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“What Everybody Else Likes”

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Sometimes discovering something worthwhile requires going against the grain of what’s popular right now

One of my favorite books to assign in my US in Global Perspective class is called Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by a good writer named Erik Larsen. I use it to illustrate how difficult traditional American neutrality had become by the early the 20th century.

We’re not yet to that point in my classes this semester, but I remember last fall when I was talking to students about it. I mentioned that the Lusitania’s final route would have taken it from New York City to Liverpool except for the German torpedo that sent it, and its clandestine cargo, to the bottom of the Irish Sea. I paused and asked where else had they heard of Liverpool. No answer. I pressed. “Soccer teams?” a couple of students ventured hesitantly. That wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, so I narrowed the focus: Who was from Liverpool? Still no answer. Ok, what famous musical quartet was from Liverpool? At that point I was afraid to ask the next and most obvious question. Finally, someone got it, but I was a little shaken: could The Beatles really be that far from the mainstream of today’s cultural knowledge?

Being mainstream isn’t in itself bad, but it’s not good when a person simply likes what’s already popular instead of liking that to which one’s own tastes and predilections lead. To be sure, we give lip service to following the beat of our own drummers. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference,” says Robert Frost, and lots of American poetry is full of encouragement to follow our own tastes and not be shaped by the multitude.

But there’s a sizeable risk inherent in setting your tastes against those of the masses, as any junior high kid can tell you. Not following the mainstream involves going out on a limb that requires justifying your tastes—at least to yourself—which is unnecessary when your tastes run right along with the crowd.

Discovering a new favorite, as I often talk about doing, requires that you look at or listen to something new. Maybe something that everybody else isn’t listening to.

And then there’s also our democratic impulse: Popularity in an egalitarian republic is its own validity. In going against it one risks being branded, if not exactly a heretic, at least some kind of elitist who goes around looking down his nose at what’s popular.

It’s a conundrum. But it goes right to the heart of what makes us open to—or closed to—the richer experiences of art.