I don’t like the Foo Fighters. But I would like to like them. Let me explain. Every time I see or read an interview with Dave Grohl (the band’s singer and guitar player), I think “he’s the greatest guy in the world. I have to listen to the Foo Fighters.” And when I talk with friends who share my musical taste they tell me, “Oh yeah, you gotta listen to the Foo Fighters.” So I excitedly download a Foo Fighters album, and as I play it I’m ready to like it … but then I’m disappointed. “Meh,” I say, “I just don’t like the music.” Despite my positive inclination towards it, despite the fact that I should like it, despite the fact that lots of people who like what I like, like it … I don’t like it. It does nothing for me.
Of course the Foo Fighters aren’t unique in this regard. I could name other bands who similarly leave me flat, even though I would like to like them—Slipknot for one. And it’s not just music, or even mainly music, that delivers this disappointing experience. There are plenty of television shows that I would like to like but don’t like. 30 Rock is the prime example. I love Tina Fey; I love Alec Baldwin; I love Tracy Morgan. People who liked the same shows I did—shows like The Office—repeatedly told me I would love 30 Rock. So repeatedly I tried to love it and found that I didn’t even like it: I couldn’t even make it through watching most episodes. What gives?
Friends of mine with similar tastes love Caddyshack. I should too. I love almost anything with Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, or Rodney Dangerfield. How can I possibly not like Caddyshack? But I don’t. The same goes for more highbrow movies. Philosophically, I’m an existentialist, and I love existentialist novels like Nausea and The Stranger. So people tell me I would love Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. But I don’t. I don’t even like it. I fall asleep when I try to watch it.
There are novels too that I would like to like but don’t like. I love Tolstoy’s short novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and I like his very long novel Anna Karenina. So I’d like to like his ultra-long War and Peace. Lots of people say it’s the greatest novel ever written. But I don’t like it. I’d also like to like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and people always told me I would like it. But now that I’ve read it, I have to say I don’t like it.
There are lots of bands, books, shows, and movies that I unapologetically dislike. But such is not the case with any of the examples I have mentioned. I don’t like them, but I don’t dislike them either. I’ve given up on the Foo Fighters, and I don’t think I’ll re-read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But somehow I don’t blame the band or the book for my not liking them the way I would Green Day or The Great Gatsby. I don’t like punk-lite or Fitzgerald’s flop, and I don’t have any difficulty saying why.
My musing on what I like and don’t like has led me to wonder about a couple of things. Does what a person would like to like but doesn’t like reveal more about him or her than what she likes or dislikes? I tend to think it does, because it calls for honest self-searching on a level that reeling off a list of likes and dislikes does not. I enjoy the regular “By the Book” segment in the New York Times Sunday book review where authors talk about, among other things, books they like and dislike. Sometimes they also talk about books that are guilty pleasures and others that they are embarrassed not to have read. Too often their answers come across as crafted to create an impression. Instead, I’d like to hear about what authors would like to like but don’t like. That seems harder to fake, and it might reveal more.
My musing has also left me wondering about the kind of control we have, and don’t have, over what we like. Some tastes, it seems, cannot be acquired no matter how much they are cultivated—I couldn’t have tried any harder with 30 Rock. This strikes me as a good thing. I’ve often wondered to what extent the accidents of upbringing and environment shaped my various preferences. No doubt, the influence has been great, but clearly it cannot be complete. Even when I want to like something and make an effort to like it, I won’t necessarily like it. So at least I can say some of my preferences are authentically my own. They are the things that I like to like. Long ago I ceased classifying things as guilty pleasures. What I like I like proudly from AC/DC to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. What I’d like to like, it seems, is another story.