In August, we bring a set of new full-time writers to the blog. Please welcome Philip Rienstra (’21), who will be writing for us on the 10th of each month. Philip majored in writing and music and has plans to pursue a career in publishing. He is a recovering music snob, a fruit juice enthusiast, and a big fan of the enneagram. He’s currently living in Grand Rapids with his partner, Heidi.
When I’m looking for new music, I’ll sometimes catch myself checking the number of monthly listeners an artist has on Spotify. If I’m starting to enjoy them, I’m hoping for a small number so I know they’re obscure and underground enough to meet my standards. Anything lower than 100,000 is in the green, and upwards of a million is getting dangerously close to mainstream territory—the “normie zone,” if you will. If I check the numbers and they line up with what I’m already hoping, I get a little rush of identity dopamine. I am better about this than I used to be; I can usually avoid writing off artists entirely. But where does this impulse come from in the first place? Why am I like this?
When my fiancée and I were newly dating, there was a brief period where I assumed we would have similar tastes in music, given how much else we had in common. I soon discovered that, disappointingly, our respective libraries had almost no artists in common. My music was mostly dense and layered, with electric guitars or synth sounds, whereas her music was mostly sparse, acoustic, and overall less gloomy than mine. Still, we managed to enjoy each other’s music as distinct yet mutually palatable, at least in moderation.
That is, of course, until Taylor Swift released her album Lover. One day in late August 2019, I heard Heidi humming some catchy tune I didn’t recognize, and I asked her what she was humming. She beamed at me and proceeded to tell me excitedly about the new Taylor Swift album—which songs were her favorite, what had changed from previous albums, and how long she had been a loyal Swiftie (not that she used this term). She was genuinely enjoying it, and I was confused.
To me, Taylor Swift had always been synonymous with pop music, which had always been synonymous with pop garbage. The type of people who listened to Taylor Swift were not the type of people I wanted to be like, and my perception of popular music was that it tended to be both boring and shallow. No, I have not heard the new song by The Weeknd and I don’t plan to, because I’m different.
Yet suddenly I was confronted with the uncomfortable fact that the category of people who listened to Taylor Swift included this person right in front of me, whom I already respected and admired. Catching a reactive, disdainful remark in my throat, I felt prompted to do some introspection. How could something I disliked so much be so well-liked by someone I liked so much?
Eventually, despite my efforts at concealing my distaste, Heidi caught on that I was struggling to enjoy “Paper Rings” quite as much as she was, and so we started talking about what it was that made music appealing to us. I argued that it was important to me to hear interesting instruments and rhythms and harmonies and most pop music just doesn’t seem to do that.
Heidi quipped back that she didn’t think adding more instruments or crazy chords would actually benefit Taylor Swift’s music. To Heidi, Swift was primarily telling stories with her music, and the simplicity of the songs is part of that. She’s not trying to be elaborate and cryptic, and that’s exactly the reason Heidi likes her. In Heidi’s words, Taylor’s music is “expressive and authentic, but also highly relatable.”
I still didn’t seem to grasp what was so special about it, so Heidi did a bit more thinking before finally making a discovery: in general, she had been focusing on the lyrics in music, and I had been focusing on the sounds. Taylor’s music is more about the lyrics than anything else, and that wasn’t true of… maybe any of the music I liked.
And she was exactly right. I had been passionate about music since middle school, but, inexplicably, I was neglecting the lyrics—ironic, considering I’m the English major out of the two of us. Somewhere along the journey into the foggiest depths of indie-folk and indie-rock, I had forgotten that the words in a song aren’t just sounds, but they actually have meaning, too.
Eventually, over the months following Lover, I was able to share with Heidi my passion for harmony and timbre and rhythm, and so it became more of a mutual exchange of appreciation, which was cool. Both of us share a lot more artists these days. But Heidi never had an ego problem about listening to alternative music.
Taylor Swift, meanwhile, is an expert storyteller, fantastic lyricist, and all-around extremely talented songwriter, and I’m still catching up to everyone else who already knew that. But perhaps more embarrassing is how it took me twenty years to learn that, actually, it is okay to like things that are popular.
Some combination of my personality and my background gave me the impression that musical sophistication can be equated with depth of meaning, and that depth of meaning can be equated with worth. But they can’t. Different art is good for different reasons, and being popular doesn’t make something bad. I’m just glad someone was around to show me that.
Philip Rienstra (‘21) majored in writing and music and has plans to pursue a career in publishing. He is a recovering music snob, a fruit juice enthusiast, and a big fan of the enneagram. He’s currently living in Grand Rapids with his partner, Heidi.