How do you explain your musical tastes to others?
January 11, 2005 7:36 AM   Subscribe

Indie/ObscureMusicFilter: How do you explain to strangers or acquaintances what kinds of music you listen to? (+)

I have a past that is filled with music – enough so that it fills a significant portion of my resume, and makes up a large enough portion of my life. This is all well and good with like-minded people, but I often find myself struggling to find the right words to express my musical interests to strangers and acquaintances – from job interviews to random people I meet from day to day. Sometimes I will mention a few names of bands that I perceive to be a bit more well known and get blank stares, sometimes I’ll name a few genres and get fewer blank stares, but the conversation quickly ends. Often, I ask the person what they listen to, and tailor my answers to their responses by saying less obscure bands within a similar genre, but none of these methods seem right or natural.

So, the question is, how do I straddle the fine line between rattling off a list of bands that no one knows and feeling silly myself while killing conversation, or going the other route and coming off as (unintentionally) condescending…
posted by evadery to Human Relations (54 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I've found that obscure band names, dropped right off the bat in a conversation, not only seem, but in fact are, condescending to people who aren't into music. Not because you're trying to be condescending, but just because that's how it sounds, and name-dropping bands automatically creates a kind of contest between people, which sucks.

I find that the best way for me to talk about the music I like is in terms of a date range, in my case roughly 1975-1986. So I'll say, my favorite bands are from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and in that bunch there are tons of well-known musicians and bands (David Bowie, R.E.M.) and tons of lesser-known musicians and bands that can be talked about if people are actually interested in talking about them. Talking about music is hard just like talking about books is hard--if you haven't been exposed to a particular work, you just can't talk about it--and so naming a period rather than a bunch of names is a nice compromise.
posted by josh at 7:45 AM on January 11, 2005


"I'm into all sorts of music"
"like what?"
"Ah, you know, lots of different stuff"
"like what?"
"Well, no one thing really, um, just a bit of everything"
"name some bands then"
"Er, you might not have heard of some of them"
"What?"
"well, I dunno. [starting easy] Erm, Tom Waits?"
"I like Abba. Do you like Abba?"

Sorry I dont have an answer.
posted by qwerty155 at 7:59 AM on January 11, 2005


Listen to KEXP.org on weekday mornings (Seattle time). That's what I listen to. That's what I suggest other people listen to.
posted by tayknight at 8:00 AM on January 11, 2005


I always say "It's stuff you've never heard of and probably wouldn't like." That usually takes care of it.
posted by emptybowl at 8:07 AM on January 11, 2005


I find the secret in not appearing condescending when you talk to people about music is to talk about the music, rather than name-dropping. My tastes run to the semi-obscure. People who are into the same general area of music probably have heard of most of the artists I like, but most people of my acquaintance are non-music people. They might turn on the light rock or top 40 station for background noise, but they're not go to grungy clubs to see shows people. They're not even go to stadium concerts people, for the most part, though they'll at least have heard of the bands playing stadium shows.

So, when talking with someone who knows little more than Shania Twain or Avril Lavigne about seeing Neko Case in front the Sadies, I don't start with names, or at least make them incidental to the description. "Oh, I'm seeing a show at the Phoenix. A fabulous singer, Neko Case. She has a really powerful voice. She does a variety of stuff from Punk to straight Country and is really a lot of fun to see live. She has so much personality on the stage." Neko's name is meaningless to them, but in the description I've hit the high points of why I love to see her live - powerful voice, varied music, fun stage presence.


If I'm talking in broader terms, I tend to apply the same rules of descriptions. "I really like singer-songwriters, especially women with powerful voices. Mostly country-rocky-folkish kind of stuff - people like Lucinda Williams or Kelly Willis, but if they get popular and I hear about them, singer-songwriters in other genres like Macy Gray or Alecia Keys will also grab my attention."
posted by jacquilynne at 8:11 AM on January 11, 2005


The first step would be to stop telling people what kind of music you like on job interviews.

(I always say that my musical preference is "eclectic". Doesnt' convey much information, but at least it's accurate.)
posted by rushmc at 8:13 AM on January 11, 2005


qwerty155 might be on to something: choose something in the middle, that can go either way, as a litmus.

