Listing Subjectivity

One of my hobbies involves following, reading, and thinking about various writing about music in magazines, newspapers, and other publication records. As anyone else who does this – even once upon a time or only occasionally – likely knows, a standard element of writing about music involves the creation of lists. In any given year, for example, one may come across the top 50 classical pieces of all times, the best punk bands of the 1980’s, the best international records of 2010, the top albums in this or that genre literally every year, and novelty lists like “ten best songs to listen to while surfing naked on a Tuesday in October somewhere off the coast of this or that given place” (FYI, I made that one up just now to the best of my knowledge).

While I enjoy reading through the various lists (maybe more than most), I rarely think much about them. Honestly, they very rarely surprise me in any way, and generally the only thoughts I have are I disagree with that selection, I agree with that selection, and / or will I ever find a list where I have not listened to at least one of the artists mentioned in x genre or y composition style. These are fun questions, and I often have fun discussing such observations and questions with other people, but again, I rarely take them all that seriously. In fact, the number one use I get from such lists is an introduction to this or that artist or record I have not yet heard that sounds like it might be interesting. Considering what I do for a living and the ways my own brain works, I would not be surprised if the lack of intellectual engagement with these lists is exactly why I like them so much.

I realize at this point that thus far it may seem odd for me to be writing a post about something I do not think about much, but the reason I am doing so is because back in December I finally came across a list that actually has made me do quite a bit of thinking in the past month. This anomaly caught my attention so I decided to write about and reflect on it for fun.

What happened was fairly simple. As I often do, I grabbed a bunch of end of the year lists about music in various genres, and began sipping my coffee while I read through the descriptions and rankings for a few hours. This was pretty much what happens every time I do this, and it was quite relaxing per usual until I came across a list that I thought would be a lot of fun for me – the greatest albums of the 1990’s. As someone who spent countless hours with music in the 1990’s and still listens to a lot of music from that decade, I thought it would be fun to see what top 100 albums they chose from the decade.

While I admit it was a lot of fun, it was also quite surprising when I got to the end of the list (Number 1), and realized that NONE of the records that would have been my own top 25 (or 10 or 100 or any number) of the 1990’s made the list at all. Not one single record I would have HAD to put on such a list made the list at all, not even one. I was amazed – especially since I actually knew EVERY SINGLE ALBUM on the list and had heard each one of them myself. In other words, it wasn’t that I had missed some collection of great albums in my own listening, but rather, 100 albums that would have been behind ATLEAST 25 others if I made the list were deemed the best of the decade. For better or worse, I have actually been thinking about, reflecting on, and considering this particular list for over a month now.

I should note that my surprise does not cloud my vision about the inherent subjectivity of all such lists. For example, I am well aware that the 1990’s are generally lauded by music critics as (other than and maybe even more so depending on the article) the explosive decade of some of the most quality music in varied genres ever. I thus realize any list from such a decade will be potentially even more difficult than other lists and all such lists are going to leave out quite a lot in any case. I further note that like any such list this one emerged from a collection of people, writing for a specific audience, within a publication that focuses on some forms of music more so than other forms anyhow. I thus realize that like any other list it was always possible that none of my picks would make the list. Put simply, my surprise is interesting to me, but at the same time, it is likely something very common that people experience (especially the bulk of people I have met who listen to less varied amounts of musical styles and genres than I do) if they look at this publication instead of that one to see what is considered the best tunes.

In any case, I found / find the experience fascinating because especially as someone who listens to music broadly across genres, styles, origins, and other factors, it was the first time in all the years I have been reading lists that NOT ONE of the things I would have expected to see on the list made the list. This, of course, leads me to wonder what other people would say are the best albums of the 1990’s or other decades, and in so doing, I also wonder if other people’s selections made the list I read. As someone who finds delight in variation and subjectivities throughout our world, I feel like I could have a lot of fun comparing and contrasting such responses for a long time.

J. Sumerau

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About Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog

The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is an international professional organization of scholars interested in the study of a wide range of social issues with an emphasis on identity, everyday practice, and language.
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One Response to Listing Subjectivity

  1. Pingback: Finding Favorites | Symbolic Interaction Music Blog

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