No favorites (a musical digression)

“What’s your favorite band?”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve fumbled the answer to that question… You know it’s coming as soon as you answer that other classic, “D’ya like music?”

Of course I like music. I’m not a sociopath. Even snakes like music.

“Favorite band” is a question that has no good answer. It’s the slightly hipper version of asking what you do for a living, and it generally means the exact same thing: “what box should I put you in?” (Often it also means, “let me tell you what my favorite band is”.)

The reason it has no good answer is because whatever your favorite band is no way to understand what makes you tick. Or, to be accurate, it says nothing that’s useful without a ton of context. I used to work in an investment bank, and one of my colleagues was a man who looked as if he probably apologized to his cereal in the morning before he ate it. His favorite genre of music was Death Metal. Maybe that says something, but I don’t really know what. I didn’t have enough context.

So the following list won’t be very useful.

  1. The Monkees

  2. Idlewild

  3. Jefferson Airplane

  4. Ben Folds

  5. Belle and Sebastian

  6. The Long Winters

This is a list of some of the artists that at one point or another I might have considered claiming as my favorite. It’s chronological, so there’s that at least. But it’s horrendously incomplete. It tells you nothing! There’s no room on that list for any human reality.

It doesn’t tell you that the reason I liked the Monkees (who, by the way, despite being a “fake” band had some of the most solid guitar you’ll hear anywhere) had a lot to do with the way my mind associated it with the time I helped my mum paint the lounge — a happy memory. I swear I can still taste that acrid paint odor in the back of my throat when I play back Last Train to Clarkesville.

It doesn’t tell you that I got into Idlewild because the new friends I made at school after we moved to London when I was 15 invited me to come to an Idlewild concert with them. Of course I liked ‘em. Are you kidding? Favorite band, man. You bet. Say anything enough times and it starts to feel true.

It doesn’t help you understand the brittle youthful confidence I had in my first couple of years at University, when I was going to become a famous writer and walk with kings and break ground and really do something. The way that the naiveté of late 60s Jefferson Airplane really connected with the naiveté of early 00s me. Sitting at my desk unconsciously ruining everything I wrote with painful imitation of my favorite writers that seemed so obvious when I looked back on it but felt — at the time — as if I was really getting somewhere.

Hell, there’s so much that didn’t even make it on the list.

It doesn’t tell you about that lonely three weeks I spent in temporary housing in the West End of Glasgow at the start of a term — when for some reason I played almost nothing but Crooked Teeth over and over and over again and found it comforting.

It won’t recall the wondrous evening I spent alone in the Lairig Mor as the sun went down on my stove. Miles from the nearest human, recovered from severe dehydration headaches. I saw more stars that night than I ever have. Soundtracked in equal parts by an audiobook of the Lord of the Rings and Sigh No More by Mumford & Sons — which were the only two things I’d been able to fit on my MP3 player.

Nor smoking horrible little menthol rollies with Billy in Detroit and listening to Belle and Sebastian the day after Elliot Smith died. (I didn’t understand.)

Nor hearing Fabrizio De André in the kitchen and knowing Dad is making dinner and bugging him to translate for the millionth time.

Nor playing a certain song and thinking of my wife because — for some unknown reason — it was our song.

Nor being suddenly surprised by Mouse Eat Mouse and seeing PM standing in the dark basement of Nice’N’Sleazy wearing that miserable ratty old jumper.

Nor listening to Teardrop and being back in the flat as we watch our sixth consecutive episode of House consecutively over a Munchie Box.

I’ve never had a better answer for that question than “I don’t know.” Sometimes that hasn’t been true. But how can you package all of the above up in one pithy little statement? It’d be like describing all of human history in terms of population growth statistics.

Sure, I like music. Favorite band? Not a chance.