(Rushmc, it could come up organically in a job interview.)
posted by kenko at 8:14 AM on January 11, 2005


Something about electronic music really brings out the worst reactionary impulses in some personalities. I tend not to bring it up with the uninitiated.
posted by AlexReynolds at 8:15 AM on January 11, 2005


I just say "I like a lot of weird shit nobody ever heard of." It gets the point across without sounding condescending. Luckily, my job involves a lot of delineation about musical genres, so I can explain more clearly on a genre-by-genre basis if they want specifics.
posted by jonmc at 8:19 AM on January 11, 2005


The problem I have is usually which way I will come off as more condescending - imagining that people haven't heard of a band, or imagining that they have. But usually I'll start with bands pretty much everyone has at least heard of, like the pixies, and go from there. Also, sometimes describing the music ("multilayered instrumental stuff") before giving examples ("like godspeed!ybe or mogwai") is useful.

The thing is, these days there are so many different 'movements' that even among people into indie music, there is a whole lot that will not be common knowledge (ie, there are the 'big little' bands like fiery furnaces or magnetic fields, but there are also the little little ones, like namelessnumberheadman or sons & daughters (or whatever, all the hundreds I've never heard of).

Anyway, talking about music with people who don't share your interest is kinda silly... no reason not to just move to another subject if they're really into britany & you're not. Or ask them what they like, and if there's any crossover you could suggest something for them to check out (like eminem mashups or something!)
posted by mdn at 8:19 AM on January 11, 2005


I can sometimes get away with adding "indie" or "independent" to a major genre to get the point across that it is, more or less, obscure bands doing takes on mainstream music, or just combining two or three genres to make up one description. So Neko Case could be "indie rock country," lots of obscure rock bands can to some extent be "indie pop," etc. It at least makes it seem as if you're recognizing the music is obscure enough that people haven't heard about it, without sounding pretentious about how you're describing it.

Or you can do the "X meets Y" thing: "It's kind of like the Beatles as sung by the Ramones" or something.
posted by occhiblu at 8:27 AM on January 11, 2005


Being a musician most of my life and having a set of CD racks taking up, oh, that entire area over there (waves hand) I've run up against the same thing. If you're a musician I'd start with what you do and work from there.

Otherwise I'd avoid mentioning genres (in the way I think you mean them). Honestly, they make sense to about five people and the trade papers and Internet chat sites make up sixty-three new microcosms every day (there's really only so much Baroque-electroclash-emo-koto music I can take).

Saying something along the lines of "it's got this punk guitar sound with lyrics about the Seneca Falls convention" will get you further than any hyper-hyphenated genre you can list.

Most people will "get" a general category like punk or rock or blues.

You might also just throw in a couple of really well-known groups you like before listing stuff that others might not know.

For instance, looking over at the CDs (waves hand) I'd hit The Beatles, John Coltrane, Pearl Jam and Bach (most people will likely get The Beatles and Bach). You'll hit one thing here and the conversation can go on from there. You can also lie, just to get it started.

I had two more paragraphs listing a couple of other steps, but I realized it adds nothing to your conversation and ends up being ego-stroking (as is, I guess, this paragraph for mentioning it at all).

Simply put, the "what kind of music" question is there for the sake of talking and with people who aren't into music the way you are, it doesn't mean the same thing. They're trying to hit a subject, just like you're going to try to make a list with something they can recognize.

List something they recognize (and be really blatant), however boorish, and you can move on from there. If it's part of a conversation that actually could go somewhere, they'll offer the next step in the conversation by mentioning some things they like.
posted by Captaintripps at 8:30 AM on January 11, 2005


This kinda points up the central problem with the term "indie rock," that it tells you nothing about how the music actually sounds. I mean, both the Supersuckers and Godspeed, You Black Emporer could be called "indie," but aside from that they're nothing alike.
posted by jonmc at 8:32 AM on January 11, 2005


I don't. Ask them what they are listening too and then smugly chuckle.
posted by trbrts at 8:32 AM on January 11, 2005


I say, "Read my blog."
posted by jasonspaceman at 8:36 AM on January 11, 2005


"Everything but country, unless it's Johnny Cash or Patsy Cline."

