A long time ago, there was a clan of unidentifiable, indistinct people. Nothing about them fit with what we knew and valued, and grouping them together felt like a defective game of Tetris. We even had trouble identifying them because they weren’t really a “they.” Some of them wore paisley scarves and prefered Satre to John Green — but some of them didn’t. Some of them cuffed their jeans — but some of them didn’t.
Some of them liked music that would later be coined “alternative emo,” “progressive rock” or “acid jazz” and engaged in politics that would be considered anarchist or counter-culture — but some of them didn’t. We couldn’t understand it, so we decided on an all-encompassing, grounding word to describe the unknown, the other: We called them “hipster.”
It had a nice ring to it, “hipster.” Yeah, that felt right. Crisis averted. We could eat our TV dinners in peace.
We’ve never been good at dealing with things we can’t explain. The insoluble feels weird, stuffy — is it hot in here?
In music, we came up with words like “ambient” or “experimental” to denote a foreign and overpowering feeling. We felt okay with this, and progressively more and more okay when we came up with subdivisions, and sub-sub-divisions and astounding neologisms that seemingly “just hit the spot.” We felt okay knowing there was some order to the evil, dark, scary, weird deviance. We felt good finding more and more holes for the rampant, swarming pigeons of our own emotion.
Our incessant need to categorize should come as no surprise. It’s undeniably “human” to designate areas and create harsh distinctions between “us” and “them,” to create unified groups that make us feel good about ourselves and remind us we have a place — that we are loved and heard or that wearing a black studded skirt is okay.
“It’s not too weird, right?”
“No — it’s like fun and kinda punk.”
This phrase has multiplied itself into thousands of derivatives and all of them follow the same form: Don’t worry, there is a place for you. There is a place for that, and this, and me and all the rest. We rake through the weird to find the normal golden nugget, the beacon of understanding, the one indicator of which we can make sense.
If you prefer all-black clothing, most likely you’re not a witch — that was laid to rest in Salem — but ostensibly, you must listen to Black Sabbath. Oh, you don’t listen to Black Sabbath? Then what are you doing dressed all goth?
We’ve all felt the wheels turning in our heads as we come to conclusions that surprise us. No one is asking you to protest human nature. It’s in our best interest, our hairy caveman survival instinct, to make those elementary distinctions: to sort, to separate good from bad, poisonous from edible, man from bear, etc.
But we can transcend that instinct. It just requires a second step — a flittering moment of cognition where we stop and slow down while the rest of the world keeps turning and, in the uncomfortable blaze, ask ourselves, “Do I even like this?” We seem to lose sight of what it is we appreciate and love if it presents itself unfiltered, untagged or aimlessly free-floating.
Sorting music into genres feels arbitrary. I still don’t know what “post-punk” is and I reference it all the time. It seems crazy to me that I think of specific form when I think of “abstract” art. And while it may serve to declutter, does it actually? There is value — great value — to things that exist without genre and tag. Reducing them is dilutive.
Consider a really punk band. I mean really, really punk. They’ve got the whole package — the explosive drum lines, the grating lyricism, the autoscopic performance — but they’re not all in spikes and they don’t have mohawks and not all of them are wearing all black and they’re actually smiling in interviews. In fact, one of them is happily married with three beautiful blond children and one of them used to work in a hedge fund.
Does that make them less punk? Does that make their band less punk? These variables included, are they any less authentic? Maybe to some. But what’s the marking point for authenticity? Do their unrelated, personal choices strip them of their artistic genuinity? Why are you the judge?
Don’t ever feel like you have to pretend to like stuff for yourself, or worse, for other people. Trust your instinct. Never feel you have to spend time on something “just because” or because you feel you “should.” There is no “should” in preference. You can listen to music independent of whatever aesthetic you’ve promised Instagram. Find stuff that tugs at you, music you feel you couldn’t live without — music that would land you headfirst into a psychotic episode should they ever be removed from your iTunes library, bedside vinyl collection or Spotify. That’s the stuff to care about. It’s too exhausting to pretend for anything less.