Isaac Schankler
You Used to Like Terrible Music

You Used to Like Terrible Music

I’m going to admit what is probably my deepest, darkest musical secret. Of all the potentially career-ending things I’ve said online, this may potentially be the worst. Here we go: I was briefly really into the music of Yanni when I was a teenager.

I don’t have any good explanation or justification for this. The best I can say is that I guess I really liked synths? And, I don’t know, he played piano, and so did I, and he could emote without singing, in a really overwrought way. Recently I went back and listened to some tracks in the hope that I could find anything remotely redeeming in them, something that would rationalize my enthusiasm after the fact. But there was nothing I could latch onto in the aimless melodies, the poorly chosen synth patches, the excremental quality of the production, the self-congratulatory schmaltz slathered over everything.

If this seems superfluously harsh, it is more of an indictment of myself than anything. There is other music I liked during that period—e.g. Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Patrick O’Hearn—that I used to denounce, but gradually came around to appreciate again, though in a drastically different (and occasionally contradictory) manner. This is, I think, a healthy impulse, a good way to reintegrate your past musical selves and learn from them.

But what do you do when you simply can’t relate to a past self? Here’s the thing: tons of people still like Yanni. A lot. And I can’t write them off, because I used to occupy that space. But I can’t understand them either, any more than I can understand the 13 year old rocking out to Keys to Imagination on giant headphones (if such a thing can be said to be rocked out to) while reading a Tolkien novel (though while I’m being honest, it was probably actually a Dragonlance novel, statistically speaking).

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

28 thoughts on “You Used to Like Terrible Music

  1. Frank J. Oteri

    I have an even more embarrassing confession… In my late teens and early 20s, I was obsessed with synthesizers (initially because of an obsession with Karlheinz Stockhausen). That was also when, inspired by the photo of Stockhausen on the cover of the original 1981 paperback edition of Robin Maconie’s book The Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen, which was my Bible at that point in my life, I started letting my hair grow really long. My mother noticed my interest in synthesizers and my really long hair and she was initially mortified by it all, but then she started thinking it was O.K. because I was “just like Yanni.” In fact, several times she suggested I should grow a moustache so I would look even more like him! That was her frame of reference for all of this and she would even describe my music to others as “being like Yanni.” Now I was the one who was mortified. I went back and forth with the long hair for years and since more than a decade ago decided to just let it keep growing, despite the potential Yanni resemblance, though I refuse to grow a moustache and my fixation with synthesizers and electronics overall has waned considerably, probably in some way because of all of this. However, Isaac, you have set up an interesting aesthetic challenge for me. I aspire to appreciate all music, so maybe I need to give Keys to Imagination a closer listen. ;)

    1. Reena

      Frank, you kind of just blew my mind! I can’t even keep the thoughts of you and Yanni simultaneously in my mind, let alone relate them to one another…!

    2. Peter Flint

      First of all, there’s nothing inherently embarrassing about synthesizers. There’s a lot of fantastic synth music out there. (Though I’ll admit maybe not so much Yanni’s.) They’re just another musical tool like the ukelele or the accordion.
      As far as confessionals go, my musical genesis saw me, in the late 1970’s, deeply entranced by soft rock when I got my first FM radio. I somehow thought Dan Hill’s Sometimes When We Touch was some sort of pinnacle of excellence. I fortunately moved past those early tastes and I remind myself of that as my children now listen to some god-awful insipid pop music.
      We all go through phases. Some we come back to. Others not so much.

      1. Frank J. Oteri

        Peter, Sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that there’s anything embarrassing about synthesizers or any kind of electronic musical instruments. Anyone surfing around NewMusicBox this month will discover that there are few life stories as inspiration as that of Morton Subotnick. But when I read Isaac’s “confession” about Yanni, it reminded me of my own Yanni story and inspired me to actually tell it. In so doing I would have been remiss if I did not admit that back when I was in my early 20s I was not thrilled about the realization that my being a “long-haired synth playing musician” made me appear more like Yanni than Stockhausen. And, indeed, that realization, right or wrong, might have indirectly led me to be less interested in wielding a synth, although I ultimately kept the long hair. I still have several synths and every now and again I play around with them, but for better or worse electronic music has ceased being the thing that I identified with the most as a composer. As luck would have it, I’m now have a compositional and listening aesthetic that could/would be much more open to Yanni than it was back then, although I still have not really given his music the requisite listening time to think about it one way or the other. But as for having role models, despite my admiration for Stockhausen, now I just want to be myself, which is hard enough sometimes ;)

  2. Danvisconti

    Devil’s advocate question: if we’re as musically open minded as we seem to be on this site, I don’t really get the idea that listening to Yanni is embarrassing. I listen to freaking ENYA now and I’m not sure why I shoukd feel embarrassed by that fact–although I can certainly see why others would see it that way. Nice post, hilarious, and interesting topic for discussion!

