Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Am I a Music Snob?: A Matter of Taste


This post is a response, or a riposte of sorts, to the teacup-sized tempest incited by my piece on Christmas number ones. You see, there were no negative comments on my own original post, but when my friend, JC, over at The Vinyl Villain decided to be hugely kind by re-posting it on his blog, comments flew in quite quickly and the majority of them were of the lambaste persuasion. I was frankly quite surprised and baffled, but JC, being the noble blogger he is, defended me several times before conceding that maybe he and I are in the minority when it comes to X-Factor singles, Christmas number ones and the complacency of the masses. Now, I don't have any particular hard feelings about the negative things that were directed at me (the very nature of public writing is the need for a tough skin), but I feel impelled, at the very least, to defend myself a bit and in the process, hopefully, provide some more clarity about my argument and thoughts. And at the same time, I can address some ideas I've been wanting to write about anyway. Whether this will end up digging me into some deeper chasm or not remains to be seen.

One of the most prevalent charges laid against me was that I was a music snob or elitist. Snobbery and elitism are present in every facet of life, especially in the realm of cultural or artistic objects like visual art, films and books, but perhaps are most rampant and rabid in the area of music. Music snobbery or "hipsterdom" is maybe as visible as it is because music is an omnipresent art that large amounts of the population enjoy, and the more fanatic people get about music, the more in-fighting and one-upping can occur. You can call it the Pitchfork Syndrome: a two-pronged phenomenon that takes in both the über-hipster persona of Ryan Schreiber and friends and the mob-like attitude to run either a critic or artist out of town. Like every other preference in the artistic world, music taste is used for both self-definition and group affiliation. People have a need to identify themselves in relation to the world around them - there wouldn't be so many personal profiles, blogs and widgets on-line if this weren't true. Humans have an innate sense of judgement and binary formation; by judgement, I mean a constant, often subconscious, impulse to classify people and things, and by binary formation, I mean a capacity to see everything in terms of opposites and contrasts. We want to be able to process information and our environment, and in order to do so, we often take shortcuts in pre-judging others and labelling as best we can before filing them away in our brains. It's not because we're hateful or petty - it's because we're human. Though some people are just hateful and petty, but that's a matter for a different time.

Ambiguity doesn't always sit well, and despite how much we try to fight binarism, it creeps in because we simply have no other way of talking about things in relation to each other. One of the first concepts we learn as children is opposites. For a further example of binaries at work, I took a course in 18th century literature that looked at the issue of sexual disguise and gender ambiguity; I completely understand the need for multiplicities in gender and sexual identity, but to say that it helps to create a theory called "female masculinity," doesn't completely work. Within that theory is the assumption that there are still fundamental differences between femininity and masculinity, but the theory needs this binary in order to make its point. So as to not completely digress myself senseless, I think that in order to discuss music, it is often inevitable that one classifies certain music as mainstream or alternative, and certain music as good or bad. Or at the very least, not as good as the good music. This is what music obsessives and critics do. There is no inherent value to any piece of art - despite endless arguments about aesthetics and high/low culture, the value is in what a piece means to people. Having said that, people, especially obsessives, classify and judge people by their tastes, and I think that most people align themselves with those of similar tastes and proclivities. It may not be guaranteed that I will not become friends with someone who loves Il Divo, obsessively watches hockey, or reads a lot of romance novels, but if they do all three, that likelihood increases along with the probability that I will not be able to have a very long conversation with him/her. That is how taste functions.

According to others, my suggestion that Jeff Buckley's version of Hallelujah was better than Alexandra Burke's is deeply flawed. Oddly enough, it's flawed because some of the people who commented see Buckley in the same light as Burke: singers whose cover versions released on a major label. Fair enough; however, I would argue that despite being on a label aiming to sell as many albums as possible, Buckley still comes at the song from an entirely different angle, and though time can be the only judge, I think Buckley's version is the timeless, unique one. Anyhow, at the heart of my previous argument was not some objective truth about who produced the best version of Hallelujah - it was about how each version made me feel. I acknowledge it's a completely subjective stance, but everything is subjective. No, no one put a gun to my head to listen to Burke's version, but I thought it was only fair to listen to it and then make a judgement rather than follow a knee-jerk reaction to an X-Factor cover of a classic song. It just so happens I truly didn't get anything out of Burke's version and I felt like her's missed the point of the song. I don't believe that Cohen's song is meant to be a schmaltzy power ballad.

I would also like to impress upon people that I do not love Buckley and his music because he drowned in a river in his 20s, nor even because he had the range of Pavarotti; I love his music because it means something to me and because it feels as though it meant something to him. Since I value Buckley's music independent of others' opinions about it, I could have cared less if Buckley ever made it back into the charts for Christmas or any other time; rather, I just think it's a little sad that the masses seem to enjoy stampeding without really thinking and without a real point (it's like everyone buying a copy of The Secret, the book on positive thinking that was preposterously popular a couple years ago, only to have the remainder forgotten in the bargain bin a few months later). Additionally, it's interesting that it seems Buckley's own post-humous fame and martyrdom have appeared to make him, on some level, just as mainstream as Burke, and now it gains someone more subcultural capital to reference Kathryn Williams. I had actually not been aware of Williams nor her version, but upon listening to her Hallelujah, I like it, especially for the fragility I think the song requires, but I will still never love it the way I do Buckley's. And that is merely an issue of taste, ergo, I will not think those who prefer Williams' version to Buckley's are snobs.

