November 23, 2009

Juvenile vs. mature open-mindedness

Continuing with one of the ideas from the post below, one landmark of growing up is changing your mind about some things that you hated from your childhood and adolescence. Typically we think of young people as more open-minded, and the personality trait Openness to Experience does peak in the late teens and early 20s. However, this is more of an openness to new or different stuff. I'm talking about being open-minded enough to admit that you misjudged something good as bad -- a much tougher error to admit than the other way around.

When you're a teenager or young adult, you're too socially desperate to question the worth of your behavior and your culture -- you just have to shut up and go with it, or else you won't fit in with your clique during a time when you are unable to go it alone. Once you're more socially independent, which happens sometime during your mid-to-late 20s, you can relax your narrow-minded devotion to your group's products and practices. You're even free to borrow things from a rival faction and not suffer as much: ostracism is less powerful when social relations are less tribalistic.

How do we know that tribalism declines after the early 20s? Simple: look at how conspicuous your group membership badges become. Even adults belong to groups and signal their affinity, but the intensity of the signal is lower and the noise around it is greater. For one thing, unlike teenagers, adults don't wear clothing with logos, or with names, pictures, and other icons of their favorite entertainers. Their use of slang is a lot less frequent, and the turnover rate is much lower. Some professionals have jargon, but it's nothing like the slang of teenagers, which obviously functions as a set of shibboleths.

As a concrete example, consider all of the pop music groups who disgusted you as a young person. (Which pop music groups we follow is one of the main ways that we express our tribal membership.) It's possible that all of your judgments at the time were correct, but it's not very likely. Now, some of them you'll grow to like just because your tastes involuntarily change with age, like preferring the more bitter espresso to Frappuccinos or the more pungent Roquefort to cream cheese. But these don't require questioning your earlier assessments.

Take a group that was pretty popular when you were a teenager, but one who your tribe was steadfastly against. If you had even considered listening to that group, your peers would've threatened you with excommunication -- "we don't listen to them." Once you can more safely tell those people to fuck off if they don't approve of your musical tastes, you start to re-examine some of your earlier judgments and find many of them to have been wrong. You may feel that they were necessary and rational in the context of surviving tribalistic adolescence, but still they were unfair. All of a sudden, your mind opens up to wholly uncharted waters of the cultural oceans.

At the same time, you don't overturn all of your previous decisions. Motley Crue really did stink -- no mistake there. But if you don't uncover at least a couple of faulty convictions when you rummage through the volumes of your life experience, you haven't matured yet. To see that their underlying merit is what gets a sentence overturned, many people who re-examine the same collection of cases will independently arrive at the same conclusions -- that one was dealt with fairly, but this one shouldn't have been punished. Unlike Motley Crue, Guns N Roses are much more likely to have their credibility re-established, quite simply because they were better.

To measure how much more open your mind has become, we just ask how you respond to the cases that would sting the most to admit you were wrong -- namely, where their worth was so great and yet where you spilled the most blood. There's no one perfect example of this, but disco sure comes pretty close. At least within the realm of pop music, few other groups can match Chic on musical innovation, virtuosity, complexity, and breadth of emotional range. If the most sophisticated evaluation you can make is that "disco sucks" or that only queers like dance music, you still have a lot of growing up to do.


  1. I don't really care for GNR, but I'll give you this: they were definitely better than Motley Crue. As for Chic/disco, I guess I have several lifetimes of growing up left to do.

    As far as I can recall, all the shifts in my musical opinion have been toward downgrading stuff I previously liked or tolerated. I like a lot more different stuff now, but that's because I've heard more. As a kid I never wore anything with a band logo (my actual practice each morning was to grab the first shirt within reach, and if it said "world's greatest dad" on it, so be it) because I was so solipsistic/self-centered that other people just didn't enter into my thought process. The major transitions for me involved gaining access to more music: getting my own radio, finding filesharing programs and then Pandora and youtube. I'm fairly out of the loop so that the bands I like generally stopped existing before I heard of them, but I don't go to concerts anyway so it's no big deal.

    Following up on comments yesterday: the most talented can succeed with a variety of approaches. Beethoven can write in major or minor key. But still, even in your example, is Beethoven better known for his 5th or 7th? Shakespeare can write comedies, but they are considered secondary to his tragedies. De Niro can do comedy, but is that what he's famous for? Here's a theory to help explain these stylized facts: we have evolved a limitation on how happy we can be, giving rise to the "hedonic treadmill". There is simply a greater range of negative feeling we can experience, and our instinct is to satisfice the negative rather than reach for the highest positives. Take the most addicted junkie and offer him the most intense high pharmacology has discovered in exchange for torture at the hands of the most talented torturer (with no lasting damage). I doubt he'd take the bait because it's not possible to feel as good as we have the capacity to feel bad. Granted, with mass media you are vicariously experiencing a feeling from someone else, but the asymmetry still applies. Eliezer Yudkowsky said something similar here, explaining why utopias are boring.

  2. 43 seconds of a truly great guitarist and composer here:

    Ive grown to appreciate stuff like that. No singers or lyrics (or anyone's social attitudes and politics), just scales, notes, and vibes creating "music-scapes" for the listener to enjoy.

    I can kinda see why electronica is something that is turned to. Less narcissim from an attention-mongering singer and more music-scapes created by musicians creatively.

    BTW----I liked the Cars. Good cathy fun. How can anyone not like "Let the Good Times Roll", and especially "Nightlife". Those were the days man.

    Motley Crue had about 4 "catchy" rock songs: Looks that Kill, Livewire, Too Young To Fall in Love,........I take that back, 3 catchy rock songs--LOL.

    GNR had.....Dont Cry Tonight, Welcome to the Jungle, Paradise City (liked that one), Sweet Child O'Mine, Patience (a ballad!), and petered out after that (my opinion). I didn't like November Rain at all. I didn't want to hear symphonies mixed with metal and Axl Rose's voice. It was just all wrong to my ear.

    Motley Crue reminded me of Ratt. A first album with suprisingly good stuff on it (Wanted Man and Back for More were shockingly likeable hard-rock stuff), but fell off quickly thereafter. Its as if all their best ideas got used up early and there was no more in the well.

    Chic-----I remember a really talented bass player playing with that bunch. He could do that slap bass (or plucking the string upward for that same 'snap' effect) with virtuosity. If "Guitar" and "Advanced Guitar" and "Rock Guitar" were courses one could take in high school, I'd imagine more of the burnouts would try to stay in just for the free lessons. They sure loved their guitar-driven rock music and would discuss it with each other with animation----as if it were super-important. Breaking it down academically might either enhance their appreciation or destroy the mystique. It would be interesting to see their response to that.

  3. "is Beethoven better known for his 5th or 7th?"

    No, I know that, but you keep trying to protect the grunge / alt rock people by comparing them with Beethoven or Shakespeare. But that's the wrong comparison -- they only offer gloomy or angsty stuff, and they're not even well remembered for that.

    People apparently prefer the sadder GNR songs over the wilder ones, but they're remembered for both. So even if you like the gloomy, pensive, serious, etc., the average person is not going to go to a grunge band but rather to those songs from a broader-range band.

  4. I take it you mean great as in influential?


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