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on asserting your superiority through musical taste

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Using music to distinguish ourselves or prove ourselves members of a special group is one of the uglier aspects of human nature, but we all do it, so I figure, why not try to be honest about it?

In the not-so-recent past, one could demonstrate one's cultural superiority very simply by listening to classical music, scorning jazz, rock and other "popular" music. A lot of people here still try that, but their pretensions are sadly out of date.

More recently a few new genres have attained snob-worthiness. Jazz is the most conspicuous example. Classical music listeners who do not also appreciate jazz are in fact consigning themselves to a lower level on the cultural hierarchy. The beats have won; for the contemporary cultural elite, Charlie Parker is as canonical as Schoenberg.

We could argue that the older musicals and even blues musicians have become canonical too.

Another old strategy was aggressive modernism: rejecting Beethoven for Babbitt. This strategy appeared in the very early Renaissance (scorning the ars antiqua on behalf of the ars nova), and had a great run up until its death in 1968. Unfortunately, less insightful minds still pursue this grail, disqualifying them from polite society: scorning Vivaldi is even more passé than Vivaldi's music. After all, nothing has actually been new since 1980. Novelty itself is passé, nauseatingly cloying.

In short, the old strategies - such as striving for highbrow rarity, or rejecting the previous generation's pop music for the new generation of pop music, or passionately advocating a certain tradition of pop or folk music (ie the blues or polka or whatever) - no longer work. They are all too transparent in the meta-post-meta-self-referentially-self-consciously-self-referential age in which we are partially but transcendentally and ironically unironically aware of ourselves living.

Today's culturally ambitious lady or gentleman must be conspicuously but effortlessly cosmopolitan: the broadest range of selectively good taste wins. Yes, it's at least as difficult as it has ever been, for today you must conspicuously appreciate not merely Bach and Beethoven but Biber and Bax and Boccherini and Borodin - but also the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Bird and Babatunde and Bahofundo and Brubeck and the Barefoot Diva and Belafonte and Basie and Benny and Billie and Biggie and Bowie and Buck.

To belabor the point, you've got to cover white southern gospel, fusion jazz and free jazz, gamelan and Tuvan throat singing, noise music and new age music, Indian classical music and tango nuevo, film music and electronica and techno and ambient and yes my friends though I am truly sorry to say so in your esteemed presence, even rap music.

Plus every conceivable combination of the aforesaid.

Now, the challenge is not to appreciate everything within all those categories, for that would be as vulgar as our benighted forbears once considered jazz itself. Instead, we must demonstrate an open-minded selectivity. You might, for example, champion the Louvin Brothers, the Carter Family, and the Stanley Brothers, while turning your nose up at Jeff and Sheri Easter or Sandi Patty or Michael W. Smith. Now that is postmodern class. Hank Williams? Yes. Brooks and Dunn? No. And so on, through just about every conceivable category of music.

If you're confused, a good rule of thumb is that almost anything 50 years past popularity becomes snob gold. But everyone knows that; you want to be on the cutting edge, which requires subtlety.

Hey, suck it up: if being elite were easy, everyone would do it.

Let's do a couple more examples.

Pop music? Like this: "Well, I personally believe a few of Madonna's albums are genuinely great art. Ray of Light, for example, is a marvelous synthesis of the emerging electronic tradition of its time, new age spirituality, and well-crafted pop. Only a genuine artist could make an album like that. Of course I cannot defend most of her music, which is predictable trash, however professionally done. But Ray of Light is a masterpiece."

R-E-S-P-E-C-and flippin'-T.

Rap? "Ok, I'm not going to defend the lifestyle or the misogyny or homophobia, but Common is undeniably a genius with rhyme and delivery, and within the tradition his beats are nothing less than innovative. He transcends rap, getting to the very essence of the funk and soul traditions."

That's how you do it. People will admire and hate you.

Mission accomplished.
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Updated Jul-04-2018 at 14:03 by science



  1. science's Avatar
    Oh what a superior man, said Candide, still speaking softly, what a great genius this Pococurante must be! Nothing can please him.

    ....But, said Candide, isn't there pleasure in criticizing everything, in seeing faults where other people think they see beauties?
    Updated Jan-03-2015 at 04:47 by science