I mean, it's not perfectly accurate (I don't enjoy, say, Pentecostal Ska), but strangers and acquaintances are generally making small talk, and I'm not a small talker.
posted by theFlyingSquirrel at 8:55 AM on January 11, 2005


You're right, jonmc, but it's a blanket term that moves the conversation on to more productive topics. It's generally not hard to tell who's going to give you the blank stares when you start name dropping weirdo bands. Anyhow, I'd say that most people who have bothered to seek out and indulge in indie music at all would probably listen to a wide range of bands with very different sounds (if sometimes, only to seem with it. The currency of cool in the scene seems to be an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure bands). So while the term 'indie rock' tells you nothing about the sound, I'd say that it does imply to me at least, that said fan is a musical gourmet with broad tastes.
posted by picea at 8:59 AM on January 11, 2005


So while the term 'indie rock' tells you nothing about the sound, I'd say that it does imply to me at least, that said fan is a musical gourmet with broad tastes.

That's a double edged sword. To some (not me, I've actually been on the business end of this assumption myself), it implies that you hate anything popular, so some people hear "indie," and instantly think "snob."

Which is not neccessarily a bad thing, but maybe not so great if you're trying to strike up a conversation.
posted by jonmc at 9:05 AM on January 11, 2005


I tell them I listen to "obscure pop music." Way less (or more) pretentious than "indie."

"What kind of music do you like"
"today I am listening to _______."
posted by Quartermass at 9:10 AM on January 11, 2005


Great question.

I usually start with a really broad generalization, like 'electronic music' or something. If they want to know more, they'll usually ask and you can let the conversation go as far along as either person is available or willing to travel.
posted by orange clock at 9:13 AM on January 11, 2005


"Everything but country, unless it's Johnny Cash or Patsy Cline."

Remove Patsy Cline from that list and that's my perfect answer.
posted by konolia at 9:50 AM on January 11, 2005


To answer politely: I tell them that I go to clubs to see live music a lot. I also throw in a "don't listen to the radio much" to ward of Shania or Brittney as comparison-material. (I can use this excuse without seeming like too much of a snob because I live in the city -- I can claim poor reception in my apartment and I don't drive, so I don't have much opportunity to know what's going on in the Top 40.)

If I actually want to have an interesting conversation, I go with jacquilynne's strategy of description. Also using Neko Case as an example, in fact.
posted by desuetude at 10:04 AM on January 11, 2005


easy, by not jizzing your ego-collection all over the place at the first available opportunity. if the other person is (to your tastes) down, you'll find out soon enough one way or the other. granted, when asked it can be irritating, but I've just chosen to shut up and play along at this point, especially if the questioner obviously has no idea. when asked what kind of music he played, bob ostertag used to say "unpopular."

i am also endlessly amused by the endless self-back-patting and assumed "gourmet" status of people whose definition of 'eclectic' starts and ends at different permutations of voices and guitars and ABA structure. that means you, "indie rock." and guess what? w/o clear channel + US radio stagnation guess what would be playing all over the place and thus "mainstream." it's already on the O.C, folks.

I in no way intend to take a shot at anyone's personal taste here, but I am just getting tired of people who actively front being so-musically-adventurous and "in the know" because their music collection exceeds what is available at wal-mart. and people who say 'world music.' them too. sorry to rant, this kind of thing just rubs me wrong.
posted by Swampjazz! at 10:16 AM on January 11, 2005


My collection is a mix between the popular and obscure, so I can generally throw a few recognizable names into a conversation before talking about some of the more unknown ones. And I will also do the "sort of like a female John Mellencamp" compare/contrast thing. It lets me get out the word about some artists I think are underrated, with a context for people to understand.

With the last suggestion, you could talk about "Judging A Book By Its Cover" (go to a used CD shop, browse the racks for things that have interesting cover art and song titles, and buy them without a preview. It's interesting how you can start identifying a genre (girl rock, death metal, alternative) by the style of these things. I've only been fooled into getting something completely wretched once. It's a fun game) and tell the story about how you found the artist. Everyone's done that at least once, so it colors up the conversation as you swap anecdotes and start taking down names of new acts to check out.
posted by angeline at 10:39 AM on January 11, 2005


"I listen only to a cappella metal."

