We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the two five-pound bags of Gummi Bears we ordered from Amazon Prime is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, a request for tips on broadening your horizons to include great music in genres you usually dismiss.
Jennifer Riem writes: "How do you deal with blanket genre hatred — 'Country is the worst,' for example — when people who say that most often mean only a subset of a genre they don't know that well?"
First, it's fine and fair to start by recognizing your own ratios of appreciation for any given genre: You might like, say, 40 percent of all the bittersweet, string-swept folk-rock you've heard, but only 3 percent of the metal, 10 percent of the jazz, 15 percent of the country, 2 percent of the Chicago-style blues, 30 percent of the Demi Lovato songs, 20 percent of the songs with "Twerk" in the title, and 0 percent of the songs with "Humps" in the title. For anyone who consumes a lot of music as a passion, it never hurts to know your own specific odds — and it's perfectly reasonable to play those odds often in the pursuit of something you love.
The trick to expanding your horizons into low-odds genres is to never dismiss them entirely; to stay open to what keeps bubbling up into your frame of awareness, and to be ready to revise your perceptions and assumptions the minute you stumble across something you love.
Take country: Many casual listeners (and most non-listeners) think of mainstream country music as a static form, bound by strict Nashville conventions. So why are so many non-genre-specific music outlets falling all over themselves to praise young upstarts like Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe? If you think "all country sounds the same" — and I'm not suggesting you do, but go with me here — and yet you keep hearing about someone who's breaking the mold, poke around on the Internet for a few minutes and explore further. Monroe's new record is terrific, while Musgraves' debut is one of the best country albums I've heard in the last decade; both are great in part because they tweak so many stereotypes people attach to country music.
Within NPR Music, we've got expert staff writers who proselytize about a ton of sometimes-forbidding genres: jazz, classical, Latin Alternative, hip-hop, music from at least five other continents, electronic, metal and more, not to mention countless subgenres tucked into the margins of each. There isn't a single person on staff who hasn't led me straight to a piece of music I treasure that I might have never heard without his or her assistance. Alt.Latino tipped me off to a wonderful Brazilian party outfit called Bonde Do Role. Metal and noise ace Lars Gotrich led me straight to the mind-blowing black-metal band Deafheaven. Otis Hart and Sami Yenigun reliably point me to electronic music that knocks me out — most recently, they compelled me to listen to an amazing producer named Andy Stott. I got to be among the first to freak out about Miguel's breakthrough last year because Frannie Kelley, who's gotten me into tons of great hip-hop and R&B and reggae over the years, freaked out first.
The trick is to find genre-straddling gatekeepers you trust, and then trust them; to follow them on Twitter, read where they're writing, pick up on their passions and then poke around for streams on Bandcamp and Spotify and Rdio and MySpace and what-have-you, and give yourself time to splash around in some seemingly turbid waters. You don't have to love every genre that's out there, but it never hurts to take a few shortcuts in the pursuit of the best each has to offer.
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