A few months back I had to do a two-hour road trip with A&D regular Susan Sons, aka HedgeMage, who is an interesting and estimable person in almost all ways except that she actually … likes … country music.
I tried to be stoic when stupid syrupy goo began pouring out of the car radio, but I didn’t do a good enough job of hiding my discomfort to prevent her from noticing within three minutes flat. “If I leave this on,” she observed accurately to the 11-year-old in the back seat, “Eric is going to go insane.”
Since said 11-year more or less required music to prevent him from becoming hideously bored and restive, all three of us were caught between two fires. Susan, ever the pragmatist, went looking through her repertoire for pieces I would find relatively inoffensive.
After a while this turned into a sort of calibration exercise – she’d put something on, assay my reaction to see where in the range it fell between mere spasmodic twitching and piteous pleas to make it stop, and try to figure what the actual drive-Eric-insane factors in the piece were.
After a while a curious and interesting pattern emerged…
I already knew of having some preferences in this domain. I dislike anything with steel guitars in it; conversely, I am less repelled by and can sometimes even enjoy subgenres like bluegrass, fiddle music and Texas swing that are centered on other instruments. I find old-style country, closer to its Irish traditional roots, far easier to take than the modern Nashville sound. Blues influence also helps.
But it turns out that most of these preferences are strongly correlated with one very simple binary-valued property, something Susan had the domain knowledge to identify consciously after a sufficient sample but I did not.
It turns out that what I hate above all else about country music is singers with faked accents.
I had no idea, but there’s a lot of this going around, apparently. The rules of the modern country idiom require performers who don’t naturally speak with a thick Southern-rural accent to affect one when they sing. The breakthrough moment when we figured out that this was what was making me want to chew my own leg off to escape it was when she cued up a song by some guy named Clint Black who really natively has that accent. We discovered that even though he plays the modern Nashville sound, the result only makes me feel mildly uncomfortable, as opposed to tortured.
The first interesting thing about this is that I was completely unaware that I had been reacting to the fake/nonfake distinction. But once we recognized it, the entire pattern of my subgenre preferences made sense. Duh, of course I’d have had less unpleasant experiences with styles that are less vocal-centered. And, in general, the longer ago a piece of country music was recorded, the more likely that the singers’ accents were genuine.
I think it is even quite likely that I acquired a conditioned dislike of steel guitars precisely because they are strongly co-morbid with fake accents.
It is not news that there is something distinctly unusual about the way I acquire and process language phonology: recently, for example, I wrote about having absorbed the phonology of German even though I don’t speak it, and I have previously noted the fact that I pick up speech accents very quickly on immersion (sometimes without intending to).
But this only raises more questions that belong under the “brains are weird” category. One group: what in the heck is my recognition algorithm for “fake accent”? How did I learn one? Why did I learn one? What in the hell does my unconscious mind find useful about this?
A second is: how reliable is it? We think, from Susan’s sample of a couple dozen tracks, that it’s pretty robust, at least relative to her knowledge about singer idiolects. But in a controlled experiment in which I was trying to spot fakes, how much better would I do than chance? What would my rates of false negatives and false positives be? The question is trickier than it might appear; conscious attempts to run the fake-accent recognizer might interfere with it.
The third, and in some ways the most interesting: How did my fake-accent recognizer get tangled up with my response to music? They do communicate (nobody doubts that people with good pitch discrimination have an advantage in acquiring tonal languages) but they’re different brain subsystems; the organ of Broca doesn’t do music.
Does anyone in my audience know of research that might bear on these questions?
UPDATE: My commenters were insightful about this one and we’ve arrived at a theory that fits the observed facts. I now think what I am reacting to is severe exaggeration of dialect recognition features; this fits with the fact that I find spoken accent mockery in comedy unpleasant. The visceral quality of my reaction may be explained by superstimulation of my “You’re a liar!” social-deception circuitry.