The impossibility of defining taste

Of the things I tend to think about too much, the concept of personal taste has lingered on my mind for longer than it should have. By “personal taste,” I mean specifically how the differences in perception that we all depend on for unique thought and recollection cause us also to experience our own likes and dislikes – music, food, movies, people – in a way that’s vastly different from those around us.

I’ve recently taken a gig as a beer columnist for our local newspaper, and these internal arguments about personal taste have ramped up accordingly. I’ve found there’s nothing more difficult than writing about literal taste – about what makes a beer good, and what floral notes are found within, and why someone should drink and enjoy a certain kind of beer – because my own tastes seem to vary wildly from what’s typically found on a beer rating site like BeerAdvocate.

In this way, I’ve been forced to write in a way that sidesteps critical taste altogether. I’m wary of the BeerAdvocate model, which dictates ratings based on specific criteria. I’m wary of any rating system that doesn’t take into account experience, context and, above all, personal taste.

Though many of us are tempted to confirm our taste by finding out what others think, our taste isn’t necessarily built through consensus. The things we like are determined by the experiences we encounter. The beer I like, the music I like, the people I like, the books I like – all of these are influenced by context, even more than they’re influenced by content.

Personal taste crates outliers. We all have a Hall and Oates hidden away somewhere – something so out of tune with the rest of our collected taste that there’s no explanation but that it has made the rare combination of emotion, history and pure unbridled enjoyment.

I listen to things differently than you do. You taste things differently than I do. My palate is dull and unrefined. Your ear for music might be tempered toward jazz, while mine gravitates toward guitars. Taste is always relative, and judging otherwise is foolish.

It’s also the hardest thing we can overcome. Our taste is the most visible part of our personality – from the clothes we wear to the music we listen to.

Criticizing personal taste, trying to put words to something that’s often wordless, comparing dissimilar concepts in a vain attempt at exposition. We struggle to explain why we like the things we like, and why those things are justifiable. And the worst part is: there’s no way around it.

We like what we like. We’re evolutionally determined to discredit the things we don’t. Personal taste is what we fight against, and it’s what makes us individuals.

This was lovingly handwritten on August 20th, 2012