A study that finds ‘agreeable’, ‘neurotic’ and ‘open’ types are fans of the same artists misses the point of music – and people.
Does music taste reflect personality? A study from the University of Cambridge involving 350,000 participants, from 50 countries, across six continents, posits that people with similar traits across the globe are drawn to similar music genres. So, “extroverts” love Ed Sheeran, Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake. The “open” thrill to Daft Punk, Radiohead and Jimi Hendrix. The “agreeable” are into Marvin Gaye, U2 and Taylor Swift. The “neurotic” enjoy, presumably as much they can, the work of David Bowie, Nirvana, and the Killers. And so on.
While the study doesn’t claim to be definitive, how strange to be allotted only one personality trait/genre each. It sounds like Colour Me Beautiful for music. “What sound best goes with my personality? Did you bring along swatches?” Certainly, back when I worked for the New Musical Express, journalists, musicians and readers alike resisted being wrangled into such rigid categories.
Most half-serious music fans would consider their tastes eclectic. Which seems more feasible than a distinct personality type exclusively cleaving to one genre, and this being faithfully replicated across the globe. The idea of, say, an English person, an Argentinian and a South African, separately thinking: “I feel alienated. I will signal that by performatively listening to Nirvana’s Nevermind. For ever!” To me, this is not how people are. This is not how music works.
Music taste, like the humans who possess it, seems built from a dizzying array of variables. What is your age, sex, background? Growing up, what was the dominant culture, and did you subscribe to it? Were/are you rebellious? Political? Apolitical? Withdrawn? Hedonistic? A loner? Do you feel more “yourself” in the real world, or online? When you select a song, are you happy, miserable, in love, heartbroken, angry? Or none of the above – just trying to chill while you make dinner, thanks. That’s pertinent, actually: where you are when you listen to music, what you’re doing. Working out. Driving. Strolling. Reading. Work. Leisure. In a pub or at a club. Lying in a darkened room, with AirPods in.
This is a key difficulty with personality-typing music: at any one time, listening can be affected by a plethora of variants, including location, situation, activity, outside forces, memory, mood, need, whim. While taste can overlap with cultural tribalism (the spurious notion of Good/Bad taste; the need to belong), this is mainly a youthful tic and it will pass. What’s left is the individual, the ceaselessly mercurial personality, which can feel many different things within the space of a day. Which isn’t always drawn to the same style of songs. Which doesn’t always want to be the same person. The chatterbox might want to disappear into the mists with Leonard Cohen. The depressive to boogie with Ariana Grande. The introvert to headbang to Megadeth. Music can reflect your nature, but it can also take you out of yourself. It is an escape chute, a liberator, as much as it is a mirror.
Listening can be affected by a plethora of variants: location, situation, activity, outside forces, memory, mood, whim
Some people don’t even like music. They don’t yearn for a soundtrack to their life. They just want neutral background noise that used to be termed “coffee table music”. For the rest of us, it continues to be an era of engorged culture and musical plenty.
Over the years, popular music has become akin to a vast junk food menu: tasty but confusing. What do you want to listen to? Pop. Rock. Disco. Hip-hop. Punk. Grime. Goth. House. Reggae. Soul. Indie. Folk. Gospel. Dub. Heavy Metal. Psychedelia. Jazz, Prog… The list sprawls on even before you get into myriad fusions of genres. With streaming, Spotify, the rise of the superstar DJ, et al, we have completely and irrevocably changed the way we consume and interact with music. Volume. Distribution. Payment (or otherwise). There’s a thought: perhaps there should be a global “cheapskate” personality-category for those who don’t pay for music?
Even when people do pay, there’s a sense of cultural free-for-all. Generally, “Young People” approach music song by song, anthem by anthem, club banger by club banger. What research-based personality type (Open? Agreeable?) could be applied to such an elastic approach? Do we just ignore how, like a generational bushfire, it’s caught on throughout age, race and class? How, like it or not, we are all in shuffle mode now?
If, like me, you’re still partial to listening to whole albums, digital or vinyl, you may feel increasingly like the last dodo, stubbornly playing Hounds of Love all the way through, creeping ever closer to easy-listening extinction. Just to rub it in, it might not even be “your” music taste any more. Past a certain age, people’s tastes freeze, go on long pause, a form of cultural atrophy sets in. What you think “defines” you may just be your music taste of five, 10, 20 years ago, and, according to the Cambridge findings, you now have an outdated personality to go with it.
Diverting though these studies are, there’s no foolproof way of personality-typing music. That jukebox embedded in your skull may end up rusted and ugly, unfit for public consumption, but it will always be unique. Tailored music exists only in the fevered minds of marketing and advertising executives who want to zone you, sell you stuff. It’s not a case of too much music, rather that there’s too much human condition: too many people – restless, vivid, alive – thinking, feeling, and wanting differently from one moment to the next.
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