Try as I might, I can't get my wife and two-year-old son into the Grateful Dead. If put to the test, the pair vote in a block; Justin Bieber soundly defeats Jerry Garcia every time.
I've never much questioned my son's preference for pop, but my wife's position – not her Bieber-fever, which I reluctantly accept, but her Dead-dread – vexes me. Does she truly dislike the band because the music, as she says, is "boring and undisciplined?" Or is it the mere idea of a jam band that she rejects? Conversely, do I love the Dead purely because of Jerry's genius – or because it is a nostalgic summer-camp soundtrack? With no resolution in sight, do our reasons for disliking, or liking, even matter?
According to Immanuel Kant, they do. In his 1790 The Critique of Judgment, perhaps the definitive philosophical treatise on taste, Kant argues that judgments of aesthetic matters, such as art and music, should be rendered in a disinterested fashion, unsullied by our wants and needs. For Kant, there are universal truths of beauty and our aesthetic judgments should aspire to uncover them. In other words, in Sorry vs. Scarlet Begonias, there's an objective winner – and it's got nothing to do with what I did behind the boathouse in the summer of '95.
In his new book, You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, Tom Vanderbilt turns Kant's position on its head. To answer an age-old question – "Why do we like the things we like?" – Vanderbilt navigates philosophy, economics, psychology, neurology and data science. His premise, from Page 1, where he declares blue his favourite colour without really knowing why: The subjective, vague forces that shape our likes are not noise that confuses taste; contrarily, they are the essence of taste itself. All we can do is try to understand them a little better.
Vanderbilt, an American journalist and former Jeopardy! contestant, explores the messy, irrational decisions we make on the road in his previous book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do; You May Also Like carries the torch, exploring the messy, irrational choices and microchoices we make everyday. He writes, "We are faced with an ever-increasing amount of things to figure out whether we like or dislike, and yet at the same time there are fewer overarching rules and standards to go by in helping one decide." Faced with infinite choice in the age of UberEats, Spotify and Amazon, deciding what to like can be paralyzing. And yet, we persevere: We eat a meal; we listen to a song; we buy a salad spinner. (Often, we then rate the experience.) As Vanderbilt explores the enigmatic forces driving these decisions, he paints an engaging, multilayered, often contradictory picture of taste. De gustibus non est disputandum? Think again: There is plenty of accounting for taste.
Although any individual like may teach us little, study enough of these choices, as Vanderbilt does, and overarching principles emerge. For one: "We like what we know." He writes, "The single biggest predictor for whether you will like a food is whether you've had it before." There's evolutionary logic here – if it didn't kill us, it can't be that bad. But the principle applies to music, too; once we hear a song enough, we develop "perceptual fluency," a pleasure of familiarity. So it was, Vanderbilt recounts, on a fateful night in a Chicago nightclub in 1985. The first time the DJ played In Your Mind, the song that gave birth to the acid-house genre, the crowd was baffled; by the fourth play, later that night, "people were dancing on their hands." (Something similar may have happened to me at summer camp, or to my son the weekend my wife played Sorry roughly 80 times.)
Sometimes, we don't even have to hear a song to like it. As Tim Westergren, the co-founder of music-streaming service Pandora, tells Vanderbilt, "Our appreciation of music is so deeply affected by our preconvinced notions of what an artist stands for, what a genre means. You don't listen to music objectively. People have a knee-jerk reaction to an artist based on something that's not musical." The comment points to another principle of taste: "We like what we expect to like."
Westergren's insight led to his Music Genome Project, an algorithmic map of all songs' basic elements, as well as his unfulfilled ambition of stripping Pandora's tracks of identifying information. Much as Kant may have admired this pursuit of universal truth, Vanderbilt reminds us that objectivity and music are strange bedfellows; music is, in fact, the region of taste most wrapped up with our identities. Here, he cites the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, "Nothing more clearly affirms one's 'class,' nothing more infallibly classifies than tastes in music."
It's a neat segue to another principle: We like the things that signal – to others and ourselves – our status. It's an idea well understood by my former boss, Monocle editor-in-chief Tyler Brûlé, who refuses to create an iPad edition of his magazine because it precludes the possibility of others seeing what you're reading. But this relationship between taste and status should come as no revelation to anyone who's chosen Starbucks over Tim Hortons.
Sometimes, driven by a desire for status, we overestimate our likes. To wit: An Inconvenient Truth. In Netflix's DVD days, the Al Gore doc was often rented – and then renewed, and renewed again. (As one Netflix employee notes, "it was a great cupholder.") Conversely, even when we really do think we like something, we're often wrong. Here, Vanderbilt quotes 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume: "There is a species of beauty, which, as it is florid and superficial, pleases at first; but being found incompatible with a just expression either of reason or passion, soon palls upon the taste, and is then rejected with disdain." That catchy pop song or sugary cocktail might seem great at first, but you'll soon tire of it. At the same time, a truly original painting or song or building might initially seem ugly. Vanderbilt recounts the tale of Jorn Utzon, the architect of the Sydney Opera House, who "was practically driven from the country" before people clued in to his genius. Vanderbilt warns, "Don't trust the easy like."
After reading You May Also Like, it may be tougher to trust any likes at all. But Vanderbilt does not aim at challenging readers' tastes; he simply aims at explaining "the way we come to have the tastes we do." In so doing, he teaches us that we often like – and dislike – for arbitrary, irrational or superficial reasons. There's a lesson in here, somewhere. Perhaps it's a reminder to someone like me – an unBelieber and occasional snob – that I'm no better than my wife, or my toddler son, or anyone else who chooses slickly produced pop over the soulful melodies of one of history's most groundbreaking rock bands. I just happen to like better things.
Benjamin Leszcz is a writer and a partner in the creative consultancy Whitman Emorson.