Source: Confusion – pigeonsandplanes.com
It’s late 2011 and you hear Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” for the first time on YouTube. You tweet something about how this is the catchiest song out and get a reply from your music snob friend: “You just heard this? It’s been on all the European charts forever. It’s so played out.” Just reading this smug response makes you wince.
It would be months before the song would be released in the United States, many more months before it would be performed on Saturday Night Live, covered on Glee and American Idol, and propelled to the No. 1 spot on the U.S. Billboard chart, where it would stay for eight consecutive weeks. Within a year’s time, it would become one of the most viral and obnoxious songs in the country. And as much as you hate to admit it, the music snob had a point.
Music snobs get a bad rap. I know this because I get called one a lot. I probably deserve it; I have some asshole-ish tendencies when it comes to music. I’m the type to follow and support an artist right up until they break, then once they make a hit song I’ll back off or start ignoring them completely. If an artist has one song that everyone loves, it’s probably my least favorite song by that artist. If a song gets used in a commercial for a new car or a fast food restaurant, fuck that song.
I don’t mean to do these things. I can’t help it. I have my reasons.
When I was young, I listened mostly to what my parents played me. I grew up on The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Roy Orbison, The Rolling Stones, and some random albums that I got my hands on thanks to my older sister. My parents weren’t music fanatics, but we’d play albums in the house often, and I began developing favorites while I put underwear on my head, picked my nose, ate bugs, and danced around like the dumb little asshole that I was.
In fifth grade I got a glimpse of Jimi Hendrix for the first time thanks to a poster hanging up in the room of my neighbor’s older brother. He was a few years older and smoked pot on the bus out of some kind of homemade pen contraption, so I knew he was cool. Standing in the doorway of his room, staring up at that poster on the wall, I was captivated—”What is Jimi Hendrix?”
Shortly after that, I was visiting my aunt in Buffalo and while the grown-ups chatted about bland things of no interest to me, I went through my aunt’s CD rack. Pulling out albums and looking at the covers one by one, I was snapped out of this intolerable boredom when I saw that image from the poster—it was Jimi Hendrix, and he was on the cover of a compilation album called The Ultimate Experience.
I stole that CD from my aunt’s house. It was a risky move since the circular outline of a CD is hard to conceal in the pocket of mesh basketball shorts, but I didn’t worry about this since I was not a very clever kid. Later in life these klepto tendencies would have adverse effects (I am never allowed to work at a Stop & Shop), but my reckless thievery paid off this time. Sorry, Aunt Karen.
I played that Jimi Hendrix album non-stop for months. I learned how to play guitar because of it. I quickly figured out that if you hit only the top string twice and then all the other strings together at once, it kind of sounded like “Foxy Lady.” More importantly, I realized for the first time that there was music out there that I had no idea existed and that if I could just find it, I might love it. From this point on, I started seeking that music out and being an active listener.
This was my first step toward becoming a music snob.
I started reading about music more, talking to people about it, making weekly trips to my local record store (R.I.P. Volt Music) and buying albums I knew nothing about based on how cool the covers looked. I got lucky a couple of times (Either/Or, The Velvet Underground), but mostly I was just reaching for whatever I could get and trying to comprehend what it was. I went through phases with jam bands, indie, blues, jazz, classic rock, and then the Internet became a thing around the same time my sister got me into hip-hop with 2Pac, Gangstarr, and A Tribe Called Quest. After that I found underground hip-hop and my burned CDs were dominated by Rhymesayers and Def Jux. From this point on, radio was irrelevant to me—after listening to The Cold Vein, Top 40 hits seemed trivial.
Once you start getting into music that is more challenging than what’s on the radio, it’s hard to turn back. All but a small slice of the mainstream menu starts to seem obvious, basic, and mechanical, and if you look at music as an art, you start to feel like the mainstream machine is an attack on something you love.
The Cost of Mass Appeal
There is a misconception that snobs dislike music because it is popular. This is untrue and people who think this are simple-minded. Nobody hates anything simply because it gets popular. There is a cost; there is sacrifice involved in pleasing the masses. Just look at the Hot 100.
