We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the holiday cards that bounced back because our friends never gave us a forwarding address is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, how to deal with classic albums that do nothing for us.
Kyle Perry writes: "Do you ever feel obligated to return and re-listen to something that you don't like, but that everyone says is great? I just can't seem to love and adore In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel, but it seems like everyone in my life insists that it's great, so I've tried multiple times to get into it. At what point do you give up and concede that something that's critically or popularly acclaimed is just not good to you?
I think you're just about there: You've listened to your friends; you've listened to the record; you've tried. Great music isn't great to everyone — it simply can't be. Great music stirs intense emotions, and intense emotions are destined to polarize, or they wouldn't necessitate intensity.
Now, I do happen to think that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a masterpiece, and it's certainly one of my favorite albums of the last 15 or 20 years. But I'm not coming to it cold. I found it on my own and I fell in love with it at my own pace, under pressure from no one, on headphones, during solitary walks. It came to me a little late, when I was ready to come looking for it — I was ready for its passion and intensity and sideways beauty, and the mystery of it transfixed me. But that doesn't make me "right" or "wrong" about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea; if it were made for everyone to love, that fact would alienate the people it now attracts.
I'm a big fan of "not for me" as a descriptor — tinged with a hint of disappointment rather than defiance. It bugs me when I don't love something that's supposed to be great! I like loving things! This past summer, I dragged myself to a Lumineers concert because I wanted to interrogate my reflexive dislike of the group's music; it didn't help, but I still do my absolute best not to dump on The Lumineers' music around friends who rave about the band. It's just that it's Not For Me.
Finally, while this isn't true in all cases, it doesn't hurt to revisit classic records at different times in your life, whether you love them or not. When I was in my early 20s, Tom Waits was squarely in the Not For Me bin. I just needed life to smack me around a little bit before his music meant to me what it was meant to mean.
Katherine Thompson (no relation) writes: "I always have trouble answering people who ask, 'What kind of music do you like?' What's a good way to answer that question, without being overly vague ("Um... pop, rock, punk, indie, classical"), unnecessarily negative ("Oh, everything, except for metal, country, trance or reggae") or oddly specific ("You know, artists like The Clash, or Belle & Sebastian, or Queen, or Green Day — but, I mean, only early Green Day, not their mainstream stuff")?
If you come up with a perfect answer to this question, let me know! Same goes for "What bands are you loving right now?" — a question which once stumped me, on national television, to such a degree that I still get mocked by the few friends I've allowed to see the footage.
For your specific question, I generally recommend keeping a few self-deprecating gags in your back pocket. I used to answer "What kind of music do you like?" with silly generalizations along the lines of "Oh, you know, sad-bastard music, by and for emotionally stunted men in their 30s," or "Anything in which bearded men have feelings while a woman from Portland plays a cello" — if nothing else, that sort of gag deflects from the conversational expectation that you're going to start listing and ranking obscure bands, in order of coolness.
But these days, I often revert to sweeping generalities — "Anything that evokes intense emotions," "Any music I can feel in my blood," that sort of thing. Mostly, that particular kind of question is a litmus test in only the most general sense: The person, whom you've likely just met, is usually just looking for any answer that doesn't boil down to, "Music? Bleh."