Like many others who grew up in the digital age and are now incapable of holding a conversation, I have a rehearsed answer for when someone asks me what type of music I listen to. More accurately, I have a flexible repertoire of about three to four answers, which I like to switch up depending on the situation and the audience. Pro tip: It’s best to bring up a genre that is close enough to the other person’s interests without actually overlapping into their area of expertise. Don’t try to talk lo-fi hip-hop to a kid in an anime shirt and an Adidas beanie; they’ll eat you alive.
More often than not, though, I revert back to this: “Oh, I’m mostly into older stuff.” It’s the perfect answer, a catch-all that could encompass virtually anything while still sounding intelligent and niche. How old is “older stuff,” exactly? Who knows? Who cares? Just drop some popular names that your parents would consider basic — Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan — then mix in a few that would be obscure to your average middle schooler — Creedence Clearwater Revival, Rod Stewart, Stone Temple Pilots — and you’re all set.
In my defense — because the level of calculation here is starting to sound like a red flag — I really do like most of these artists. (Sorry, Stone Temple Pilots.) I grew up with friends who would listen to ’60s protest music and roll down the car windows if they knew “Thunder Road” was up next on their Born To Run CD. I used to joke that Billy Joel was passed down on my father’s side, and the Smiths on my mother’s. Music is a sort of inheritance from the people I love, and more importantly, a way for me to connect with them, even through something as simple as putting on an old song they used to like.
Therein lies the problem. Music is and always has been an incredible form of connection. We hear it when we’re out at a restaurant or a store, we hear it at parties, we show it off to our friends. It’s a status symbol, a badge of pride, a mark of loyalty or rebellion. We listen to it communally, and so we respond to it communally. It sparks conversation and argument, not just in the political sense, but also quite literally. It all goes back to that generic, day-to-day question: “What type of music are you into?”
I can’t remember when I started approaching these questions like a battle tactician. I prepare for them. I steel myself against them. I do everything in my power to make sure I get out alive and unscathed, as though there is something legitimately at stake in small talk that’s barely a step up from discussing your major. It’s a preemptive measure against something I can barely even name. Alienation, I think. The feeling when everyone in the room knows what’s going on but me, when everyone knows the song and dance and I’ve forgotten how to move my feet. So why not leave the modern world before it can leave me? If music is a conversation, then I can block my ears to everyone around me; I commune only with the past.
It would be one thing if this whole “born in the wrong generation” bit was more genuine and I just didn’t like modern music. But as much as I adore my gentle folk and Americana playlists on Spotify, I can probably tell you more about Broadway than I can about Peter, Paul and Mary. And yeah, maybe I think there are some good songs going around on TikTok right now.
Instead, I’ve just been using the past — and all its wonderful music — as a place where I can hide when I don’t like it here. And I’m tired of that, quite frankly. I’ve been tired of it for a while. I’m no musical expert, nor am I some smug hipster whose music taste is so much more cultured than yours. I routinely forgot the difference between Bob Dylan and Bob Marley until my sophomore year of high school. I only know one song from Stone Temple Pilots, and that’s because my mom played it for me. And the real secret? The last five songs I liked on Spotify weren’t from ’60s protest icons. They were a “A Ray of Sunshine” by Wham!, “Roxanne” by Arizona Zervas, “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne, “Memory” from the 2019 “Cats” movie and the theme song from “Peaky Blinders.”
So there it is. The real me. A 2000s girl who likes songs from historical drama shows, “Cats” and sometimes Wham! It’s a complete mess of a music taste, but it feels present in a way; it helps define me in the here and now, just as “Thunder Road” defined my childhood friends and my parents before me. I doubt that talking about movie musicals will make me hit at parties, but I’m honestly all right with that. I’m happy just to be a part of the conversation.
Lauren Sheehan-Clark writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on the relationship between art and history. Contact her at [email protected].