In a recent New York Times interview, Taylor Swift said about indie music: “What I don’t really understand is the attitude that if a band is unknown, they’re good, and if they get fans, then you move on to the next band.” Her misunderstanding of the situation is overly simplified and mostly inaccurate. While a lot of people stop liking a band when they get big, that does not mean that they stop liking a band because they get big. If you’ve been a fan of indie music for years, you’re probably accustomed to the all-too-familiar pattern of bands putting out great music, getting signed by a major, and then putting out a watered-down, stale version of the music you became a fan of in the first place. On a major label debut, there is rarely time for experimentation and risk-taking—two of the things that make indie music so exciting.
On the flip side, the argument is often made that because millions of people like something, it must be good. Take this out of the context of music. Try to apply this argument to movies, television, or food. Everyone eats food, but very few consider themselves foodies, and even fewer are connoisseurs. Try to tell a person who really cares about food that McDonald’s is the best food simply because millions of people all over the world eat it and enjoy it. It’s not going to fly. McDonald’s is cheap, it tastes good (to many people), and it’s accessible. Most music on the radio is like McDonald’s. It’s over-processed, it’s manufactured, and it’s obvious. It’s the product of an industry that pushes art for money. It can be easily digested by anyone who flips a switch and decides within seconds whether or not they like a song.
As Jay Brown, the president of Roc Nation and manager of hit-writer Ester Dean, explained to The New Yorker, “It’s not enough to have one hook anymore. You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre-chorus, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge… People on average give a song seven seconds on the radio before they change the channel, and you got to hook them.”
When you hear about the process of a “hit” being made, it becomes clear that it’s not about art; it’s about making money. It becomes about making something so immediate and so instantly gratifying that listeners don’t have to do any work. Is this really how we want music to be treated?
The Importance of Music
To some of us, music is more than a casual thing. At the risk of sounding corny, music has helped me deal with life—there are songs that have helped me get over death, depression, break-ups, and all the world’s ugliest offerings. And it wasn’t the music that was playing on the radio.
I can’t listen to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks without a painful, overwhelming nostalgia that brings me back to sitting in my car, parked in driveway of my high school girlfriend’s house, telling her goodbye on the last night of the summer before we both went to college in different parts of the country.
I can’t hear Bradley Nowell (or Bob Marley) sing the line, “This train is bound for glory” without thinking about my friend Dave who was going to get that phrase tattooed on his arm—a design I drew—but never did because he died of a drug overdose before I finished drawing it.
And I can’t hear Toots & The Maytals’ “Sweet and Dandy” without remembering dancing with my mom at my sister’s wedding, feeling as genuinely and entirely happy as I can ever remember.
The point is, music means a lot to me. It’s not just a catchy chorus and a masterfully mastered, expertly-crafted product of a bunch of hit-writers in one room getting paid to appeal to as many people as possible all at the same time. For some of us, there’s a connection with music that lies at the heart of the human experience itself. Some of us look to music for more than just entertainment.
The Healthiness of Hate
Now, why not just let this be? Why not let Katy Perry go on and be Katy Perry while us disgruntled indie fans who only like less popular stuff continue latching on to our obscure buzz bands? A music snob is only a music snob once he/she opens his/her mouth and starts to get snobby, right? So why is it even necessary for the snob to speak up?
To put it simply, there needs to be a healthy amount of hate. On the business side of music, you’ve got money-driven people with an enormous amount of influence trying to control what you hear and like. As proven over the years, many of those people care more about the business than the art. There has to be a balance, and the music snob provides that. We are the ones who won’t just accept everything that’s fed to us. We’re the ones who start blogs and insist on telling you what’s good, what’s bad, and what you should be paying attention to next. And we’re all better off for it.
Without any questioning and critiquing, creativity and integrity get cornered in the hallway, grabbed by both legs, turned upside-down, and shaken until their pockets are empty. And everyone just stands around and watches as a Flo Rida song plays in the background.
I don’t want to be called a hater, and I don’t want to be called a snob (and thankfully I don’t too often because I have kind eyes). But truth be told, I’d much rather be thought of as a snob than a sheep.
Keep your Katy Perry, your Justin Bieber, your Flo Rida, and your Black Eyed Peas. We’ll keep on hating them, because for every 50 people who just love to get drunk and sing along with mindless, obvious music, there is at least one of us who cares enough to say, “This is garbage.” The world needs balance, and without any of us music snobs, it would be the corporations, labels, and money dictating the end product. When the end product is art, that’s a scary thought.