Why I Hate List-Making

We lose too much of what’s great about living with music by playing the album-ranking game. posted on

Fall hasn’t yet arrived but I’m already bracing myself for the great end-of-year fracas – not the blur of twinkle lights and wrapping paper and way too many cookies that is the month between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, but that other head-swimming annual occurrence, The Grand Season of Listmaking. For some, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, worthy of carols and movies starring young Jimmy Stewart. But every December I feel more devoid of the spirit that allows so many of my fellow music fans and critics to distill their listening years down into tidy, painstakingly ranked catalogs of taste. I’m Scrooge before the ghosts come calling. I’m the Grinch, pre-coronary enlargement.

For those who delight in list-making, though, Christmas came early this year. In August, Pitchfork opened up voting for its first-ever People’s List, asking readers to vote for their top albums released between the years of 1996 and 2011, the site’s first 15 years. Radiohead’s OK Computer topped the poll. I’m a contributing writer to Pitchfork, but I didn’t file a ballot, in part because I got so hung up trying to reconcile all of the music I loved and all the different ways I loved it over that decade and a half — that span of time comprises my late adolescence and the entirety of my adult life so far. How could I rank the albums I loved that summer against ones I loved at age 12, or in college, or last year, or last week?

To be clear, the lists I hate are the ranked ones — not unordered collections of favorites or other related items, but the kind where the number order is most definitely meant to imply an ascending or descending degree of superiority. These lists don’t always crop up at the end of the year, but they often do. They have long been a way for music publications (magazines, and now blogs too) to establish their own sort of canon while currying the favor (and/or drawing the ire, or at least eyeballs) of readers, and somewhere along the line the practice became de rigueur among fans, too.

Although, if you go by the very beautifully presented data profile of the People’s List respondents, it’s a practice vastly more popular among dudes — 88 percent of the Pitchfork list-makers were male, just 12 percent female. This makes sense to me, anecdotally at least; last fall, when I started a Tumblr project called Unbest to offer folks an outlet to write in-depth about music they loved in 2011 — not just make a list — about three-quarters of the respondents were female. Lists are talked about in terms of what they “missed” and what they “forgot,” like they’re spelling quizzes and not fundamentally whimsical expressions of one staff or one person’s personal taste.

List-making does such violence to the actual experience of living and listening that I can barely stomach it. I don’t relish a single step of the process — not the parsing, not the ranking, not the final forcing of a list out into the world and not the subsequent defending of all the arbitrarily made decisions that I feel inexplicably defensive about as soon as they’re inevitably questioned. I resent the ritual’s false bracketing of time, especially the idea that my listening habits reset each January 1 (or, with how year-end lists tend to creep these days, each November 30; one year, while I was on staff at Paste magazine, we began to hammer out our best-of-the-year list in October). When I plug an album into a list, I feel like I’m sealing it in amber — it’s trapped there, forever; it will never not be my number one, or my number three, or my number seven, sealed there with all these other specimens that it often shares nothing with other than the 12-month time span they were pushed into the world. Writing down resolutions at the beginning of the year is supposed to make them easier to keep. Inking my favorites at the end of the year renders them a staid artifact, something forever of the past, not something to grow and change with me on into the next year.

Are music magazines and blogs to blame, training us to think this is the way we’re supposed to think despite the fact that lists often serve no grander purpose than a nightcrawler on a fishook? Maybe it was High Fidelity that codified this very particular brand of random, rigid, exclusionist thinking as the de facto mode of modern music fandom, even as it pretty clearly showed — in novel and movie form, no less! — the cultural and psychological and romantic pitfalls of those same habits? I just desperately want someone to blame for making my love of music take on the air of both math class and sports, two things I got into music to avoid in the first place.

Often all I can come up with to justify the whole list-making rigmarole is the pure voyeuristic pleasure of seeing what strange false order other folks have managed to wrestle out of their unquantifiable listening lives. But, in August, another explanation flashed into focus as I stared at my empty People’s List ballot, after registering and before deciding there was no way I could rank Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea either over or under Hanson’s Middle of Nowhere.

