On Taste (part 2): Why our tastes change

It came as a genuine shock to me when Kid A routinely topped the end-of-the-decade ‘best album’ polls. Not because I was unaware of how highly regarded Radiohead were or because I thought it was a weak album, but because I didn’t personally know anyone who rated it that highly or went on about it. Kid A was supposedly a ubiquitous, unavoidable album but I still couldn’t hum or even name a single track on it. When it was released I’d just started university so may have had other things on my mind, but the whole thing somehow managed to completely pass me by.

I’d lost interest in Radiohead shortly after OK Computer and managed to successfully ignore them until In Rainbows, a record I didn’t hear by choice but I’m glad I did as it genuinely surprised me and caused me to re-evaluate my attitude to the band. It was recognisably Radiohead without being a retread of former glories and without being too self-consciously innovative or experimental, as if instead of trying to make a big statement they’d just made a great group record. Hell, it even made Radiohead sound likeable. And yet for some reason I wasn’t sufficiently intrigued to check out any other records of theirs.

It wasn’t until about six months ago that I heard Kid A for the first time. I can’t even remember what compelled me to listen to it, though I do recall it was a conscious decision. I noticed that it had been lurking on the hard drive of my computer, untouched, for over four years.

And you know what? I thought it was okay, really okay. It didn’t shock me, didn’t bore me, didn’t particularly grip me. I expected it to sound more radical, more dense and impenetrable, and I was looking forward to unravelling its mysteries, but it just sounded quite plain. I almost thought it was – gulp – lightweight, insubstantial.  It reminds me now, for entirely different reasons, of the disappointment I felt when I first heard Never Mind The Bollocks when I was about fifteen and decided that it, too, was really okay. I’d rather have detested it than go away feeling indifferent.

Jonah Lehrer explains the physiology behind how we hear and process sounds in Proust Was a Neuroscientist, a fantastic account of a few modernist artists who arrived by intuition at the conclusions which neurophysiologists only much later reached through empirical scientific methods. It turns out our auditory cortex, the part of the brain that registers and analyses music, works by a positive feedback loop. This reinforces familiarity, making us more attuned to hearing the sounds we’ve heard before. The brain learns by association, so that with experience it learns musical patterns and develops expectations of what will follow. But the brain is also adaptive, so that exposure to new sounds reorganises the auditory cortex – it literally rewires the brain. In time and through repeated listens everything that was once shocking becomes familiar.


‘How To Disappear Completely’ – the Kid A track we can all agree on?

 

If time is required for the brain to adapt as it assimilates new sounds, did Radiohead even think the new music they were making post OK Computer was any good to begin with? Or did it take time to grow on them too? If so, it’s a real leap of faith in a new and unchartered artistic direction.

Radiohead’s popularity was traditionally based largely on two ingredients: people liked it when Thom Yorke wailed, preferably in unambiguously emotive language, and when Jonny Greenwood strangled ungodly squeals from his guitar. Upon ditching both their USPs they not only confrontationally confounded expectations but embarked in a direction that would be unfamiliar territory for much of their fanbase. They knew it would take time for their audience to come round to Kid A, yet they didn’t issue any lead single which might have given listeners a head start. Like it or not, you’ve got to admire their chutzpah.

The success of Kid A makes me wonder how far this ‘brain rewiring’ principle can be stretched. Could any offensive or dissonant sound, however odd, be appropriated and be made enjoyable, given enough time?

Apparently some people enjoy Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Although Lou made grandiose claims about how it had been composed it still sounds like nothing more than obnoxiously abrasive noise. When I heard that there were fans of this album I thought they must be either as wilfully contrary as Lou Reed himself or else it must be what this album represented – a ‘fuck you’ to Lou’s record label – that they liked. I didn’t even consider that people would actually put the record on for enjoyment. But perhaps they’ve just gone through the ‘brain rewiring’ phase? And could I too grow to like it?


Metal Machine Music – easy listening? Judge for yourself

 

Some of my favourite records have been, for me, ‘growers’. I recall the first time I heard In The Aeroplane Over The Sea I thought it was awful. Not just something that wasn’t for me, but something I actively disliked. I couldn’t understand the adulation it was held in and I thought it could only be something people said they liked to show how contrary they were, to file alongside Metal Machine Music. But my reaction to it changed quite dramatically over the first half a dozen listens. And yet, ITAOTS didn’t really have any sounds that were unfamiliar to me. It was based around musical instruments and forms I was very used to. In this regard I can’t see that it needed any ‘brain-rewiring’.

Kid A had elements of music I was quite familiar with (krautrock), less familiar with (electronic music), and music I was fairly sure I didn’t like (jazz). And yet, for me, what shocked me most about Kid A was how little I was shocked. For sure, it didn’t sound like Pablo Honey, but it also didn’t sound like nothing I had heard before. I guess that, even having successfully ignored it for ten years, I’d still heard enough about it to know what to expect. But maybe we’re exposed to so much and so varied music nowadays that it’s all but impossible for there to be any unheard sounds out there.

And yet, the fact that Kid A rose from its initially mixed reception to topping many album-of-the-decade polls shows it is the grower par excellence, and suggests there is some inherent quality which would reveal itself if I just hung in there a while. But if there is it seems remarkably elusive. I know it quite well now – there’s the one with the annoying squawking brass, the one that sounds like it could’ve been on OK Computer, the instrumental one that drifts by and doesn’t do anything, the one they used to play at, um,  Idioteque… And there’s nothing I particularly find myself wanting to return to. If it wasn’t Kid A I wouldn’t have granted it a third listen.

This investment of time in what may be a lost cause is almost a thing of the past. When I was growing up, without the internet or a great deal of disposable cash, any CD that I spent my hard-earned on was guaranteed a fair few listens, so it was given the chance to become a grower. Nowadays, of course, music is so easily accessible and there is so much music I could listen to at the click of a finger that slow burners are rarely given this opportunity.


Neutral Milk Hotel – bad at first impressions?

 

The mutability of taste makes me wonder how many records could I have loved if I’d only stuck with them? If I repeatedly listened to Kind of Blue – which I have heard and did not enjoy – would I grow not only to like it but to appreciate the status which jazz fans regularly attribute to it? I strongly suspect not. I expect it would grow on me somewhat as familiarity set in, but I still can’t imagine it becoming a record I would choose to listen to.

So why do some records grow on you where others continue to leave you cold? There must have been something about In The Aeroplane Over The Sea that kept me coming back as it’s now one of my favourite records. On the other hand, of those that I give a chance at least as many turn out to be duds as repay the faith.

Part of this experimental laziness on my part comes down to, well, plain laziness. I already have far more of the music I already like than I have time to listen to it. Why should I invest time becoming familiar with a genre I may not even turn out to like? I’m perfectly happy not liking jazz, just as I will be if I don’t end up liking Kid A. But I find my realisation of this complacent attitude quite depressing, especially for someone who considers themselves a music lover. This “I know what I like” ethos sounds suspiciously like simply getting old. Perish the thought.

But maybe I am just reaching the point where my brain has been saturated with the sounds it enjoys hearing, and by continually reinforcing its positive feedback loop my brain really does know what it likes. This phenomenon happens to everyone. In fact, neuroscientists say that most people have formulated their tastes by the age of about 20. The brain’s positive feedback mechanism explains not only how we negotiate unfamiliar sounds but also why we prefer listening to the golden oldies, the most familiar and deeply ingrained musical experiences. So rather than stumbling around in the dark for ‘the new sound’ maybe I should concede that I can’t override my physiology and blast out the first record I truly loved, Definitely Maybe. After all, it is better than Kid A.

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