The Awkward Ménage à Trois of Men, Women, and Music

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There he is — across the crowded dance floor, two rows down from you in a college lecture, cracking open a beer at someone’s house party: a cute guy wearing the T-shirt of your favorite band. It’s not love at first sight, probably, but it’s infatuation or at least curiosity. You’ll use that thing you have in common to start a conversation, one of you will mention that you were considering checking out a certain show Friday night, you’ll start following each other on Spotify, and sometime after that you’ll be deep into a relationship whose foundation is music.

In the annals of heterosexual romance, particularly heterosexual romance of the ever-so-slightly-left-of-center variety, this is an archetypal tale. But perhaps it’s jarring to hear it from the woman’s point of view, since the traditional teller is a man, who generally delivers it in tones of subtle incredulity. (“Can you believe it? I found that rare creature, a woman who knows about music — good music.”) It seems obvious that female music fans would be just as thrilled as their male counterparts to find someone who shares their taste in love songs, yet — as is so often the case — women’s desires rarely enter into the conversation. Instead, the implication is that we’re all just hanging around the record store waiting to be spotted by our next boyfriend.

The latest man to imply this is Dan Brooks, in Sunday’s alternately groan-worthy and redundant New York Times Magazine “Riff.” Brooks — in an essay our paper of record deemed fit to print in the year 2014 — bemoans the way streaming media has destroyed the “industry versus indie” distinction among music fans and ended the era when “esoteric taste was a measure of commitment.” Yes, for all intents and purposes, it’s a piece about how any asshole can listen to Brian Jonestown Massacre or Choking Victim these days, without flashing their neo-psych or crust-punk membership card.

Elitist temper tantrums of this sort have been the subject of decades’ worth of debates over snobbery in cultural (and especially music) criticism. But what’s worth examining, briefly, is Brooks’ complaining about how difficult the democratization of taste has made it for him to tell whether a woman might make a suitable mate. It starts with a jarringly harsh judgment about an academic’s apparently purposeful failure to put away a Stephen Malkmus CD (“It was a gutless choice, the act of a person who reads music magazines”) in advance of a party and just declines from there:

In college, I was horrified to learn that a smart and culturally sophisticated woman I had been dating owned just six CDs. I couldn’t comprehend how such a sensitive — and, given the circumstances, evidently charitable — person could not be interested in music. I felt like a sommelier walking into A.A. At a level of understanding since replaced by OkCupid match percentage, I knew I was taking a long shot. Years later, when my friends and I discussed the powerful and surely arbitrary forces that had kept us single, we toyed with the idea that “into music” was a deal-breaker quality in a mate.

Brooks makes a distinction between his judgmental youth — Stephen Malkmus! Six CDs!!! — and his more evolved adulthood, but goes on to describe subsequent relationships in a fashion that makes this seem disingenuous:

Last spring, I befriended a charming stranger on the basis of our mutual interest in the Slits. If you haven’t heard them, statistics suggest that you will enjoy their cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and nothing else. When she started talking about the import version of “The Peel Sessions,” I knew I had met somebody special. We went back to her apartment and played each other songs on Spotify for three hours. Thanks to the Internet, we both had all the same albums.

There’s so much in that little paragraph: the lighthearted condescension toward readers who haven’t heard of the Slits, the conflation of compatible musical knowledge with romantic compatibility. And, of course, there’s the puzzling reassurance that male music snobs can still find ways to connect with women who love music even in this dark age when (as Brooks laments later), “My record collection is no longer a lifestyle, a biography, a status.” Before the end of the piece, we’re also treated to a lengthy quote from LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” — seriously; I wish I were making this up — and the closing salvo, “Not content to ruin music for the first three decades of my life, the major labels have collapsed and ruined dating too. I will probably never forgive them, if I ever get around to forgiving myself.”

Brooks is performing a bit of ambivalence in this piece; he realizes that he’s being unreasonable, going so far as to admit that what he thought was his identity “turned out to be mere patterns of consumption.” What he’s dead-serious about, though, even if it makes him hate himself a bit, is the role musical taste plays in his love life.

In many ways, it’s hard to blame him for that. It’s not like women who love music don’t get a thrill out of meeting men who own our (potentially obscure, out-of-print) favorite album on vinyl too. Certainly, versions of the girl-meets-boy-in-T-shirt story have happened in my own life. There is even something to Brooks’ observation that, “Like all aesthetics, taste in music is a worldview” — although it certainly isn’t the only thing that should figure in to a healthy, well-informed worldview, which is why it’s possible to find people who go to all the same shows you do and are total dicks.

But the subtle misogyny of Brooks’ piece, his weird anger and instinctive glee at various women’s behavior around music, mostly feels like a symptom of the prominent but curiously superficial role cultural likes and dislikes often play in relationships, particularly heterosexual ones. “When getting into a band became as easy as typing its name into a search box, particular musical tastes lost their function as signifiers of commitment,” he writes, and the word “signifier” is more important than even its immediate context suggests. Throughout the piece, Brooks treats music as a signifier of — as shorthand for — real, deep connections between men and women, yet he never quite gets at what sharing an appreciation for the Slits actually means to him and that “charming stranger” he describes.

What’s lost in Brooks’ empty examples is the actual intimacy of getting to know someone through the art they love, whether or not you come into the relationship sharing that love with them. Watching their favorite movies, hearing their favorite songs, listening to a playlist they made just for you: those are all attempts at earnest communication. And in a culture that’s damagingly obsessed with the idea that men and women don’t even speak the same language, that matters emotional and sexual and practical demand that couples seek the advice of various highly paid translators, art can feel like a lingua franca. When a man exclaims, “I met a girl who likes [band name here]!,” he might as well be saying, “I met an alien who speaks English — which is really good news because the future of our species kind of depends on me finding a way to communicate with aliens!” (Men are, in our confused world, just as alien to women as women are to men, but the culture-wide assumption that men are the keepers of musical, film, etc. knowledge makes men especially incredulous in situations like this.)

There are non-trivializing ways to form a relationship around a mutual interest, whether it’s music or anything else. But in Brooks’ essay, record stores and CD binders are just a way for women to signal to the author that she’s a member of his tribe. This is commodity fetishism as mating dance, and what it says about love these days is as depressing as the (closely related) realization that the identity you’ve constructed for yourself amounts to “patterns of consumption.” If music is becoming less of a product and more of a public good, we might all do well to stop whining about how it’s killing our sex lives and start hoping this shift hasn’t come too late to fix them.