Either that, or I draw a venn diagram involving the beatles, velvet underground, and bob dylan. When people then say, "who are the velvet underground?" I back away slowly, then turn, run, and never talk to them again.
posted by drpynchon at 10:55 AM on January 11, 2005


Radio static. That's all I listen to.

That's what I always say.
posted by geekhorde at 11:04 AM on January 11, 2005


My tastes are eclectic enough that I usually say I like a little bit of everything from to . Doesn't really keep the conversation going though.
posted by hootch at 11:11 AM on January 11, 2005


(with bracketed text included)
My tastes are eclectic enough that I usually say I like a little bit of everything from <insert popular band name here> to <insert obscure band name here>. Doesn't really keep the conversation going though.
posted by hootch at 11:13 AM on January 11, 2005


I'm into "dudes with guitars."
posted by TurkishGolds at 11:25 AM on January 11, 2005 [1 favorite]


So what are the acceptable parameters for using the term 'eclectic' in reference to one's musical tastes, Swampjazz?
posted by picea at 11:37 AM on January 11, 2005


I think saying any variant of "I listen to really obscure bands" or "A bunch of stuff you've never heard of" is easily the most obnoxious way to go. "I listen to pretty much everything" takes second place.

I agree that starting off with the most general reference point is a good idea; for me it's The Beatles. Pretty much everyone knows them in some way, and many of the bands I like can be compared to them. Then I might say I like indie pop bands. That seems like a perfectly good general descriptor to me.

I also agree with describing the music rather than simply listing names; it's a good way to get people interested in something unfamiliar.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:34 PM on January 11, 2005


For me, not sounding condescending or presumptuous is all about the delivery. I tend to say, in response to the question, "things that you might call indie," in a slightly hesitant way. It lets people know that I don't think that's a very good category but is nonetheless somewhat descriptive. It also draws people out if you don't sound so confident about defining your musical tastes, something that is good for those leaning towards "eclectic" (as I would be if that didn't sound so much like I listened to 'world music').

I was in a phase for a while where I asked people what they have in their CD player. It creates a much more interesting and telling conversation than "what music do you like." Asking what people have been listening to recently also does the trick. I think that can also be a good response if someone asks about your musical tastes: "well, I've been really into these two bands recently." You can display your passion without going crazy trying to define or distill your tastes.

It's a very "NPR interview" kind of method -- take their question as a chance to talk about what you want to talk about and you end up telling much more than a straightforward answer would.
posted by drewbeck at 12:58 PM on January 11, 2005


I think saying any variant of "I listen to really obscure bands" or "A bunch of stuff you've never heard of" is easily the most obnoxious way to go.

Well, it all depends on how you say it, dude. In one tone of voice it'd sound pompous, in another, self-deprecating. It'd be more show-offy to drop names of a lot of artists the other person's never heard of and make them feel bad. If they ask "Like what?" then take it from there.
posted by jonmc at 1:24 PM on January 11, 2005


Of course one reason I always wear band t-shirts is so these type of questions are already answered.
posted by jonmc at 1:45 PM on January 11, 2005


Well, it all depends on how you say it, dude. In one tone of voice it'd sound pompous, in another, self-deprecating.

I don't see it. Assuming that you're speaking to someone you've just met and about whom you don't know much, it's utterly snobbish to assume that you're the only one with your finger on the pulse of the music scene, listening to stuff that they couldn't possibly be astute enough to know about. It's presumptuous no matter how you slice it.
posted by ludwig_van at 1:59 PM on January 11, 2005


Asking what people have been listening to recently also does the trick. I think that can also be a good response if someone asks about your musical tastes: "well, I've been really into these two bands recently."

This is also a good tactic which I use often.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:00 PM on January 11, 2005


So what are the acceptable parameters for using the term 'eclectic' in reference to one's musical tastes, Swampjazz?

Um, having in your possession both a copy of the Ron Wood solo album and a notarized relief map of John Cage's asshole?

I don't know. At gunpoint, I would say, maybe, a reluctance to define music by bands or genres. Not calling something w/o vocals "instrumental" music. Even at its widest edges, American vocal-based rockish/indieish/bandish music is a very, very small slice of the pie.
posted by Swampjazz! at 2:02 PM on January 11, 2005


Not calling something w/o vocals "instrumental" music.

