The Pop Cycle Part 2: Qualia

Last week, I wrote about how pop music is something of a cycle – what begins as a countercultural outcast genre becomes mainstream, just as popular artists gradually die away into obscurity. It’s easy enough to document this phenomenon because it’s merely an observance of human behavior.

“Okay, okay, I get the idea,” you might respond. “Popularity comes and goes. But why does something become popular one day and unpopular the next? How do you explain it?” The answer might be found in what psychologists have termed “qualia.”

Qualia refers to all of those subjective, individual experiences that we don’t really seem to have words for. How do you tell another person what a glass of wine smells and tastes like? What the color red looks like to you? How much a headache or labor pains hurt? These things are some of the most familiar experiences in humanity, but the hardest to explain because we all perceive them differently. Otherwise, every person would have identical tastes. It is because of qualia that we each have our own favorites.

Erwin Schrödinger (yup, that Schrödinger) sums it up like this: “The sensation of color cannot be accounted for by the physicist’s objective picture of light-waves. Could the physiologist account for it, if he had fuller knowledge than he has of the processes in the retina and the nervous processes set up by them in the optical nerve bundles and in the brain? I do not think so.

So yes, on one level, we each have different music tastes because we experience music differently in a sensory way. But this also goes a step further when we think about how people interact socially. Suppose you find an album you really like. It’s the best album you’ve listened to all year! You’re so excited that you have to tell your friends – but when you do, they reply, “That band? You like them? Are you even the friend I used to know?” Suddenly you are forced to question: are your tastes really terrible, or is the band itself actually…bad? Often, we don’t stand up for what we enjoy, allowing friends’ opinions to take precedence. After all, nobody wants to be the person whose music nobody likes (unless you are ironically). So yes, peer pressure isn’t just whether you accept drugs from random dealers on the street – it tests whether you are secure enough in your opinions to really support them.

But fear not, my friends. Pop culture isn’t exclusively a mob that will force you to like the mainstream on pain of death. This is where change comes in, fads come and go, and those who love the alternative and indie will eventually make it socially acceptable to love something out of the norm. Remember at the end of the day: your qualia are a part of who you are. Embrace your little window on life. Perhaps next week we can discuss the balance between your window and what’s going on out there.

Window wall

Part Three here!


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Richard Lyne

Richard is an ACU graduate who was graduated summa cum laude from Abilene Christian University's honors college with a major in English and a minor in business administration. He hopes to return to school for an MA degree at some point, but is currently managing a coffee kiosk at the local grocery store in Denton, Texas. He has written for the Appetizer since spring 2015.

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