What does it mean to have taste?

A technicolor dream puffy coat

I own a magic jacket.

Specifically, it is the Marine Layer Big Sky Puffer in Antique White Multi Chevron. Marine Layer offers a suite of similar bright, 80s, après-ski-inspired jackets, though mine in particular is no longer on sale. If anything ever happened to it, I would be exceedingly distressed. This jacket has stopped being an item of clothing in my closet and has become synecdochical of my aesthetic sensibilities. My taste is the Marine Layer Big Sky Puffer, and the Marine Layer Big Sky Puffer is my taste.

A rare non-stick figure from the archives

I call it a magic jacket because it still brings me joy a year into my tenure as its owner. When I put it on, it feels happy and new, and I am filled with anti-buyer’s remorse. It’s also a magic jacket because, when I’m wearing it, someone will almost always tell me they like it. Women will flag me down from the other side of the street and wave at me to take out my earbuds just so they can tell me how much they like my magic jacket.

Fooled you! Here’s a stick figure. (It’s funny that I believe my hair has this much volume)

Around the same time I bought the Marine Layer puffy coat, I also acquired a classic camel-colored trench coat from the RealReal. It was designer but heavily marked down. For a few years, influencers on Instagram and TikTok had been persuading me that this, the neutral trench, was a necessary staple in my wardrobe. It was not a fad; it was iconic, an investment piece, the hallmark of transitional Scandi-girl style.

My trench coat is fine. I like it fine. I don’t have buyer’s remorse, but I am not filled with joy when I wear it. No one has ever pursued me through a Trader Joe’s to ask where I got it. Ostensibly, acceptable taste is synchronous with likeability. And yet! No one likes my trench coat. At this point, you’re probably wondering if I just own a really ugly trench coat—but I think it’s actually more that the trench coat is so ubiquitous on the internet that it’s rendered invisible in real life. It no longer signifies anything.

Algorithmic Aesthetics

What does it mean to have taste? When we say that someone has taste, we mean one of two things: that they have “good” taste (taste we would like to emulate) or that they have “singular” taste (taste that reflects their internal selves in an authentic-seeming way). I started thinking about this after listening to Ezra Klein’s interview with Kyle Chayka, How to Discover Your Own Taste, which led me to read Chayka’s new book, Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture. The premise is that in an era of algorithmically-driven behavior, our tastes become increasingly streamlined. Certain trends become popular because they are easily photographed and distributed online (think: Icelandic hot springs, Millennial pink coffee shops, monochromatic balletcore outfits). These things become popular because we are inundated with them. They seem representative of cool people living cool lives, and so, naturally, we want them for ourselves.

This was not, and I cannot emphasize this enough, worth drawing

So, short of being intentionally contrarian, how do you develop a personal sense of taste? Does it even matter? I would argue it does matter, if not from a sense of self, then at least from a financial perspective—if you buy everything trendy, you will be buying things forever. Also, because it feels squicky to let big tech dictate your personality.

Book Snobs

When my first book came out, someone asked me, “Would you rather 50% of people like this book or 1% of people LOVE this book?” I said—and I think this is still true, financial considerations be damned—that I would rather create things that change one person’s life than mildly amuse lots of people. But this isn’t the kind of content algorithms favor. On Goodreads, a 4-star rating means a lot of readers liked it a lot. But I’d rather read a 3.6-star book that a reviewer I trust says changed their life.

I love the New York Times best-books-of-the-year lists. Invariably, though, there are people in the comment section saying, “I can’t believe you left off X bestselling book! Stop being elitist! Doesn’t popularity mean anything?” At the risk of sounding unbearably snobbish (soz): If you only read one book this year, I don’t really want you to recommend it to me. Frankly, I don’t trust you. I’m going to assume that you just read an incredibly popular book. But if you read 100 books this year, I will drop everything to read your favorite.

But here’s my caveat: While I read lots of books every year, I don’t watch lots of movies, so I’m more likely to enjoy an entertaining but derivative movie. As a relatively passive movie consumer, I won’t realize it’s derivative. So maybe it’s not that people who read 100 books a year have the best recommendations—they just have the best recommendations for other people who read 100 books a year.

Broad vs. Deep Appeal

Chayka talks about cultural artifacts becoming increasingly ambient—meaning, existing without requiring all of our attention. It’s a push toward culture with broad (if shallow) appeal. He calls the Instagramified interior design aesthetic “AirSpace.” You can enter a coffee shop in any hemisphere and find pale pink walls, abundant plants, and Edison bulbs. An AirSpace coffee shop is the perfect place for a digital nomad to order an oat latte and open up their laptop. But you could be anywhere. And if you could be anywhere, then you’re sort of nowhere. For what it’s worth, I get the point, but I love a plant and an Edison bulb. It’s possible I have not thought enough about interior design to have taste.

My trench coat is ambient fashion. It asks for no one’s attention (is this why spies wear them?). But taste comes from attention. Understanding your personal taste is a process of really, truly focusing on a thing, of reading the 100 books, of watching the movie without checking your phone, of looking at all the coats and noticing how they make you feel. We can’t possibly have taste in every realm. There aren’t enough hours. But you can (should?) pay attention to things that matter to you—books, or movies, or music, or fashion, or the interior design of coffee shops. Maybe that’s the grand, meta-question of taste—if you can’t have taste in everything, in what do you want to have taste?

Currently reading: Prophet Song because it won the Booker and I feel like I should. May switch to the audiobook because I cannot emotionally handle the lack of paragraph breaks (lol)

Non-urgent thought of the week: When did everyone stop putting stickers on their water bottles? Where do I put my stickers now?

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