In which I shop genealogy
Recently I got way too worked up (as usual) over music (as usual). Or, not so much the music itself as the reason behind its place in my life. I was wondering about the way I’d come to appreciate certain genres and artists and whether it would have worked out like that had I not been exposed to them at a particular time or by particular people, and what that said about me.
The answer, it occurred to me shortly thereafter, is of course it wouldn’t have worked out like that. Nothing would have worked out like that. Everything would have been different. Such is life, a series of experiences and choices that alter our perception of the world and our own identities in varying degrees of magnitude, within and beyond our individual control. Every experience we have, every choice we make, spirals us off in unforeseeable directions and closes off one path even as it opens numerous others. It’s like decapitating a Hydra: several new heads spring up in place of the original.
I turned it into a neurosis because that’s what I do when I’m kept awake late at night by insecurity and vulnerability. But even in my righter mind I do think taste in music is a unique case study, being shaped so heavily and randomly by the people around us. The absorption of music is often passive; you hear it in the car or in the supermarket or in a movie you’ve elected to watch. You chose the movie: you didn’t choose its soundtrack (unless it’s The Big Chill). However many people recommend a book to you, it takes an active decision on your part to crack the spine. Music can be happening in the background, while you go about your life, and escape your notice until later. Sometimes much later. Sometimes only at the point where you do actively seek it out.
In my childhood, music frequently happened to me before I was aware of it. There were types I gravitated toward, which is common with kids (like Emma and “Baby Got Back” on Friends), but much of the time I simply filed away what I was hearing for future identification and/or examination. Well, not simply; subconsciously, at a level I wouldn’t tap into until my teen years and whose full scope I’m still registering even now. I was raised by people of an eclectic, far-reaching music appreciation, which they manifested in different ways; and I began, consciously and unconsciously, to imitate and synthesize those manifestations.
Somewhere along the line, aided by an overdeveloped inner censor, I got the idea that it must have looked horribly derivative, my cribbing methods of analysis and even artists themselves from the adults in my life, like I needed to be led to a thing (to be fair, I did not see well) instead of discovering it on my own, like I didn’t have an original bone in my body.
(Guess what? I don’t. My bones are made of converted stardust and the old bones of the previously deceased, as are yours.)
But that’s life too, isn’t it? Learning from your forebears and building on the foundation that they laid? Inspiration is a thing to be celebrated. When you inspire someone else to ‘discover’ something—a singer, a filmmaker, a hobby—you never regard it as their having stolen from you. You’re happy and fulfilled to have given the gift of your love to someone who could use it. And they won’t interpret that thing exactly as you do, because they’re a different person, no matter how much DNA you share. And if you do share DNA, and spend a lot of time together, the influence is bound to rub off. It’s a long game, an intergenerational improvisation, each enthusiast riffing on the material of the person they got it from. It’s one of the things that make life worth living.
That said, I wonder too about the actual hereditary potential of artistic taste. Can taste, in short, be inherited?
The people I’ve engaged in conversation about it say no. They’re probably right. I can’t say I’ve never wondered what life will be like if some future kid of mine hates the Beatles. But it isn’t nearly so simple or linear: children are aware of the way their parents are and alternately drawn to and repelled by those same traits or interests or tendencies at different points in their lives for different reasons. Sharing a connection through the music that you listen to isn’t a genetic guarantee, but it can be present without your noticing. In my case, it can be a bridge that was built for you long ago which you come back to cross every so often as a sort of promise to the people you love, a way of saying you’ll always be close and you recognize what they mean to you.
Genes alone aren’t enough to do that. Music can connect you to anyone at any time. It can form bonds that grow into chosen families. That type of experience is perpetually new for me. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the people it allows me to know, or the people I thought I knew whom I’m given the chance to get to know all over again.