That seems rather unreasonable to me. Instrumental music and vocal music are useful and descriptive terms used in music texts. It makes no difference what percentage of the world's music has vocals in it.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:09 PM on January 11, 2005


This is certainly true. I guess i should have fleshed out the context of that more? append "with some amount of derision" to that excerpt.
posted by Swampjazz! at 2:15 PM on January 11, 2005


I don't see it. Assuming that you're speaking to someone you've just met and about whom you don't know much, it's utterly snobbish to assume that you're the only one with your finger on the pulse of the music scene, listening to stuff that they couldn't possibly be astute enough to know about. It's presumptuous no matter how you slice it.

If you say "a bunch of bands you've never heard of", then I'd say you're generally correct. However, there are ways to phrase that statement such that you're portraying yourself as a weirdo or just having eccentric tastes, rather than being condesceding to the person who's asking what you like. Basically, just take the "you" out of it. Such as, "a bunch of stuff nobody likes/has heard of".

For that matter, how does one escape seeming like a snob if they listen to less popular music? The way some of you seem to get defensive about it (by not jizzing your ego-collection all over the place at the first available opportunity), there's no way to get around it. I don't listen to the radio; so what? Why does that automatically make me a snob?
posted by LionIndex at 2:47 PM on January 11, 2005


On reading my own sentence, saying "nobody" still looks snobby, but there are ways to go about it. I usually give a reply of that type (or loose genre-related stuff), and I haven't offended anyone. Other than insecure people who think what I like is somehow a reflection on them.
posted by LionIndex at 2:53 PM on January 11, 2005


LionIndex, I agree, and I should've been more specific. Saying "I listen to more obscure/unknown music" isn't necessarily snobby. Saying "I listen to stuff you probably haven't heard of" is.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:29 PM on January 11, 2005


if someone asks me what kinda music I listen to, I just give them a handful of bands and cds that I've been listening to lately.
posted by mcsweetie at 5:12 PM on January 11, 2005


The problem I have is usually which way I will come off as more condescending - imagining that people haven't heard of a band, or imagining that they have.

I think it's much better to imagine that they have and name the names. If it turns out that they haven't, it's no big deal...there's a lot of varied music out there and it gives you an opportunity to describe the niche subgenre of which you happen to be a fan.

But if you don't bother naming names because you imagine that they haven't heard of them, you run the risk of seeming to have already passed judgement on the range/breadth/scope of their musical experience.
posted by juv3nal at 6:39 PM on January 11, 2005


Why bother? Musical taste, if you have some, is a very personal thing. I don't assume anyone would share mine. If you want to skim through my iPod, you're welcome. If the fact that you don't recognise a single artist puts you off, that's fine too.

Pushed to describe my taste though, I usually give the broad genre "Electronica", then I list some of the older artists; Oldfield, Vangelis, Jarre and finally say that much of the modern stuff I listen to is the kind of thing you'd find in a good dance club. "The music from the ad with the tongue" usually works as a last ditch effort.
posted by krisjohn at 7:12 PM on January 11, 2005


Rushmc, it could come up organically in a job interview.

Um...how?

Even more so than with literature, I think genre labels for music are for marketers, not listeners, and rarely use them anymore. The last list of musical genres I saw (somewhere on line) consisted of over 150 categories. That sort of super-specialization simply isn't broadly useful. Easier to just say "I like what I like," particularly since there is no one category that I like or dislike all the representative members of (or even 50%). If you want more specific knowledge about my listening habits, get to know me better, because the old shorthand doesn't convey much anymore.
posted by rushmc at 7:12 PM on January 11, 2005


If you're someone who listens to anything but top 40, there's no way to talk about music without sounding like a jackass. That's my conclusion.

I'm still a student at an urban campus, so most of my peers don't look at me blankly if I mention Neko Case (apparently everyone in the world is going to see her at the Phoenix, including the Ticketmaster guy who sold me my tickets). With someone in my age/social group, i usually say something like "A bit of everything. It varies. I've been listening to x, y and z a lot recently."

At a job interview (I seriously had this come up at my last job interview) or situation with say, older relatives who probably won't know a lot of the bands I like, I usually say something, like "I'm pretty easygoing, I listen to a bit of everything. Rock, pop, jazz, a bit of country." It's vague, but it doens't make me sound pretentious. It doesn't do much for the conversation though.
posted by SoftRain at 7:52 PM on January 11, 2005


LionIndex, "hardly anyone" instead of "nobody" lets the person, if they do listen to such stuff, not feel like they've been called a nobody. It also gives the response a bit of a self-deprecating tone.

