May 8, 2016
Musical Favorites Reveal Most About A Person, New Book
This question, so deceptively simple, is explored to great and fascinating lengths in Tom Vanderbilt’s new book “You May Also Like: Taste in an Endless Age of Choice” (Knopf).
“I was simply feeling overwhelmed not only by choices, but what people were saying about those choices,” Vanderbilt tells The Post.
“A simple trip to a restaurant, or to a site like Amazon to buy a product, or to watch a movie on Netflix became like an epic quest,” he says. “What was the best? Whose opinion should I trust? I felt swamped by other people’s tastes, and I was trying to gain some sense, in essence, where all those preferences came from without simply saying, ‘There’s no accounting for taste.’ ”
As it turns out, there is and there isn’t. Our tastes range from innate to acquired, cultivated to contextual, adaptive to reactive.
Infants, long before they are verbal, express preferences: They stare at more attractive faces longer. Babies like the foods they like and refuse the ones they don’t. Children develop favorite colors and numbers, with no real reason to have either.
We adults are no less cryptic in our tastes. As Vanderbilt writes, we express preferences for such mundanities as toilet paper (hung over or under?), bathroom stalls (middle or end?), and even the color of his book jacket (blue or red?).
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“Liking is really about anticipation and memory. Even as you are looking forward to something, you are looking backward to the last time you enjoyed it. You can spend weeks waiting for ‘the meal of a lifetime,’ which will itself last a few hours . . . That so many people photograph their ‘memorable’ meals speaks not only to how fleeting the experience may be but to how photographing it helps actually make it memorable.”
We are all born with the same simple tastes: All infants love sweetness (breast milk, life) and have an aversion to bitterness (possible poison). It’s an evolutionary adaptation designed to keep us alive.
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Then, too, are our acquired tastes: Few people like the flavor of coffee or beer upon that first sip, but they force themselves to keep going until they actually experience pleasure.
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Just as we can likely guess someone’s socioeconomic background through the way that they talk or the state of their teeth, so we can through taste.
The expressions “good taste” and “bad taste” didn’t enter the lexicon until the 20th century, but ever since, Vanderbilt writes, “taste is social comparison.” More people will admit to listening to NPR than Howard Stern, or reading The New York Times to this very paper, though there is significant crossover with both.
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“If all I knew about you was the last five books you read, I probably wouldn’t know much,” chief engineer Glenn McDonald told Vanderbilt. “But if I knew the last five songs you listened to on a streaming service, I’d probably know a lot about you.”
Music is among the most personal, visceral taste we have, one we now engage with, thanks to smartphones, daily and intimately. As Vanderbilt points out, “People will talk about ‘my music’ in a way they do not talk about ‘my movies.’ ”
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The only constant when it comes to our tastes, Vanderbilt writes, is that they’re always changing. It’s our basic nature to seek out the new and the normal, the fantastic and the familiar.
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“Even when we look back and see how much our tastes have changed, the idea that we will change equally in the future seems to confound us,” he writes. “It is what keeps tattoo removal practitioners in business.”
The science of taste and why the music you like may be the most telling preference of all
By Maureen Callahan
New York Post
May 8, 2016 | 7:00am