For now, though, ten questions are sufficient, and the first is the most obvious, fundamental, and telling: When do you listen to music? That is, do you play the radio while driving or sweeping the kitchen or doing any number of other things that require at least some fraction of your attention, or are you more of an appointment listener, someone who treats the absorption of music as an activity in and of itself?
Streaming services like Pandora and Spotify have made it easier than ever to zone out and let other people or even algorithms pick your playlist. Listeners can go entire days soaking in music their brains barely register. Pandora says it sounds like Tom Petty, and as long as it doesn’t interfere with updating Excel spreadsheets or killing time on Facebook, that’s good enough.
That leads to No. 2, an oldie but a goodie: Do you listen to lyrics? Blessed are those who can like songs purely for “rhythm and melody” — the “only things that matter these days,” as the stodgy old man says midway through Big Audio Dynamite’s 1991 hit “Rush.” Non-lyrics folk are more forgiving of bad poetry and more prone to liking disposable Top 40 pop, and on the flip side, they’re less likely to be bothered by the vagaries of critically lauded artists. Take R.E.M.: Few dispute the brilliance of their early albums, but so mumbled is Michael Stipe’s delivery and so convoluted are his lyrics that it can be hard to establish a real emotional connection. There’s a mysterious aching magic in Stipe’s vocals, and that’s the draw, but all it really takes to enjoy Murmur or Reckoning is a hankering for a great hook.
Speaking of hooks, how ravenously you crave them says a lot about your attitude toward music, and it factors into this next question: Are you an album or a singles person? And this feeds directly into the next one: Are you a streamer or an owner? If the digital download is faring better than the CD, both are dying, and these days, most people get their music via streams — YouTube, Soundcloud, or subscription services — or niche physical formats like vinyl and cassette.
This stands to widen the gap between serious and casual music fans, as MP3s were a kind of middle ground, a way to “own” the music without fussing with pieces of plastic. As the MP3 fades into obscurity — and if you don’t think it is, ask yourself why the RIAA has stopped going after file sharers — former CD rippers and buck-a-song iTunes downloaders will splinter into one the two aforementioned camps. This may boost both Spotify and Beats Music subscriptions and vinyl sales, though free services like YouTube and Soundcloud, not to mention the ISPs we all pay for fast access to these things, may emerge as the true winners. (No one will buy that triangular thing Neil Young is hawking.)
But that’s all bean-counter industry stuff. Whether you’re into streaming singles or strapping on the headphones and sitting through entire LPs, it’s useful to consider the following: Can you separate artists from their art? You might call this “The R. Kelly Conundrum,” and while he’s hardly the first morally suspect pop star brilliant enough to earn a free pass from large segments of the listening public, the Pied Piper of R&B is one of today’s most divisive artists. To wit: “Ignition (Remix)” is one of the greatest songs of all time, but if you’d rather not get down with a dude who’s been accused of peeing on an underage girl, not even Jimmy Fallon’s barbershop version is going to win you over.
The same question applies to supervillains Ike Turner and his modern equivalent, Chris Brown. To a lesser extent, it spills over to filterless loudmouths like Ted Nugent, who lives to provoke. Also: Thurston Moore, whose admissions of infidelity have shocked a generation and ignited all sorts of online debates about feminism and the complexities of love.
Drama of the Brown and R. Kelly variety tends to grab national headlines, but things like Moore’s affair and Nugent’s batshit tweets get reported on music blogs, not on the nightly news. Hence, this next question: How closely do you follow music? With this one, a case study is useful. By the time Arcade Fire dropped Reflektor last October, many music obsessives had grown weary of the pre-release hype. The graffiti and secret messages and top-secret fancy-dress warehouse shows were a little much, but if you’re not someone who hits refresh on Pitchfork all day, it’s possible you came to the record with little or no knowledge of the massive PR campaign.
If you’re not someone who reads the blogs, you might have discovered Arcade Fire’s latest via SNL or even the radio. Such traditional outlets still do a decent job of disseminating new music, but if they’re your go-to sources, you probably missed Chance the Rapper, Deafheaven, and Touche Amor — three of the best-reviewed artists of last year, according to Metacritic. That leads to the next question: Do you seek out new music? This doesn’t necessarily mean checking Brooklyn Vegan and the Fader every morning — it can be as simple as asking friends for recommendations or merely being open to the possibility of welcoming into your life albums you haven’t been rocking since high school or college.
It’s been said most people stop buying new music at the age of 26, and as tempting as it can be to fall back on old favorites, the pains and joys of adulthood aren’t the same as the ones experienced in adolescence. For some folks, they require their own soundtrack. Others find in, say, Under the Table and Dreaming expressions of heartbreak and exultation sufficient to last a lifetime — “Ants Marching” on and on until the end of time.
So you’ve got open ears — how open are they? That’s the gist of the next question: Are you an eclectic listener? For as much guff as indie fans get for perpetually championing sad, sexless guitar bands staffed by floppy-haired dudes in Western shirts, they’re more likely to dig Kendrick Lamar, YG, and A$AP Rocky than hip-hop heads are to embrace the National or Vampire Weekend. (Whether that’s testament to the open-mindedness of rock fans, the superiority of modern hip-hop, or the current cultural cachet of having broad musical tastes is a whole other question worth considering.)
As far as mainstream listeners are concerned, this post-“Hey Ya”/“Crazy”/“Get Lucky” age of ubiquitous dance beats and strange collabs — Miley vibing with hip-hoppers, Mary J. Blige playing house diva for Disclosure, Pharrell and Danger Mouse competing with Damon Albarn, Dan Auerbach, and Diplo to see who can kill the idea of categorization faster — has blurred the lines between genres as never before.
The world still has plenty of purists, but for every metalhead unable to fathom music not made with guitars, there are 50 who scroll past Lady Gaga and Lil B to get to Liturgy in their iTunes library. (Well, maybe just 15, but still…)
Of course, at-home listening is only part of the equation. Just as the market for recorded music has evolved, the concert industry has undergone radical transformations in the last decade. What it boils down to is this: Can you tolerate (and maybe even enjoy) festivals? Every year, more and more of these three-day things pop up, and with the exception of genre-specific events like Ultra and the Austin Psych Fest, they’re all pretty much the same. That’s great news if you want to see the Black Keys and Vampire Weekend and don’t mind muddying up a pair of shoes and standing up for ten hours, but not everyone has that kind of endurance.
If the average fest offers five bands you really want to see and 20 you’ll nod along to while dicking around with your phone, one might ask, why not save your money and just go see those five bands when they tour your area in the colder months?
One last question: On your way out of a great show, do you hit the merch booth? What this one aims to capture is how invested you are in the music you listen to. Are there fashion and lifestyle components to your listening? On one end the spectrum, you find the hyper-committed members of music-based subcultures — crust punks, hip-hop heads, mods, metalheads, rockabillies, psychobillies, hardcore kids, etc. Way down on the other end are people who might own a concert tee or two but wouldn’t dream of linking their identities to sounds made on guitars and drums. That attitude is hardly unjustified. After all, Broadway nerds and film-noir freaks don’t go around dressing like Cats characters or Humphrey Bogart. Why should music inspire such intense levels of devotion?
Maybe it’s because pop music can infiltrate and enrich your life in so many different ways. As the preceding ten questions attest, you can absentmindedly hum along to whatever Alicia Keys or Fleetwood Mac song Pandora thinks you’d be into, or you can spend the drive to Bonnaroo lecturing your friends on why the R. Kelly songs they’re always streaming make them bad feminists. Or maybe you’re in the backseat, reading Record Collector and wondering what rare Smiths single you should scoop up next.