    1. Frank J. Oteri


      Thanks for these words of wisdom. Of course you are right! We should not be embarrassed to listen to anything and I think now I really am inspired to track down a copy of Keys to Imagination; hopefully I can secure a mint vinyl copy of it in the not-too-distant future just to get the full effect! But I would like to point out a difference between being embarrassed to have liked something and being embarrassed that someone close to you thinks of your music a certain way. But of course, just as we should not be embarrassed about anything we listen to, we should perhaps also not be embarrassed about any music we happen to write or, perhaps even more significantly, not be embarrassed about how others will react to it… I have to think about this some more…. Stay tuned.


    2. Matt Marks

      I don’t think people *should* feel embarrassed about listening to certain music, or admitting that fact, but I believe it’s important to identify and understand such embarrassment and shame, if and when it arises. While ideally, a composer of ‘serious music’ would feel guilt-free and clean about listening to, say, Yanni, but if he/she were to bring it up in something like a new music panel it would certainly raise some eyebrows. Personally, I’m fascinated with guilty pleasures, to the point where it’s a central facet of my work. I’d be embarrassed *not* to have any guilty pleasures.

  3. Sam Merciers

    OK – This guy is an easy target for anyone who spends any time at all around sax nerds. Well, until recently I was making a living working on saxophones full time and that means heavy sax nerd concentration. My confession is that in high school, I was obsessed with the music of Kenneth Gorelick. You may know him by his stage name – Kenny G. The difference for me here Isaac, is that I totally own this. I was a kid trying to learn how to play saxophone and KENNY G HAD A VIDEO ON VH1!! You may remember Kenny’s breakthrough “adult contemporary” blockbuster “Songbird.” I wouldn’t say it was the songwriting that got me. Basically, Kenny G could slam up and down a a bluesily inflected pentatonic like crazy and what young sax player wouldn’t love that? To his credit, Kenny G has fantastic control over the horn and plays very well in tune. And for R&B applications (not his own compositions) he actually sound pretty hip. In fact, his sort of coming out party came at age 17 while still in high school. Barry White was on tour and his sax guy had gotten sick or something, so he was asking around for a local cat who could foot the bill just while he was in town. Someone put him in contact with Mr. Gorelick and through that contact, Kenny G was born. Jazzers hate on Kenny G as a default position. I think this is actually unfair because he is not a jazzer. If you think of him as Michael Bolton with sax instead of vocals, then he’s great at what he does. Michael Bolton might not be you bag, but Kenny does it great. AND THE REASON I PROUDLY OWN THIS EMBARRASSING TEEN LOVE OF KENNY G? Learning Kenny G licks has made me more money as a professional musician than anything else by a huge margin. I’ve played in many bar bands / top 40 acts / church ‘praise bands’ who would go on and on about how great I sounded compared the some other guy (who was undoubtedly “better” than I was) who always sounded like he was trying to shoe horn bebop into a simplistic pop music. So thanks you Kenny G for all you have given me.

  4. Allan J. Cronin

    It is tempting to take the approach of something like, “I no longer recognized the person I was back then.” but that is just melodrama (or pscyhodrama). The fact is that we change and so do our tastes.
    I can’t get rid of the guilt y feelings of even admitting to myself that I once found Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Bizet’s Carmen suite to be the pinnacle of classical composition and that both Wendy Carlos and Herb Alpert shared my turntable in their heyday. There are some I can’t bring myself to confess publicly. Music is highly stigmatized but what would you expect of an art form that so directly appeals to the emotions.
    I aspire to giving music a chance but not to liking all music. I like most music and many times I come to an understanding of music I have previously not liked. But I also feel badly about not liking some music. Wagner never appealed to me and that has gotten me my share of criticism. I think sometimes that I owe it to myself and the music I don’t like to work at appreciating it but I might have to choose between doing that and pursuing music that does speak to me. So I tend to go with the flow of what intrigues me. I’ll talk to an analyst about the guilt issues.

  5. Istvan B'Racz

    Haha! This is an awesome discussion! We all have our moments. If you make moolah off of playing someone else’s music, I see nothing wrong with that. After all, I’m sure many an orchestral classical musician rolls their eyes when they have to play a pops concert, but people pay for it. Musicians need moolah. Just as long as one doesn’t unfairly define themselves by money/fame, and can “compartmentalize” their mtiple musical personas…Hell, it may even be good to be able to play styles that make you initially shudder. I had to play “The Hustle” in marching band in high school (back in caveman times) for almost 5 miles…now I have involuntary convulsions if I hear it. My own confession is I loved “April Wine” as a kid…doesn’t “do it” for me at all any more…but at least it’s not as bad as Yanni!! (Haha kidding).

