On the Existential Pleasures of Listening to Nickelback (or, how to justify your bad musical tastes using Jean Paul Sartre)

YOU KNOW WHEN you meet somebody new and you think they’re a really cool person you’d like to spend more time with, and you’ve said “me too!” so many times that you begin to suspect that you’ve met your interdimensional doppelganger? You know when you’re talking to that person and your chit chat is going swimmingly, and you know you’ve made a lifelong friend − but then it happens… your conversation with your potential new-found friend turns to the question,

“What kind of music you like?”

You knew that question was coming, didn’t you?

We’ve all had this conversation:

Potential New Friend (PNF): “So… what kind of music do you like?”
You: “Oh, I don’t know. I listen to a bunch of different stuff. I’ve been listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen lately.”
PNF: (perks up and raises eyebrow) “Oh, really?” (casual chat about musical interests now becomes an inquisition) “I’m really into Cohen. You hear a lot of people say they listen to his music these days. Most people say their favorite song is “Hallelujah” because they heard it in a Shrek movie.”
You: (thinks to self, “but my favorite song is Hallelujah.” Does frantic mental inventory of Leonard Cohen songs other than “Hallelujah”) “Yeah. I see that a lot, too.” (desperately attempts to change subject) “I just heard they’re making a remake of the movie Clue with Ryan Reynolds.” (nervous chuckle)

We’ve all experienced the inevitable moment when naming your favorite band turns into a pop quiz.




Sure, you can call yourself a fan of a band, but true fans not only can easily name all the members of the Wu Tang Clan, but also know that Johnny Cash definitely DID NOT write “Hurt”, the name of the hidden track on Beck’s Odelay, and why Radiohead doesn’t play “Creep” live.

As a Steely Dan fan, I can tell you I know a quiz is coming any time I talk to another fan who calls the band “The Dan”.

Anyone who has ever had the conversation knows when someone asks, “what’s your favorite music?”, they’re giving you an authenticity test. The point is to see how much you know.

The more obscure the band or the song, the more we can weed out the purists from the poseurs.

In short, the question is, ARE YOU THE REAL DEAL?


It’s kinda the same with philosophy.

The quiz is all about authenticity. So is philosophy.

Well, some philosophy is.

Actually, that’s what a bunch of existentialism is all about.

Wait. Let me stop to define a term right here.

Existentialism is:

In simpler terms, existentialism is a philosophy concerned with finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility. The belief is that people are searching to find out who and what they are throughout life as they make choices based on their experiences, beliefs, and outlook. And personal choices become unique without the necessity of an objective form of truth. An existentialist believes that a person should be forced to choose and be responsible without the help of laws, ethnic rules, or traditions. (definition courtesy of allaboutphilosophy.org)

If you know anything about existentialism, you’ve probably heard the names: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus…

Yes. Nietzsche was an existentialist. Look it up.


Here’s something fun to do: start a conversation with somebody about Nietzsche. If they refer to Nietzsche, roll your eyes, call them a poseur, and demand that they take off that Slayer T-shirt.

While I’m at it, let me explain what philosophers mean when they talk about authenticity.

In philosophy, authenticity is:

Authenticity is a philosophical concept that denotes the genuine, original, true state of human existence.

If you took a wild guess at the popularity of existentialist philosophers according to the number of humorous memes, you’d likely conclude (probably correctly, unless you’re asking someone who is easily impressed by the trench coat wearing, cigarette smoking types) that the French existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre (1905 –1980), is the most popular of the existentialist philosophers.

Wait − is saying French existentialist redundant?

Sartre’s popularity might also have to do with the fact that he looked like this:


I don’t mean to knock the guy, but that’s a face made for memes.

According to existentialism, the universe has no inherent purpose; it is cold and impersonal. There’s no rationality There is no meaning.

And because the universe is meaningless, we, our lives, are also meaningless.

That is, until we give our lives meaning.

When we realize the meaninglessness of life, life’s lack of meaning leaves us with the sense that life is absurd. We experience anguish. Sartre calls the anguish “nausea”: We can rid ourselves from “nausea” by creating meaning for our own lives. Living life according to own choices is; to define who we are and what meaning our lives have, is living authentically. Living authentically is path to the right kind of life. The good life.

A purposeless universe means there is no grand plan for us – we are completely free to choose to give our lives meaning.


However, complete freedom comes with a catch: the price of being free means we, alone determine what kind of life we live. We, alone determine who we are. That’s the burden we carry.

We are responsible for who we are*.

Sartre wrote, “Man is only what he does. Man becomes what he chooses to be.”

You see, society wants us to conform. We are pressured to adhere to cultural conventions and societal expectations placed upon us by our families, friends, teachers, religious leaders, and cultural institutions.

The existentialists say that we must reject idea that we become what we are expected to be. We must throw off peer pressure and the urge to conform. We must live for ourselves. Only through our own choices can we give our lives meaning.


Living according to our own choices is living authentically.

An authentic life is a life of:

The problem is, being who we choose to be isn’t easy. In the face of societal pressure, it’s easier to go with the flow. Just going with the flow and doing what everyone else wants us to do (with our lives) is living inauthentically.

It’s easier to live inauthentically.

The existentialist says, DO NOT GO WITH THE FLOW!!!

Sartre calls going with the flow − the lack of authenticity − “Bad Faith”.

Bad faith, according to Sartre, is the (incorrect) belief that we are not free to legislate our own destinies.

Bad faith is the result of our fear of the consequences of our choices.
…. which brings me back to music and the quiz.

As I said before, the question, WHAT KIND OF MUSIC DO YOU LIKE? is a test of authenticity.


It’s a test to determine if we are being true to ourselves. Are we really telling our potential BFF our musical tastes, or are we blowing pretentiousness-flavored smoke up someone’s b-hole? We shouldn’t say our favorite kind of music, song, or band is such-and-such and so-and-so because it’s popular or because we think it’s what we’re supposed to like or because saying it’s our favorite music makes us sound cool.
Our musical preferences should be what we want to listen to; what sounds pleasing to our ears, not because it’s number one on the Billboard charts or what’s trending on YouTube.

If you like Nickelback, like Nickelback.


If you only listen to jazz recorded between 1955 to 1965, hey, do you. That’s your thing.





If you think that bro country is the greatest genre of music man ever created, believe it – so long as you believe it is because that’s what you want to do.

You’d be wrong about bro country, but what matters is that your love of the shittiest music ever created by human beings, aka bro country is YOUR choice.





What matters is that all of your choices are your choices.

So, go ahead. Be a fan of John Mayer but be a fan of John Mayer authentically.

Ok. Alright, I’ll say it. “Gravity” is a pretty good song.

I like it authentically.






* Sartre famously wrote “Existence precedes essence” (French: l’existence precede l’essence). That is, we are all born with no inherent purpose or predetermined spirit− but what kind of person we become is the consequence of our own actions and choices.



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