how taste gets made

When does taste begin? Where does it come from, why is it valuable? Do we, as humans, need it? I’ve been doing interviews about Can’t Even in anticipation of its release [NEXT TUESDAY, PLEASE PRE-ORDER] and I find myself returning to what happens when you turn yourself into a work robot: so many components of your life, your self, melt away. Or never get the chance to form in the first place: when you begin orienting your life towards college at a young age, then space for boredom, for failure, and for the development of taste seems to evaporate — or feel disposable.

I’m not talking about the development of so-called “good” taste: there’s a ton of writing on how our understanding of good/bad taste is indelibly linked to class performance, etc etc. (One of my recent favorites in this genre = Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s The Sum of Small Things). I’m talking about just knowing what you like and having a lot of room to like it. I’m talking about hanging out in that space and having time to continuously renovate it. I’m talking about pleasure, of course, but also self-definition: part of who I am is my love for these things, even if you think they’re bad.

And if you don’t have time to find things you love — or time, once you find them, to spend with them — there’s just something missing. This isn’t a contemporary thing, either. People can have taste in outdoor settings. In times of day. In bible verses. Taste is picking and choosing, harvesting and discarding, but finding out what speaks to you also means finding out who that you is in the first place.

My musical taste, like a lot of people’s musical tastes, was built on the foundation of my parents’: we always had music on in our house, and I figured out what I liked the most (Annie Lennox, The Cars, Fine Young Cannibals, Dire Straits, Prince) and what I didn’t (Billy Idol, I dunno, don’t be mad, taste is weird!) It was added to and textured by extensive exposure to radio (which played at the pool, where I spent basically every summer afternoon, and in the car; in 6th grade, a kid in my class started bringing his boom box on the bus and played En Vogue, which was very formative).

I didn’t start making huge taste choices until 7th grade, when I convinced my mom to let me get my own BMG 10-for-1 CD deal and started sneaking MTV. This was the early ‘90s, and MTV felt like an expansive cornucopia of cool, seamlessly alternating between Alternative and rap and inviting me to figure out what I liked the most (Smashing Pumpkins, Salt ‘n’ Pepa, Dr. Dre) and what I felt like I should like but didn’t as much (Soundgarden, Hole, R. Kelly). At the same time, even with my small CD collection, I spent hours trying to tape favorite songs off the radio.

I was also figuring out which music I liked but could never talk to my friends about (Tracy Chapman, Lyle Lovett), which music I could learn to like (the country music many of my friends listened to), and which “old” music I’d discovered on my own and had been scandalized that my parents didn’t actually like. I was obsessed with Simon & Garfunkel but my mom was dismissive: that was my brother’s music, she said. This was mind boggling and revelatory to me! That a person could not like the famous music associated with their “era”!

I went from buying CDs because I knew the single, which I would play on repeat, to buying CDs because I was obsessed with the artist, and would then listen to the album on repeat. I went to French immersion camp (another story!!!) and my counselors sang us to sleep with, uh, LADY music like Sarah McLachlan and Tori Amos. I discovered the joy of going back and finding early work and the disappointment of a long-awaited sophomore album. I spent hours organizing my CDs, with their liner notes, in a CD binder. I knew what I liked and it was in a black Case Logic case that went everywhere I did.

I grew up in Idaho, where I was a cheerleader out of lack of other social infrastructure options. We traveled to away games several times a week, and after we gossiped or did our homework, we all listened to our Discmans for the length of our four to six hour round trips. I listened to music while doing homework, while driving to school (I got my license when I was 15; again, Idaho), while staring into space, while falling asleep, while waiting for the dial-up internet to work, while thinking about boys, while talking on the phone, while reading, and while, again, staring into space. This music wasn’t just my background, though — I feel it’s essential to make that clear. It was the foreground, the thread that helped the rest of my life make sense, helped me make sense to myself.

I know this is a very TEENAGE WAY to talk about music and the cultivation of taste. And some people are able to carry that way through the rest of their lives. I managed to hold onto it into my early 30s: even as my music expanded onto Napster and burned CDs, the CDs were still the thing, and they stayed that way because 1) I still lugged around the 50 disc CD player I had received as a high school graduation present and 2) I still used the Discman tape adapter to listen to music in my 1999 Toyota Corolla.