  6. David McMullin

    I generally find that if I ever really liked some particular music, I still do. I appreciate more and more music as I encounter it, but I don’t really outgrow anything that used to mean something to me. The only exception is when the thing I used to like was essentially derivative of something else I hadn’t experienced yet; then when I hear the real thing, the copycat version can lose its attraction. On the flip side, music I used to dislike sometimes wins me over eventually.

  7. Sean Hickey

    There is no such thing as a guilty pleasure when it comes to music. Only a repressed catholic could have coined that term. But Yanni, man, that confession is best left unsaid.

  8. Andrew Shapiro

    Thank you, Isaac, for sharing these thoughts. Since entering music school my brain has focused mightily on this subject. What music is “OK” to like and what isn’t “OK” to like? To me, part of maturing –as a person and artist– has been the emotional (NOT intellectual) realization that this subject can never be resolved– unless one finds a certain sort of “peace” within oneself :) Otherwise the topic keeps going around and around and around (taking everyone’s subjectivity into it) and doesn’t really go anywhere…

    Personally, I don’t know much about Yanni or his music other than that he’s incredibly famous, worth about $40 million, has travelled the world many times over and was married to that chick from “Dynasty.” That seems pretty hip to me! But his backstory doesn’t really say much about the music itself. As such, I just listened to a couple of excerpts provided on his Wiki page and it seemed to me like straight ahead film/production/underscore/soundbed music. Doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get to low. (Btw, I’ve also learned that the guy has got some serious balls by taking some intense financial risks for the sake of his career and that his charitable giving and fundraising, particularly for public television in America and other countries, is legendary. Also, this dude has the second best-selling video of all time (first is “Thriller”) and once played for a live/television audience in China of over 700 MILLION people.)

    A handful of years ago when I walked into the Union Square (NYC) Barnes & Noble bookstore I noticed a sign with a photo of Yanni announcing the release of his autobiography. And while I thought it might be interesting to skim through it, I thought it might be even more interesting to do this while sitting in a spot where everyone coming off the escalator on the second floor could see me reading it (I ostentatiously held up the book for all to see). I was curious to learn: would anyone laugh? snicker? make fun of me? point at me and giggle to their friend(s)? hit on me? ask me where I got it? think that I was lame for reading it? Not a one. (Well, except to say bookstores are a always a great place to “meet” people.) People are far more interested in their own worries rather than what some dude is reading in the bookstore.

    If artistic “success” can be at least partially defined as a successful journey towards self-acceptance (rather than what some s**t head music professor or journalist who needs to “approve” everything prior to anyone else being “entitled” to enjoy it), the subjective opinion of others is irrelevant. My sense is that when Yanni’s head hits the pillow at night he’s pretty much okay with himself.

    P.S. Dan, thanks for bringing Enya’s name into the discussion. Another Irish name I’d throw out is Clannad, the group Enya was in prior to going solo. Have you seen the movie “Patriot Games?” There’s a part when one IRA terrorist goes to the house of another IRA terrorist and knocks on the door. It’s opened and the guy gets blown away. A Clannad track plays under this– call it Ambient, Gallic, World, New Age, Soupy, Cheesy, Pathetic, Unsophisticated, Worthy-of-Derision-From-Academic-Idiocy (and Cluelessness) or whatever you want. That music there is perfect. I don’t give a f*** what people think of me or my opinion for digging it. If you don’t know the book, I think you might enjoy checking out “The Ambient Century” by Mark Prendergast. He’s got a little essay on Enya which I found to be quite interesting.

  9. Reetesh

    Interesting, especially the quantifiers used and the adjectives.

    To see something as good, or to reciprocate liking something someone else has created, one’s mind would have to align to the other’s.

    As you’ve grown older you grew to knowing a certain set of rules that define what the “aim” for a melody should be, also you began to move towards liking a certain set of synth patches.

    Your specificity for things that describe music , grew to be more… Specific. Which is why you are currently able to create music of certain (your own) style. Which is why something that is deviating so much from what you like (or defines your taste at this current state) makes you not like it, disregard it’s quality even.

    Well, I think this is the same for everything … As a person grows older, time bends them, their own experiences, or education which speaks of certain set of rules passed down from generations (which define “good” music/writing/drawing) biases them to liking certain things .

    Hence I guess people when younger are more open and experimental. Then grow very specific and section off things.