Some of my detractors claimed that I sounded like them when they were teenagers; this response makes me wonder whether expressing a critical opinion is only for the young. To be perfectly honest, I wasn't all that critical of the music industry as a teen; in fact, I rode wave after wave of Top 40 pop and rock for a few solid years (most music fans and friends I know now wouldn't have even talked to me then). Looking back at myself during that period actually confuses me because I cannot really connect with 90% of the music I loved then, and I often try to understand what kind of person I was and why I made the choices I did. All I can conclude is that I was still looking around and trying on different ideas and tastes to see what stuck, and like many adolescents, I was often influenced by my closest friends or the most immediate media sources. And maybe I had a pretty sheltered, naive outlook longer than others might have. Admittedly, I also never thought too much about what I was consuming, a realization that makes me much more aware now; life experience changes perceptions, and along with them, taste. As I aged, I kept growing and formulating my personality, and eventually, I ended up with what I would call my taste foundation - I may continue to shift and add to/subtract from the specifics that lie on top, but I don't think I will ever discard or waver from that established core of preferences in music, books, and films. I will never love a Shopaholic book, nor will I ever stop loving the Manic Street Preachers (the latter being a preference that is rarely fashionable).

For the most part, I don't bother raging against taste quibbles with the NME, Top 40 radio, or even MTV; when I do complain, my beef with them usually comes in with the amount and/or variety of music they deal with. And even then, my rants come in sporadic spurts as I negotiate some kind of bi-monthly bile. Most of the time I write about what I like in the hopes that I might expose someone else to something he/she may also like, and sometimes I might actually entertain at the same time - it just so happens I'm often at my most entertaining when I'm ranting. To rail against entities I don't even usually partake in seems pretty futile when I keep this blog as a hobby.

As for the counterarguments against a perceived connection between being comfortable and having a crap taste in music, I'd like to clarify here: I said that the news story I was watching connected economic crisis with comfortable music purchases, and in fact, I didn't agree with that assessment. I stated that the majority of people buying mass-marketed music purchase out of comfort nearly all of the time, regardless of economic situation. There's no doubt that economic crises often incite very artistic music; believe me, I'm well aware of the history of punk, post-punk/new wave, etc., and social circumstances shape music just like they do any other art form. However, in making the argument that it was significant that people were pushing music like that of the Sex Pistols into the Top Ten, one is already making a value judgement about music - in essence, that the Sex Pistols and punk (or Blondie, The Pretenders, et al) are better than some other type of music, including what can be termed "pop" music. The people pushing certain well-known bands and their albums into the top are often people who might only buy a few CDs in a year, and who spend their time on things other than searching for music beyond mass media sources. They are what I would consider casual music fans or listeners in contrast with the music fanatic category, in which many music bloggers fall into. Perhaps it was errant to call the latter category "real" music fans in my earlier post; I was trying to get at the fact that those who take a much more active and/or obsessive interest in music -and, thus, in looking harder for music that doesn't get advertised or marketed the same way popular music does - need alternative channels, which I firmly believe the Internet has allowed for. The music industry is changing slowly but surely, and as a music fan, I want to be part of that rather than support a dead horse that is beating itself to death.

I would also like to address the fact that it seems people think I equate people who like mainstream music to slobbering, acquiescent idiots. I apologize if that's how it came across; there's no point making generalizations in the first place - there will always be numerous exceptions to a rule and reams of anecdotal evidence. I do think that a more general attitude towards being comfortable can be affected by smaller acts of comfort and complacency that reach a critical mass. Having read too much Neil Postman and Aldous Huxley, I can't just perceive entertainment as innocuous anymore, and all I really want is for people to think more and to take a less passive role in the information, including entertainment, they consume. What my whole issue with Christmas number ones, X-Factor and mass market music all boils down to is the predictability of it all. I will always view complacency and aversion to new things as stifling, and in some political cases, a dangerous thing. There's a time to unwind and feel mindless, and maybe exposing the inner machinations and manufactured hype of the music industry in reality shows like X-Factor is actually some new form of Pop Art or the television equivalent of the Pompidou Centre, but my fear is that too many people never think about it that way and that too many would rather stay in a state of amused mindlessness all the time.

