Few pleasures are as intoxicating as arguing with the people you love. I’m not talking about fighting–not about conflict nor heartbreak nor even genuine friction. I’m talking about spirited disagreement. I’m talking about dropping something you adore at the feet of someone you also adore and then watching them kick it. Yet, miraculously, instead of crushing your offering, kicking it becomes a way of engaging it–not perhaps with the kind of engagement you’d hoped for, but an engagement nonetheless. It invites you to kick back.
Music is a longstanding source of this kind of disagreement. As Carl Wilson observes in his brilliant little book on Céline Dion and musical taste, Hell is other people’s music. Speaking personally, as someone whose musical knowledge tends both woefully partial yet embarrassingly obscure, it’s often the case that sharing a special track with a special person accomplishes little more than transforming the glint in their eye into a blank stare. My musical selections have been known to turn “I love you” into “What is wrong with you?” in 45 RPMs or less. “What is wrong with you!?” I reply. From there, though we do not groove to the same beat, we fall nonetheless into the familiar steps of an intimate dance.
Somewhere around 2003, I first saw the t-shirt bearing the phrase I borrowed for this story’s title. It captured perfectly the style of disagreement I’m describing. It’s an antagonism, to be sure, but one whose overblown assertion is tinged with self-mockery. It’s an open confrontation, clearly announcing “I do not like what you like.” But its openness allows some emphasis still to fall on “you.” This slogan is aware that one cannot help but be engaged with the addressee of disagreement. Or, as the playground wisdom of grade school reminds us, the boys are only teasing you because they like you.
My theories about musical disagreement were put to the test not long ago when a tune got stuck in my head. It was a swell of upbeat, percussion-backed melody whose words, I was pretty sure, were “Change, change, change.” Humming it as I walked along, I eventually placed it as a few bars from “A Murder of One,” the final song on the 1993 Counting Crows debut album, August and Everything After. It was an album I’d memorized by mid-1994 and then gradually forgotten in the decades since. But as the impassioned echolalias of youth run freely through my head, songs like this turn up from time to time. I tend to greet them with heady reminiscence and glee.
To find a good-quality version of the song, one need only look into the arms of nostalgia’s great handmaiden, Youtube. But I did one better: I shared the link to my friends on Facebook. Why, I asked myself, walk down memory lane alone when we can skip along together, arm-in-arm?
Posting this link produced a sizeable Facebook thread, yet (though I should have seen this coming) the responses to the song were mixed. Some friends identified heavily with the sound, the album, the ’90s, the feeling of being young at that time. Others expressed surprise, some questioning my taste, doubting that I could have liked this music or that I was that kind of person. As I understood it, these friends were not expressing indifference–though when you’re locked out of someone else’s nostalgia, the experience is often one of staring in through the windows and feeling rather unconcerned you’re not at that particular party. Instead, these friends were expressing genuine dislike.
This was a bit dumbfounding. Sure, I knew that people often disagree with me about music, but it somehow never occurred to me that people spend their time actively disliking Counting Crows. I say this not because they’re so awesome, but because, really, who cares? My affirmative investment was fueled by nostalgia, and that’s a powerful drug. But what was powerful enough to make someone hate a band that had been fallow so long its cultural irrelevance was nearly old enough to drink?
How rose-tinted were my glasses, anyway? I determined to listen to the album again in earnest in order to see.
After more than a dozen plays over a couple of weeks, I feel confident that, musically, August and Everything After doesn’t suck. The compositions, the melodies, the musicality, the variety of instruments and variations on chords are all better than they needed to be for a pop album in 1993. There’s not much here that’s radical, but there’s a lot here that’s beautiful. The lyrics, meanwhile, are as poetic as a kid who spent the early ’90s discovering his parents’ Simon and Garfunkel records could hope. And having now lived enough adult life that things like sex and heartbreak are no longer as hypothetical as they were for me in 1993, I think this album has some truth to tell. One line in the once much-overplayed second single, “Round Here,” for example, goes “She says she’s tired of life / She must be tired of something,” sung with a screeching and desperate rise on the last three syllables. One doesn’t usually encounter that kind of accuracy-without-precision this side of the thrill of making bad choices or, if you’re lucky, working them through in therapy.
Whether or not Counting Crows is your jam, by no standard measure is their first album objectively bad. There just isn’t much here to inspire hate. After thinking on it for a few days, the worst thing I could imagine having said about it in 1993 was that it was too commercial. But this would make it anodyne, not loathsome. Meanwhile, what we thought was “too commercial” in 1993 is laughably indy by today’s standards. So what, really, was the problem? What was with all the hate? What are we really talking about when we talk about not liking a particular band?
I’d like to be able to tell you that my Facebook friends were only teasing me because they liked me. But if that were true, presumably they could be using social media to tease me about all kinds of things that I post there: bad teaching stories, for instance, or pictures of me spooning my twenty-pound dog. But it’s music that seems to inspire a particular kind of ribbing. (I mean, “Your favorite dog sucks” just doesn’t have the same ring.) At stake here was more than just an issue of taste.
We tend to grant outsized significance to other people’s music preferences. A friend once met a guy who was perfect in every way, but for his near deal-breaking attempt to woo her with tickets to a Barry Manilow concert. (Reader, she married him, but she didn’t yield control of the iPod DJ at the wedding.) It’s hard to imagine someone’s favorite poet or painter mattering as much as someone’s favorite band. Or, to quote Carl Wilson again, “it turns out I am not so bothered by having strangers hear me have sex, compared to how embarrassed I am by having them hear me play Let’s Talk About Love over and over.”
Music is about taste, sure, but it’s a particular kind of taste that for many people connects powerfully with their self-identity. Musical taste intersects with things like race, gender, class, sexuality, and (probably especially) age. Whether or not we like a band or a song has a lot to do with where and who we were when we encountered it. Our musical tastes are bound to our experiences. Undoubtedly part of my own nostalgia for Counting Crows has something to do with the time I saw them play at the Greek Theater in Berkeley in what was probably October of 1994, and, approaching the end of the set in which they’d restlessly played nearly every song on their only album, they broke into an unwonted cover of Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” an act of sub-generic musical translation that, I’m totally embarrassed to tell you, blew my young mind.
Counting Crows is definitely not my favorite band. Until a few weeks ago, they were not a band I had really thought about in 20 years. But they once meant enough to me that I feel protective of them (or, I suppose, of whatever I once felt for them) all these years later. When someone tells me they suck, it’s hard not to hear that some part of me sucks too.
Luckily, however, there’s no real need to defend them, or me. When my friends tell me that my music sucks, they may indeed be telling me that there are parts of me which they don’t like. But there are clearly enough parts of me which they do like that we’re still talking. Friendship accommodates the small disagreements of taste and experience that we often shorthand as personality. Fighting about music connects us just as much as sharing music. The affects are different, but the effects are the same.
A few weeks ago, I found myself lying on a new lover’s bed, listening to music. We compared notes about our favorite bands, and somewhere pretty far down the list, and entirely because I was writing this story, I asked about Counting Crows. He admitted to having liked them in the ’90s and agreed they held up surprisingly well. “But,” he said to me, not quite meeting my eyes, “you realize this means we’re on the wrong side of history?” I kissed him.
–Jordan Alexander Stein: educates the future leaders of tomorrow at Fordham University and tweets @steinjordan
[…] * And teach the controversy: Your Favorite Band Sucks. […]