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The Good Listener: For Thanksgiving, Is There Music Everyone Can Agree On?

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the Kung Fu Panda DVD to replace the one we wore out is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on a playlist for the whole family.

Joe writes via email: "Thanksgiving will be at my family's place this year, and I'm having fun with the meal-planning. All the stress, though, is built around how my relatives and I get along. We love each other, but ... you know how families are with politics and different tastes and all that.

"I thought it might be nice, since my wife and I are doing the cooking, to play some of our favorite music instead of having the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and other stuff like football games on in the background. My wife says I'm making too big a deal out of it, and that I should focus on the meal and family togetherness. But music is a big part of my life, and... OK, I'll admit it: I hate the Macy's Parade, and I don't watch football. Should I even bother thinking about music at a time like this? Am I naive for thinking my whole family can agree on something?"

I can't speak for your specific family, but unanimity is hard to come by, especially when it comes to music. All Songs Considered hosts Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton have explored this idea in some detail — even going so far as to craft a complex poll in search of a canon from which no one deviates — and found contrarianism where even the most beloved albums are concerned.

I don't have data to back this up, but I wouldn't be surprised if declarations of unanimous love don't fuel more backlash than they quell. When you introduce a song to me by telling me that it's unmistakably the best song of the year, I'm bound to subconsciously hold it to that standard — and most likely find it lacking. This sort of thinking is especially common in music, where tastes differ so widely, the available offerings are so diverse and consensus is virtually impossible to find.

But there's also a larger challenge at work, which we'll call the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Conundrum: namely, that the more a piece of entertainment is crafted with the intention of serving everyone, the less likely it is to be viewed as great by anyone. That parade is for your 3-year-old nephew, your aunt with the motivational Ziggy figurines and your disagreeable grandpa; it's even trying to be for you. Though anything can be fodder for snide commentary if you're sarcastic enough, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is engineered to be enjoyed by everyone on the exact same level. That's what it's for. That's why they hold it on the morning of Thanksgiving.

I don't know you, so this is a bit of a stab in the dark, but you strike me as someone whose tastes in music are not painstakingly focus-grouped to appeal to the broadest possible swath of humanity. Which is to say, if your goal is for each member of your family to approach you sheepishly, ask what you're playing, and then admiringly share your appreciation, then you're probably going to come away disappointed.

You're more likely to encounter the double-edged sword that is no one noticing your music at all. Most music nerds have done this at one point or another: played music they love for a crowd of people, only to have everyone talk over it the entire time. (The nerve of people, talking to each other at a party!) I'd encourage you to prepare yourself for that possibility — up to and including the inevitable moment when someone asks, "Hey, can I turn this off so we can watch the game?"

You can use that moment to stand on ceremony and explain your preference for music — you do have that right, seeing as how you're the part of the family that's doing all the cooking and hosting. But if your goal is to get everyone to feel the same way you do, then you've come to the wrong holiday.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email atallsongs@npr.orgor tweet@allsongs.

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