That’s not music!

How to talk to someone who hates a piece of creative work

“That’s not music!” A friend told me recently that her teenager had responded with this pithy phrase, when hearing a piece of contemporary classical music. It wasn’t familiar, it wasn’t “cool”, so the kid just disregarded it, and wanted it turned off. She laughed and said that they have a lot to learn, and of course, so do we all. There’s always more to learn, but I’ve been mulling over her story for weeks.

Where is the line between honest comment and offensive disregard? This isn’t an easy question, and it brought me back to my childhood. I was raised in a household that included a lot of different kinds of ethnic foods: we were always trying something new. The rule was, we didn’t have to like it, but we did have to try it, and attempt to do so with an open mind. That rule has shaped a lot of things in my life beyond meals, and has extended to art, travel, a fairly wide variety of experiences, and even new people. So when I’m faced with someone who has no tolerance for the unfamiliar and just throws it away in disgust, it is genuinely baffling.

It all comes down to respect. And as artists, this is even more important: we need to approach the new and unusual with some acknowledgment of the effort and bravery it takes to “put something out there”. Chances are, the producer of the music or sculpture or building or car or dish or dance or film that you find strange has invested much time, energy and soul into that piece of work. While it may not speak to you, it could affect someone else profoundly. Even if it’s a “failure”, it could lead to something more meaningful down the road. Phrases like “that’s not music!”, regardless of who utters them, are to cultural expression as racial slurs are to humanity: they deny the right to exist. That kind of language goes beyond merely stating an opinion, because it lacks basic respect. It is, therefore, offensive, even if the offense is unintended. The speaker just might need some better options.

While we probably can’t nurture the tastes of cross-eyed kitties, we might have a shot at talking to another human. We can help friends, family and possibly the occasional stranger by offering them a broader vocabulary for their response to the unfamiliar. The next time your kid or your neighbor doesn’t like something and tries to disregard it in toto, ask a question that might shake them out of their knee-jerk response:

  • “What makes you say that?”
  • “Maybe it just doesn’t speak to you?”
  • “What part doesn’t work for you?”
  • “Can you explain what you mean? I’m curious.

That last part is very important. Don’t scold or teach. Avoid sounding superior or huffy. Don’t explain why you think it’s worthy. Just be curious about the other person’s viewpoint. Take a genuine interest in why someone is having such an aggressive response, and you might have a chance to start a real conversation. You might even learn a few things about your own audience, and your own views. After years of attempting to put this into practice, I can tell you this: you’ll learn a lot. Maybe they’ll come away with something, too — that part’s up to them.

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