There are those awkward moments – first dates, first grad school seminars, standing around at a conference mixer uncomfortably trying to find something to talk about not related to work or politics – when the question of musical taste invariably arises: “So what kind of music do you like to listen to?” I ask this question of my students, as a teaching moment, in the first class of the history of American popular music. They mumble, fidget awkwardly, glance uncomfortably around the room.
“What kind of music do you like?” is, in fact, an impossible question for all but that small minority of people who listen to the same two-or-three songs on shuffle. On one hand, it presumes that one’s tastes are narrow enough to come down to a single category. Already today, I have listened to Prince, Joy Division, Charlie Byrd, Anouschka Shankar, Shostakovich, and Luciano Berio; I’m not sure what category they all fall into except maybe “music.” On the other hand, it presumes that categories can be easily defined at all.