But then, in 2011, I made a big cross-country move and got rid of the 50-disc player, and the next time I moved I got rid of the CDs. I got an iPhone that plugged into the adapter. My mix CDs, my playlists, my accumulation of early adult taste — they became part of the “deleted years.”

As Dave Holmes wrote in Esquire last year:

I can tell you my favorite music from 1987, because I still have my Replacements, George Michael, and Tommy Keene records. I know my favorite music from 1997, because I’m hoarding CD booklets overstuffed with post-Oasis Britpop, Ben Folds Five, and Soul Coughing. I can call my favorite music from 2017 right up on my phone, because I make year-end playlists in both Apple Music and Spotify and post them on Twitter at Christmas (which I think we can agree is not the same as burning a CD).

But if you ask me to name my favorite songs from 2007, I might need to use a lifeline. The music of the mid-aughts to early-teens is largely gone, lost down a new-millennium memory hole. There is a moment that whizzed right past us with no cassettes, discs, or Shazam queries through which to remember it. These are the Deleted Years, and we need to start honoring this period, right now, before we forget it forever.

Since I started using Spotify, back in 2012, I have playlists and memories of albums that I’ve discovered and loved. That’s what the playlist screenshotted on the top of this piece is: an attempt at recovering the Dad Songs I love, either because my own Dad introduced them to me or because of their generation (boomer) Dad-ness. I have songs I’ve starred from the algorithm-generated playlists that are supposed to approximate my taste. But they don’t, not really; they’re often times just covers of songs that I already like but, like, slowed down and sung by a Jason Mraz knock-off, or stuff that’s vaguely in the bucket of “sad sack” because I spent a month only listening to The National. But I haven’t felt like I’ve had space to be with music, old or new, in a long time. My taste, and even that self that has time for taste, has felt so distant.

Some of that shifted at the beginning of the pandemic, when Fiona Apple’s new album reacquainted me with some of that broad, immersive feeling of just hanging out with an album. Long car rides by myself do it as well. But those, too, are increasingly overtaken with podcasts — which are great, but are information. They lack the languorous, indulgent beauty of exhausting your voice from singing, without vanity, alone, for hours at a time.

I’m not trying to kids these days this conversation. Kids absolutely listen to music now. The radio lives, TikTok amplifies, YouTube videos have millions of streams. But personal taste requires time and space — which are so often occupied, from teenhood on, with transforming activities into resume lines, skills into hustles, pleasures into selling points. Taste can be performative and exclusionary but it can also just be a wellspring of self: recognizing that there is something there — something that is readily moved, something vital and inexplicable — apart from your capacity to work.

Do you miss music? Not just background music, but music that you really love? Do you miss your CD collection? Do you miss staring at the wall? Do you miss your lovely, weird, deeply familiar and ever expanding taste? Chances are high what you’re really missing is time with yourself — and time away from your identity as a worker or a parent.

Part of my larger project with this burnout book is granting us language to talk about all the ways we’re exhausted, and all the ways we got here. But part, too, is letting us see what we’ve lost of ourselves in our devotion to work — and how desperately we actually miss that part of ourselves, if only we gave ourselves the space to feel it.

Will actually listening to music and reacquainting yourself with your taste won’t fix burnout. I dunno, everyone’s fucking different. But if it mattered to you once, it’s worth thinking about how to make space so it — or whatever other thing felt like you — can matter to you again.


I WILL SHUT UP ABOUT THIS SOON, BUT BOOK PRE-ORDERS MATTER. I make the case for why you should order now (instead of next week) in this thread. It comes out 9/22, next Tuesday! I am a mashed up shell of myself trying to do all the interviews in anticipation, but I cannot wait for it to be out in the world and talk with actual readers about it.

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You can find a shareable version online here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Feel free to comment below — and you can always reach me at annehelenpetersen@gmail.com. And if you really want, you can listen to that Only Dads Allowed playlist here.