How the Internet Expanded Our Music Taste But Hardened Our Political Beliefs
Up until the mid-noughties, being in high school also meant belonging to a tribe.
The tribe you belonged to was usually based on either your ethnicity or your music or athletic choices.
During the 1990s, when I grew up, you were either a long-haired metalhead, a Fubu-wearing hip hop fan, a techno head, a melancholic grunge fan, or you spiked your hair high for the pop-punk stylings of Blink 182.
There were also less curious kids who ate up whatever mainstream radio threw their way, such as NSYNC and The Spice Girls. That, or you played Aussie Rules football, or soccer.
Like the previous decades before it, the battle lines were drawn, and you derived a great deal of identity from belonging to your tribe. As a teenager, choosing your side was an important rite of passage into adulthood, and as a metalhead, I often found myself verbally jousting with techno heads and hip hop fans.
Before the Internet
If you’re over 30, then you remember a time before smartphones, social media, and the information overwhelm we’re navigating today. Back in the 1990s, if I wanted to discover new music, I did so either through magazines, CDs that set me back $30 a pop (a significant amount of money for my 15-year-old self), or I traded cassette tapes with friends and classmates.
Because access to music came at a premium, whenever I had any money to spend on music, I spent it on heavy metal albums and magazines.
My experience was not too far removed from high school kids in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, where again, high school was a stomping ground of music and athletic affiliated crowds.
But today, things have changed.
Spotify and Low Barriers to Discovery
Nowadays, we have access to more music than we could ever possibly listen to at the touch of a button.
In fact, as of 2020, there are over 50 million songs on Spotify — putting to shame the 3,000 or so songs I amassed during my teens, across CDs, cassette tapes, and mp3s.
Heck, we don’t even have to pay a single cent to enjoy Rush’s entire 19-album back catalog if we don’t mind listening to the occasional ad.
The barriers to entry for discovering new music have come crashing down. And our propensity to explore different types of music has increased proportionately with it.
Blurring the Lines
While my first love was and still is heavy metal, a quick sample of my Spotify listening history from the past few weeks reveals music from The Roots, Simon & Garfunkel, Eminem, Johnny Cash, Django Reinhardt, Pennywise, the Chemical Brothers, Pearl Jam, The Beach Boys, Polish Hip-Hop, Kanye West, Miles Davis, and Steve Aoki, alongside my old favorites, Megadeth, Sepultura, Anthrax, and Iron Maiden.
I’ve learned to appreciate and seek out everything from classical and country to jazz and EDM.
While it might be convenient to pin this on the passage of time, one must only look at your typical high school student today, to see that this blossoming of musical discovery has a lot to do with the low barriers to entry to new music.
This access is cultivating within us a greater appreciation for types of music that we perhaps might have only known of previously, but never prioritized dollars or time for. It was much easier and safer to stick with what we knew we already loved.
Nowadays, a hip hop fan is just as likely to listen to some EDM, and maybe some punk or metal too, and this is manifest in big-name collaborations we’re seeing nowadays.
British metalcore act Bring Me The Horizon worked with Grimes, nu metal act Linkin Park worked with hip-hop royalty Jay-Z, whilst EDM producer deadmau5 penned a track with emo rockers My Chemical Romance. Add to this Alice in Chains’ collaboration with Elton John, and Post Malone working with people from across the music spectrum, including Ozzy Osbourne, Travis Scott, and Tommy Lee, and it’s easy to see that the lines today have become very blurry and a lot less tribal.
Today’s artists are incorporating all sorts of elements into their music, to great effect. Lady Gaga hasn’t been shy about her love for heavy metal music and in particular, British metal pioneers, Judas Priest.
Today, the battle lines are much more likely to be drawn across not musical lines, but political ones.
Left versus right.
I believe this. You believe that.
While the internet has brought us closer together musically, it hasn’t served to bring us closer together politically. Politically, it seems to be driving a wedge between us like never before.
Hardening of the Political Lines
Instead of using the ability to connect and learn at scale to better understand the world and empathize with different opinions, we’re seeking out information that confirms what we already believe.
Algorithms serve us information and ideas that hardens us to existing positions.
And we flatly reject and dismiss disconfirming information or views.
If we can learn anything from the blurring of the musical lines and the abovementioned collaborations, it’s that when we come together, we create something new, and push the boundaries.
When we don’t, we stand still or even regress.
The Value of Discovering Different Ideas
Perhaps we should all spend more time doing with our political beliefs what we might do with our Spotify playlist, and allocate time to discovering different ideas, truly listening to them, and cultivating a world view that is not based on an association with one idea, but many.
As neuroendocrinologist, Robert Sapolsky, put it in his book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, human beings like to categorize the world into neatly demarcated buckets of black and white, but doing so prevents us from seeing the gray areas — which is where most things lie.
Only then can we gain an appreciation for how complex things really are, do away with our sense of moral righteousness, and navigate the world with an attitude of uncertainty.
As Nobel-prize winning physicist, Richard P Feyman, put it, “I think that when we know that we actually do live in uncertainty, then we ought to admit it. It is of great value to realize that we do not know the answers to different questions”.