I realized I could enter the name of any record ever reviewed by Pitchfork and the album art would pop onto my blank screen. I could populate and sort my ballot and publish it and seamlessly share it with all my social networks, letting the mass of thumbs-ups and hearts and stars (and the outrage, feigned and real!) wash over me. It would be so easy. It would look so good.

This element of performance, of sorting out some idealized taste profile for public approval, comes standard with almost all best-of lists and public displays of affection. But something about the People’s List exercise just seemed conspicuously social. I briefly considered filing a ballot and then not sharing it with anyone, forcing myself to block out the siren song of the omnipresent Facebook and Twitter buttons on every page of the site. I wondered if that would make it easier; I wondered if it would be a truly radical act or a just waste of time. If a tree falls in the woods after proclaiming Yankee Hotel Foxtrot their number one record of the last 15 years but before they got a chance to Tweet about it, did it even really happen? I never made up my mind.

Around the same time the People’s List results were published, the British film magazine Sight & Sound announced the results of its every-10-years poll of movie critics worldwide, in which longtime favorite Citizen Kane ceded the title of “greatest movie of all time” to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The mechanics of the two polls couldn’t have been more dissimilar: The Sight & Sound voting is open to a select roster of critics and ballots are private — quite a bit more like actual ballots than those of the People’s List. But still, I find that my feelings about the People’s List echo those of Slate critic Dana Stevens in this post slagging on the film poll: “Maybe this is what bugs me about the reception of the Sight & Sound list: that the document’s status as a made object, a contingent result of countless small compromises, gets glossed over in the conversations about what belongs where.”

On the Sight & Sound ballots, those compromises are pragmatic choices — ”eccentric passions,” Stevens calls them, ones “smoothed out … in favor of consensus.” This kind of strategic approach seems more possible, and may perhaps be advisable, when a ballot is just a ballot. But when a ballot is also a kind of statement of purpose, a public declaration of taste, those compromises are far more wily, less easily conceded to. I wonder: How many People’s List voters stuck OK Computer in their top spot just because it seemed like the album a certain kind of person — a certain kind of person they wanted to be — would stick in their top spot? How many wanted to vote for OK Computer at number one but didn’t want to be the kind of person who did that? How many other minutia of placement or inclusion or exclusion were determined by what might be thought by some second party?

When all other criteria are unclear, when the very terms of the ranking itself is unknown, when the seductive tug of social sharing is so nigh, it makes sense that we would default to these questions of likability and social currency. We look to our fellow humans for guidance in times of confusion, and we look to them always for approbation. But I think it comes at a great cost. How many eccentric passions or “guilty pleasures” were smoothed over for the sake of maintaining some presumed level of social acceptability within the bounds of this already insanely-cramped form? What has been loaded into the canon just because it seemed like the better thing to say? We might gain a tidy list, but what do we lose?

In high school, I had a minivan covered with band bumper stickers — Wilco, Weezer, Ben Folds Five. And in a time when I was trying to force my minivan into being the harbinger of my super-special highly constructed social taste, I made those concessions, too (though hardly for the last time). There was one sticker that quite deliberately never made its way onto the back hatch. I had loved Hanson for a while, at 16 still bashfully considered them one of my favorite bands, and I had a sticker of their weird little logo. I held it in my hands many times, always almost ready to peel off the backing and slap it onto the van. But I was embarrassed. I didn’t think it would fit. Not that it wouldn’t fit on the van, but that it wouldn’t fit me, or the version of me I was trying to be. I was embarrassed then, and I’m embarrassed now by my embarrassment. I thought about atoning; I thought about throwing all my hangups into the wind and filing a People’s List ballot just to stick Middle of Nowhere up at the top spot. Instead, I did nothing. The absence of something can be a performance, too.

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