stays with me is the feeling I had: how little I cared about whether I liked the music. My commitment to the context and trying to do my job released me from my own tastes. I ceased to care that I didn’t like it. It didn’t matter any more.

It seems to me that every music-loving adult I know has had a moment like this. Carl Wilson describes it at the end of Let’s Talk About Love when he renounces his own former “subcultural snobbery”: “the kind of contempt that’s mobilized by ‘cool’ taste is inimical to … sympathy, to an aesthetics that might support a good public life.” As he walks us through his change of heart, Wilson has a little aside about turning 40. There is something profound about the changing relationship to recorded music as one moves through adulthood. As we age, it gets harder and harder for those of us who are not professional music critics to keep up with new developments in music. I am certain I was never as hip as Wilson suggests he was, even though I like to know what’s happening in music, and I like to discover new things. But fewer and fewer of my friends seek out new music. Of those who do, many focus on back catalogues, or simply follow new acts made up of people who used to be in acts they already knew about. Tastes ossify. People have kids and eventually teenagers of their own, who care far more about being cool than we possibly can. Just as many corners of youth seem to demand the pursuit of one or another kind of cool, many corners of middle-class adulthood, at least, require a great deal of its renunciation.
To read the rest of Jonathan’s essay, along with work by Nick Hornby, James Franco, Sheila Heti, Ann Powers, and more, pick up the new edition of Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Tasteavailable now from Bloomsbury.

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