You could always answer with the old joke "Oh, I like *both* kinds of music--country AND western!" And then give your real answer.

I'm worried that the next time someone asks me what's in my CD player, that there won't be anyway to avoid sounding pretentious by being honest: "Nothing, but I have 13 days of music on my iPod." [They say it'll change the way you listen to music, and they're right!]
posted by kimota at 8:25 PM on January 11, 2005


Why bother? Musical taste, if you have some, is a very personal thing. I don't assume anyone would share mine.

huh? you only like music you make yourself? or you imagine the artists you like dislike their own music?
posted by juv3nal at 8:38 PM on January 11, 2005


Musical taste, if you have some, is a very personal thing.

I second that statement. Likes [or 'tastes' if you must] in music differ widely from person to person. Finding someone who likes everything [or even a good portion of what]you like is a rarity unless you're 11 years old and into boy bands.

I have a friend whose music collection just wows me every time I hear some of it, and it's the widest range of 'genre' listing I've ever seen. Someday we may get through all 8k+ songs in his playlist but I'm sure by that time he'll have added another 3 or 4k.

Oh, my answer to the original question? All types. I love music and will happily listen to children's songs with my granddaughter, metal with my older son and xian rock with the younger son.

It's not that I don't have strong likes, it's just that they change, constantly.
posted by kamylyon at 9:52 PM on January 11, 2005


Rushmc, it could come up organically in a job interview.

Um...how?


I'll admit that I've asked about music while interviewing somebody. It wasn't organic though, it was a series of questions starting with a hobby question, designed to see how they expressed ideas about a subject where they were knowledgeable, but where they hadn't prepped for an interview.
posted by mosch at 11:56 PM on January 11, 2005


rushmc - Since it's my question, I'll tell you how it has come up for me in a job interview.

Simple: I used to work for a few name-brand music publications - and I did a good share of music writing for them. I'm now applying for jobs in a non-music field. They're curious as to my background, and ask what music I listen to. I don't want to take those years of my resume, so I have to be prepared for the question.

Thanks everyone for all your great answers so far. If anyone is still reading, I'll hijack my own thread and ask 'Is it worse to assume too much about the musical taste of the stranger you're talking to, or not enough?'
posted by evadery at 7:06 AM on January 12, 2005


If anyone is still reading, I'll hijack my own thread and ask 'Is it worse to assume too much about the musical taste of the stranger you're talking to, or not enough?'

I alluded to this before, but I think it's the latter. If you jump right in and start talking about the music you enjoy and your listener is unfamiliar with it, the best case is that they'll be interested and ask questions and look into the muisc you're talking about, while the worst case is they'll say they've never heard of that stuff and decide that you listen to weird music.

On the other hand, if you assume that they don't know anything and use phrases like "I listen to things you've never heard of" or "I listen to everything," I can't see that being construed in a positive way unless the listener is young and naive and specifically looking to you for musical guidance. Otherwise it's presumptuous, condescending, and/or self-deluding.

To expand on that bit, people are willing to say they listen "to everything" because they like jazz and electronica and someone burned them a hip-hop album. No one listens to everything, and I think that it's rather self-congratulatory and patronizing to insist that you do.

Furthermore, give me a break with this "musical taste is a very personal thing" and "genre labels are obsolete" stuff. I'm sure plenty of people listen to the same things as you do, and genre labels can be perfectly useful descriptive terms for narrowing things down. Just because a given band's sound can't be encapsulated in a single label doesn't make all labels useless. Maybe you can't accurately describe the taste of a certain brand of mustard in one word, but it's still mustard, and calling it "spicy brown mustard" still provides more information.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:37 AM on January 12, 2005


it was a series of questions starting with a hobby question, designed to see how they expressed ideas about a subject where they were knowledgeable, but where they hadn't prepped for an interview.

Wow...I find that extremely rude and intrusive and would decline to discuss my personal life in a business interview. Evadery's reason makes sense to me, however.

posted by rushmc at 2:20 PM on January 12, 2005


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