Of Fandom and Isolation
A Brief Look at the Phenomenon of Musical Elitism
What exactly is musical elitism? It's a phrase that's being tossed around more and more, and it's a phrase whose amorphous meaning results in various applications in seemingly innumerable contexts. It's also a phrase that evokes past uses against literary enthusiasts, politicos, academicians, and whoever else might be viewed as setting themselves in a stratum beyond that occupied by the common man (whatever that means precisely). But surely those saddled with this description can't be brethren to caricatures of aristocratic males fingering monocles in their sockets while wetting their thumbs to turn the pages of their Ulysses first editions. Not that the phrase "musical elitist' isn't subject to a similar stereotyping, one that envisions a kid dressed in tight denim listening to Aphex Twin on a pair of extravagant headphones while burning incense and tapping the soles of his dirtied All-Stars. Indeed, the negative baggage that follows from the label musical elitist can be difficult to shed in its entirety, a truth made even more frustrating as it often demands learning (or pretending) to enjoy forms of music that you've come to loathe throughout the ascent in status. And it's also a label that's becoming all the more prevalent and easier to attain, given the explosion of digital music and readily accessible downloading sites. It's no longer necessary for fans to enter a scene in order to learn about the it bands of the moment -- such information is often just a mouse click away.
Before going further, all potential elitists would do well to consider the following scenario:
You're enjoying a party at a friend's house. The laughs have been as plentiful as the spirits, and the host decides that the perfect moment has come for the introduction of a new playlist that's been customized exclusively for that evening's celebration. You hear the strum of a canned guitar burst from the soundsystem just before Chad Kroeger's gruff voice comes grating over the top. Everyone else seems to welcome the music, and most — quite unnervingly — appear to have memorized the lyrics and nuances attendant to Chad's vocals. You don't really want to bring the spirits down, but you can't really live with yourself if you don't make the room aware of your intense disapproval. So, you invariably rattle off a snide remark on the questionable merits of the Canadian powerhouse (Nickelback, for those fortunate enough to miss the reference), thus forcing all to recognize your possession of a superior musical preference. You're an elitist, and there are some bands you can't even pretend to appreciate ironically.
This is the life of a musical elitist, and it can often be one of loneliness and self-alienation. If it were up to you, your friends would throw parties in tribute to Ian Curtis, and conversations would often center on the progressive movement of Wu-Tang Clan, both as a group and as a set of individual entities. But most people aren't like you. They don't know who Ian Curtis is, and if they ever listened to a Joy Division LP, they'd probably describe it as a soundtrack for cutting. And that's fine — or at least it should be. People listen to music for different reasons, and if some buy records (yes, there are people out there who still visit the local Virgin) because of the range of octaves a singer can hit, or because it reminds them of a favorite Jerry Bruckheimer film, then they are obviously playing in a different arena than someone who spends hours searching for rare Wire bootlegs.
The problem has become the backlash that many experience from those who are content hewing close to the mainstream. If elitists are discouraged from touting a perceived superiority, then it seems odd when they're subjected to equally narrow criticisms concerning “weird” music that many feel is only appreciated for its obscurity. It seems that many people who listen to the kinds of music covered by sites like this surround themselves mostly with friends with similar tastes. Many of my friends listen to Akon. Regardless of what I play, they assume it's something that will evoke images of dungeons and tight black denim.
So, I'm an elitist because I care about what I listen to and like to share my opinions with others. I'm a “hipster” or I'm “indie” or I'm “pretentious.” Really, I'm just a fan. I'm a passionate fan, who, like many of my fellow “elitists,” has embraced that title to the detriment of ever relating to fans that are frightened by the label in the same way Democrats have fled from a liberal-elitist identity in recent time. So perhaps it's time for everyone to be a bit more egalitarian about things — elitists can take a step down and non-elitists can take a small step outside the box. If that happens, then I might be able to skirt any future arguments over why I like pop-country ironically, and why that shouldn't be taken as a degradation of anyone else. We all like different kinds of music for different reasons. It should be enough that we all like and are often moved by music.