Why We Like What We Like : All Songs Considered Is our ability to like something inextricably linked to whatever scene or cultural movement is typically associated with that thing?  All Songs Considered Producer Robin Hilton wonders why we like the music we like, and sneer at everything else.
NPR logo Why We Like What We Like

Why We Like What We Like

The other day I was speeding up and down the streets of D.C. listening to whatever random song my iPod felt like playing for me, when this song by Shout Out Louds came up.  I immediately loved it, but just as quickly realized that I didn't really know the song at all, or what album it was from.  So I fumbled for my iPod, hit "now playing" and found that it wasn't Shout Out Louds at all.  It was a cut called "In Between Days" by The Cure, from the 1985 album The Head On The Door.  And I don't even like The Cure.

"In Between Days" by The Cure


"Tonight I Have To Leave It" by Shout Out Louds


In these videos, the Shout Out Louds cut has a bit more zip to it.  But the voices, chord progressions and melodies could easily be from either band.

This happens to me all the time.  As an avowed loather of '80s pop music, I'm constantly running into songs and artists making music now whom I love, and who sound exactly like everything I hated 25 years ago.  This is particularly true of a lot of the synth pop that's been coming out in recent years by groups such as The Knife or Passion Pit.

Bands are always recycling sounds from previous generations, so it's not at all surprising that a lot of artists today crib from the '80s (and all the other decades).  But why does it work for me now when it didn't before?  And the truth is, all these years later, even though I like a lot of the same sounds in music being made today, I still can't go back and allow myself to enjoy a band such as The Cure... or Duran Duran, or Wham, or any other group from back then.

Why we like what we like is one of life's great mysteries, and one we'll likely never unlock.  But I was talking about this conundrum with Bob and he theorized that our ability to like or not like something is inextricably linked to whatever scene or cultural movement is typically associated with that thing.  And a lot of music is very often tied to a scene.  Punk had the spiked mohawks, studded leather and body piercings.  Grunge had the bed-head hairdos, ratty jeans and flannel shirts.  Both scenes were rooted in real or imagined rebellion.  And, said Bob, if we didn't or don't like the scene, it's hard to really embrace its music.

I'm not sure I entirely agree.  I mean, I loved Pink Floyd as a teenager and everyone assumed I must have been a hippy stoner, since that was the scene surrounding psychedelic music.  But I wasn't, partly because I thought I was too cool for scenes.  Being part of a scene was just a way to show the world you were different or (as Stephen Thompson always says) a unique little snowflake.  But in joining a given scene, you had to wear whatever uniform it dictated (like the leather and wildly colored hair of punk, or torn jeans and grunge).  It was showing you were a non-conformist by conforming to someone else's ideas.  In the case of The Cure, everyone I knew who loved the band tried to be like frontman Robert Smith, with lots of eyeliner, black clothes and hair sticking out in every direction.  I remember thinking it was all a load of baloney.  This made it nearly impossible for me to ever give the music a fighting chance.

The scenes fade but the sounds remain.  And for a lot of us, as we grow older, we let go of whatever attitudes drove us to like one thing and dislike another.

So is it age and maturity that makes it easy to detach the music from fashion and hipness and just embrace the music? Why DO we like what we like or better yet, sneer at what we sneer at?

Is there music today that you dismiss simply because the surrounding scene is just a turnoff?