In the never ending world of small talk and social formalities, simple get-to-know you questions are always asked. It starts with the necessities, gradually deepening either to the point that you realize you have no interest in speaking with this person on a deeper level or to where a genuine relationship is formed. In the midst of this social sparring, right at the point when your cheeks are starting to hurt from overemphasizing reactions to the other’s answers, is when the question is often asked. This question has haunted me for years. It is one that camouflages itself as an ally, but stabs you in the back in its near impossibility to answer. Yes it is posed after “where are you from?” and much before “what are you doing tomorrow?”, it is one that is specific, but general; it is “what kind of music do you like?”
For some of you, this may seem like nothing at all. A quick “oh a little bit of everything” or “whatever’s on the radio” or “everything except country and screamo” may suffice and this thread will be over. But for those of us who are music fans, pop culture fiends, who have paid less than 50 bucks for a concert ticket, or actually bought music at a store, this question becomes the 8 ball just waiting to be knocked into a pocket.
As soon as the last word of the question is uttered, panic floods into the mind. It’s like that scene in A Christmas Story when Ralphie has finally reached Santa’s lap and has been asked what he wants for Christmas; his mind goes blank and he screws the whole thing up! You want to say something, anything, but every single band you ever liked has been locked away and the key has gone missing. Only the easiest answers come to mind, “uh… rock. Yeah I listen to a lot of rock” (ROCK!?!? WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN?! ROCK!?!?)
Once you’ve gotten around the panic attack of again being asked this question and again not having an answer for it, the tricky part comes; figuring out how to shape the best answer for maximum impact. Does this person have a genuine interest in music and is looking to discuss your tastes with you? Is this person just asking you as a conversation starter? Is this a kind of person you should be vague with?
Discovering their intention is the best way to figure out your answer. If they don’t really like music all that much then starting with a broad answer and describing more specific artists and genres is usually a good way to be engaging without being snobbish. If you want to be snobbish then go all in with whatever you are most knowledgeable about, whether it be Christian emo bands, 60’s jazz, or psychedelic rock and you are sure to scare them off.
The most important part about this is getting the desired amount of engagement out of the conversation with the other person. Again, gauging the intention is an important first step, next is testing the waters. For our purposes we will assume that the other is someone who is fairly interested and knowledgeable about music, but certainly not the experts like we are. You want throw out something and see the other’s reaction to it. If you throw out “I like hip-hop” and the other person just goes “oh”, then there is no real reason to keep talking about it and it is probably best to change artists or genres. If they pull out a “like who?” or a “which era?” or even a “really?” (though they are certainly judging you at that point, but hey no shame) then you are ready to go deeper.
At this time, you probably want to throw out some more well known artists that you like to listen to. It’s best to do this in 3’s, getting vaguer and to the core of what you like with each artist listed (if you don’t like vague, lesser known artists, you’ve probably stopped reading). Here are some genre examples:
Jazz: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus
Hip-Hop: Kanye West, Drake, Killer Mike
Emo: Jimmy Eat World, Sunny Day Real Estate, Jets to Brazil
R&B: Usher, Frank Ocean, Miguel
Indie Rock: Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, Tame Impala
Punk: Blink-182, The Ramones, The Descendents
If any of these ring a bell to your conversation partner, expanding on albums or concert experiences becomes appropriate. If not, other genres or artists can be named.
In order that you don’t get stuck in the previously mentioned rut of not being able to think of any sort of music there are a couple of other quick potential go-to’s: consistents and new faves.
The consistents are bands or musicians that you can listen to at almost anytime. These tend to be broad, crowd pleasing artists though not necessarily bad ones. The Beatles or Beach Boys are always safe ways to buy yourself more time to think of more specific people.
New faves is self-explanatory and can be introduced by saying “Oh, lately I’ve been really into…” this allows you to be able to list whatever has been on your iPod or record player last before this conversation. This can even be combined with consistents and our genre rule of 3 like this:
“I love Bob Dylan, he’s one of my all time faves, but lately I’ve been listening to a lot of folk music like The Avett Brothers…Fleet Foxes…Kurt Vile”.
Probably the most important thing is throwing bait out for the other person to grab and continue the conversation, going deeper into the meaning and memories that music inspires. Perhaps the relationship will grow, the rhetoric will change; “what kind of music do you like” evolves into “hey, I really think you’ll like…” as mixtapes and playlists are swapped, really, isn’t this what we all want?