I spend a lot of time in my own head. I’ve always been fascinated by how things work — I spent large chunks of my childhood taking all the things in my family’s house apart and putting them back together, occasionally successfully — and what’s more logical to examine than yourself? The puzzling goes on at random times, all throughout the day. Ask a question — what causes this? Why do I react to stimulus X so? Why does Christina Hendricks not answer my phone calls? Ponder, a la Sherlock Holmes: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Accept the new knowledge, no matter how painful or accompanied by restraining order. Repeat.
There’s only one question that drives me nuts (because there are no stupid questions, just stupid questioners). “What’s your type?” Doesn’t matter whether you’re asking me about food or women or music — that question gets under my skin. Not because it’s a dumb question, but because I can’t figure out, even after all these years, quite how to answer it.
It was posed to me after college, when friends would try to set me up with dates (why anyone would subject their friends to a date with me is still a puzzle after all these years). “What’s your type?” I fairly quickly figured out that I don’t have a type – I appreciate a lot of different types of personalities and physical features. Tall or short, thin or curvaceous, analytical or fun-loving — they all have their place. There are traits I know that I don’t like — overly-judgmental, for instance, and narcissistic — but once you’ve eliminated the bad, there’s still a lot of wiggle room in the descriptive process.
It’s a really rough thing for me with music. I listen to so much music, constantly throughout my days, that I’m on a persistent, perhaps terminal search for new music. When I was a kid, it was easy, because I had only just broken the skin of the world of music, and there were seemingly infinite depths to plumb and explore. Throughout my teens, once I discovered that I loved guitar rock, the floodgates opened — I would read Circus and Hit Parade and Rolling Stone every month and buy music based on the reviews that seemed similar to what I liked. Interviews with Edward Van Halen in my guitar magazines would lead me to check out Eric Clapton’s work with Cream, and articles about Clapton introduced me to Jeff Beck. ‘Headbanger’s Ball’ and ‘120 Minutes’ were my weekly windows into new bands to check out.
Some time around the mid 90’s — coincidentally, around the time Nirvana and the grunge movement had thrown the last shovel of dirt on top of the plot for guitar-driven hair metal — I was running out of new stuff. And then I got onto the Internet, and discovered a whole new way to find new music. There were forums where you could ask people for recommendations, and Amazon’s “People also bought…” feature. And this is where I started discovering, again, that the “What’s your type?” question was something I couldn’t answer.
Some of it is a communication breakdown. Telling a stranger that I like heavier music opens the door to the definition of heavy; same with any term, really, as I kept discovering. Even giving examples didn’t help — if I said that I liked Dream Theater and Pink Floyd (both progressive, experimental, with a touch of psychedelic and a lot of cinematic), I would get recommendations for King Crimson, a band that also fits those same terms, but falls flat on my ears. Even my brother, who knows what I listen to, still can’t quite recommend a lot of bands to me, because while we agree that metal is awesome, we have different tastes on a more granular level.
One of the most promising tools for me was Pandora Radio. If you’ve not used it, it’s based on research into the genetics of music, breaking all the songs in their catalog down into pieces. When you create a station, you enter in bands or songs that you like, and Pandora will play you those tracks and a bunch of others that are similar. You can narrow the selection by giving the new tracks a thumbs-up or -down, and ostensibly the logic engine will learn your tastes. The problem for me, I finally decided, was that what I like is not based solely on those parts, but the way those parts are assembled into a bigger whole — and there’s not really a logic engine, I suspect, that can accurately analyze your tastes on that level.
Again, you can go the opposite route, eliminating things you don’t like in hopes of finding something you do like. Unlike with a potential dinner-and-a-movie date, though, there’s a lot better chance of missing out on something you’ll enjoy. I generally want melody in my vocals, and generally can’t stand the “Cookie Monster” vocals that are present in a lot of metal — but a friend turned me onto the second Dethklok album (the band from Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse) and it’s been in constant rotation in my playlists for two or three years. I am not at all a fan of country or country-influenced music, but two of my favorites over the last few years are The Avett Brothers and Wilco. On the local front, in spite of my general dislike of ’70s soul and R&B music, I will tell you without hesitation that The Big Tasties are one of the most enjoyable live acts in Birmingham.
At the end of the day, I guess I feel bad for the people who do have a type, and accept that without questioning it. Maybe it’s easier to walk into your record store and only browse one section, but I can’t imagine missing out on music, unheard, because it doesn’t fit your type.I suppose that if you’ve really looked hard at what you like, and maybe even figured out why you like (or dislike, or even feel ambivalent towards) what you do, then maybe you’re less likely to miss out. I kinda hope I never really hit that point, though.
I was about three when my dad started a project. He’s an engineer, and I’m fairly sure it’s from him that I get my obsession with figuring out how things work. I remember the TV he was building from a kit, and him explaining to me how televisions work. He was patient, and broke it down as much as one can break down an explanation of electricity and cathode tubes. Nonetheless, I couldn’t understand how all the bits of wire and glass and metal could be put together to make pictures and sound, and I was frustrated. It’s the same feeling now — even with twenty five years of playing music, and years studying music theory, and vast amounts of energy expended listening and relistening to songs after song — I just can’t figure out the way all the small pieces come together to make me feel whatever emotion my favorites make me feel.
I’d really like to figure it out, if only because it would make finding new tunes for my library much easier and less painful. But I suppose, maybe, that — like all good true art — music is ultimately immune to scientific analysis, and there’s no true core answer to the question of type, and why we like what we do.
(…and it’s this sort of analytic thinking that explains the amount of drinking I do…)