    Also, if my tone was not clear , I like the topic and the way it was presented :) Wouldn’t want my “poor” writing style to come off as me trying to be rude or anything :P

  10. Nick Norton

    This is the first time I’ve admitted this to anyone. I was a huge Limp Bizkit fan in sixth and seventh grade.

    Oh god, that hurts to write. That said, I may not have gotten into punk and hardcore without them leading me to Deftones (and then to, what’s it called, better music), which eventually got me to noise, which got me to modern classical (or whatever we’re calling ourselves these days). So…thanks Fred Durst?

  11. DrMatt

    The first recording I got my hands on was “The music goes down and around”. Not Tommy Dorsey but some really third-rate band. I hadn’t heard anything else, so it stuck.
    Then I rescued from the trash an LP of Lennie leading the NYPO through New World Symphony, and my world was shaken. Then La Mer shook it up again, and then Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste shook it up again, and then Vox Balaenae. Now I thrive on shaking things up, and cannot go back.

  12. Daniel Felsenfeld

    Isn’t there HONESTLY room for 1) enough different kinds of music in our lives and 2) enough BAD music in our lives, whatever that means? I know this site is populated by the elite’s elite and all, but I think we all have our “guilty pleasures,” or in some instances just pleasures. It shouldn’t be a shameful admission to admit these things–that something not technically excellent gave you shivers at some point for whatever unknowable reason one gets shivers. As someone who came of age in the 80s, I am deeply attached for personal reasons to a whole host of music that might embarrass me–though the mere thought of what is or is not “embarrassing” is the result of a certain kind of snobbishness and the blowback of other people’s vanity. I’m not saying can’t we all just be nice, but I think admitting that we are all complex creatures with a seemingly endless farrago of needs, and that a pile of music is never enough to fill them (if we are curious)? Liking Yanni–then or now–ought not to be anything other than personal taste, not a heated confession.

  13. Christopher Bailey

    I went through this 3 -week “obsession” of sorts with Phil Collins. Unfortunately, this was not when I was 14; it was last June (I’m 40). I grew up as a classical music nerd, so apart from the partially unavoidable-ness of his music in the 80’s, I never knew it back then. Nowadays I work a day job as a programmer, and listen to various musics as background. At one point I was “spinning” a lot of classic 70s prog-rock which led me to Genesis — Lamb Lies on B’way and all of that. Then I started to think about, what exactly DID happen to Phil Collins? He was playing all of this (relatively) complex, experimental rock and then he just . . well I guess most would say he sold out. I don’t really like that terminology, because I think it over-simplifies what is usually a more complex situation . . . and even in his early prog days, you hear a few songs that he wrote, where there’s obviously this cheesy balladeer waiting to come out. Anyway, as far as his songs from the 80’s, there’s a lot of bad ones, and almost all of them have silly lyrics (if the relationship is dying . . let it die, man, just let it go . . . ), but I have to admit that some of the hits are pretty well-crafted pop songs.

    I’ve always been interested in chameleon-like musicians who are at home in often contradictory aesthetic worlds—to take an obviously totally different example, Stravinsky (who doesn’t even seem that contradictory now, but must have seemed quite so back when he switched to 12-tone music in the 60s). So perhaps that’s partly where this ‘unhealthy’ fascination came from…..

  14. Donald Waits

    This reminds me of an article in “The Onion”, that said, “Roomate discovered Led
    Zepplin and can’t shut up about it!”

  15. lutoslawski

    A couple of weeks ago I played a recording of Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto for a class at the liberal arts college where I teach. These are very bright students with no knowledge of classical (or post-classical, for that matter) music. The only comment I got was “it reminds me of Yanni.” He couldn’t really tell me why, though. Has anyone else noticed this similarity?

  16. Alexandra Gardner

    Oh, the music I sing along to at the top of my lungs in the car is often terrible (never mind my singing!). There was a time when I often got the comment, “Oh, you do electronic music? You mean like Yanni?”

  17. j-dub

    “Bad taste is real taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else’s privilege.”
    -Dave Hickey

  18. Ratzo B. Harris

    Once I had decided to search for music on my own, not as part of the family getting together or hanging out with school chums or as part of my institutional education, I searched the airwaves made audible through AM radio and television. This meant that my first exposures were through reviews like: The Grand Ole Opry, and Hullabaloo. But these shows presented a range of artists who were well-established on one end of the spectrum and just emerging on the other, so it’s hard to say if the music was “good” or “bad.” However, I did religiously watch The Monkees on television and can say that, although some of the music was pretty good, all of the rest of the content of the show was very bad. While I don’t have a problem with how the music I heard (“Last Train To Clarksville,” “I’m A Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” etc.) influenced my artistic aesthetic, the messaging in the protoplotism that was sloughed off as an episode’s story line did me damage that years of therapy have yet to undo.


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