One night while working a shift in the small-town gas station that supported me through my 20s, I was commiserating with a regular customer about the crappy oldies station mewling from the speakers.
“So what kind of music do you listen to anyway?” he asked.
Seeing an opportunity for an experiment, I replied, “Give it a guess.”
He eyed me and finally said, “I don’t know… You look like the kind of girl who listens to Britney Spears or something. So pop music, I guess?”
This happens to me often. And it’s always intrigued the hell out of me. (That was the wrong answer, by the way.)
Music is a huge part of identity. There’s ample research on stereotypes based on music preference (i.e. the “you are what you listen to” thought process), but what about perceived music preferences based on stereotypes? And what happens when these perceived music preferences don’t align with our stereotypes of others?
Music journalist and metal music enthusiast Laina Dawes poignantly illustrates this in her interview with NPR. As a fan of both metal and rap music, her words really hit home for me.
There’s still a lot of resistance in terms of who should be listening to what genre of music based on their gender and their ethnicity,” Dawes says, “which does not make any sense to me.
Dawes has been a discredited metalhead most of her life because she’s black and a woman. She has also been discredited as a black woman because she listens to metal, as if she is betraying her own (stereotyped) identity. Dawes likens this to having her “cultural legitimacy” questioned.
My own experiences are by no means on the same scale, but I have garnered my share of incredulous, amused looks when I profess my love of metal music. “You do that headbang stuff, dress in all black, and do the make-up?” they ask with a wry grin. And rap or hip-hop? Forget it. Those don’t even compute for many people.
The interesting thing is the locus of friction I’ve received regarding my preferences in music. It comes not from fellow metal or rap fans but from people who don’t even listen to those genres. I’ve been accused of trying to impress guys, going through “a phase,” and even straight up lying.
Yet 15 years later, my speakers are still bumping the same stuff. This has to be the longest “phase” ever!
Music is more accessible today than it’s ever been, meaning more people are finding new genres with which they identify. Genre mash-ups will become more prevalent (here’s an example of classical meets rap). As a result, perceived music stereotypes will start to become fuzzy and blurred, and we’ll eventually see less stories like Dawes’ or my own.
In the meantime, how about we focus less on what someone likes and more on the why behind it? Odds are conversations about music with that frame of mind will lead to the discovery of commonality rather than difference.