Should I never express a critical opinion of music I don't like or see value in? I hope not. Ultimately, we're all a little hypocritical when discussing snobbery because having opinions and interests that you feel strongly about will inevitably pit you against other people with strong opinions and interests, and in pitting yourself against someone else, you are attempting to argue that your choice is superior to another's. If you don't have any opinions or interests, you're likely not going to be accused of being a snob, but then again, you won't have much of a personality either. There's also a part of me that thinks music fans, or fans of any sort, enjoy bantering over obscure trivia and feeling different from those who would never understand. I'm not and never will be one of the "cool" kids (any glance between my blog and countless other more popular ones will tell you that), but I don't aspire to be. If there is anything negative attached to hipsterdom, it's the artificiality of it - pretending to be or like things you don't just to appear either forward-thinking or cool. I'm wary of hype not because I'm afraid of looking like an unoriginal bandwagon jumper, nor because I worry about looking out-of-step with hipsters, but because I've been disappointed too many times and sometimes time is the only thing that can provide me with clarity. And at the very least, I'd like to be honest about my tastes. In the end, I'm glad that people challenged me because it made me think a lot harder about what I was trying to say and it helped me refine it.

If loving the music I love or expressing my opinions in the way I do make me a music snob or an elitist, then I'll just have to accept that. And after all, the beauty of the Internet is the fact that you have choice, so in the event I'm too offensive, you definitely don't have an obligation to read my blog or listen to the music I post. Hopefully, the one thing we can all agree on is that we take music seriously. In some cases, too seriously.

And as for my choice of diction in the earlier post...artless and artificial are not actually redundant when the former means without skill or finesse and the latter means manufactured or insincere. But there's no point nitpicking, is there?

Hipsters Are the New Jocks! - MESH

Cool Scene - The Dandy Warhols

13 comments:

Rol said...

Unfortunately, there are many people in the world who think that only their opinions are valid and get angry when anyone voices an opinion that disagrees with theirs.

I was thinking about this earlier today while reading an article on Luke Haines's new book Bad Vibes. A number of quotes confirmed that his opinions about Britpop differ greatly from my own, yet I can't wait to read the book and see him venting his bile all over my beloved genre. Why? Because I respect Haines and I respect his opinion - especially as I'm sure it'll be both intelligently argued and hilarious. I won't agree with him (though I'll happily watch him having a go at Oasis) but what does that matter? I'm confident enough in my own tastes to not give a monkeys what anyone else thinks.

All that said, I fail to see how ANYONE could prefer the X-Factor version of Hallelujah to either Buckley or Cohen, but there's all kinds of pervestity out there. ;-)

ragidtiga said...

I have to reiterate Rol's comments about Haines' book - something I found out about last year and will treat myself to on next month's birthday. I will also no doubt disagree with him on many times - but that's ok. I was the same with Bill Hicks - I completely disagree with most of his attitudes regarding hard drugs.

The key here is that he got up and said it, he talked, he ranted, he spoke and got it out there. He wanted to or needed to, and life allows us that opportunity.

The casual music fans you speak of don't rant or enthuse, they don't blog. They may mention one or two songs they like they heard on the radio but ask them at Christmas to do a top 10 and nada.

For me, these people don't love music. They like it and enjoy it in that way. True love (and sorry to sound wet here) is a very deep intense emotion, and they simply don't feel that way towards music. But that's fine. As a result, they are a bit more easily influenced by the tv, major labels et al, and that's unlikely to change. Hence why Burke will make it to number 1.

But that's fine. We hve Buckley and Cohen and Cale and we always will. I think Burke's version is horrific. It sounds very much like a version sung by someone that's been told to sing it, bot who actually wants to.

Best stop there before I get a bit too deep into it.

dona said...

"For me, these people don't love music. They like it and enjoy it in that way. True love (and sorry to sound wet here) is a very deep intense emotion, and they simply don't feel that way towards music. But that's fine. As a result, they are a bit more easily influenced by the tv, major labels et al, and that's unlikely to change. Hence why Burke will make it to number 1."

That pretty much sums up a part of what I wanted to say. I agree with your entire post. I'd also like to add, in extension the to the above argument, taste reveals a lot about an individual. More specifically, musical tastes. The "casual" music listeners you speak of just as this above person commented, may be a bit more influenced by mass media, advertising, and hegemonic social constructs perhaps due to a more molded and socially defined perception of what to like, what not to like, a more close mindedness. There has been no consciousness raising.

Albeit, it's possible that they may not have access to these alternative music sources despite having a genuine true love for music, an open mindedness towards opinions and tastes.

Anyways, I don't really know where I'm going with this. But, I'd just like to say that I've been following your blog for a while, and you've exposed me to some of my most listened to artists now. I think you're a fantastic writer. Keep up the great work! =)

anglopunk said...

Thank you to all three of you for your support and opinions. I'm also of the mind that one can completely disagree with another's opinion, but respect him/her and his/her argument at the same time. I suppose that's why I found it so baffling that there were so many people willing to get so angry and persistent over my comments about X-Factor and music fandom. I'm also one of those people who derive a lot of enjoyment and entertainment from well-argued spleen-venting without taking it too seriously.

And thank you, Rol, for reminding me there was a Luke Haines book out - unfortunately, it's looking like my only choice for ordering is off Amazon UK (hopefully, shipping a book overseas isn't exorbitant or I might be waiting to read it for awhile). It's times like these that I wish all the Amazon stores sold the same products.

JC said...

Well, you know where I stand....it was a fabulous and well-though out piece of writing.

Oh and the Haines book is everything the pre-publicity sayss it is. A wonderful read.

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