November 3, 2008

My iTunes Collection Is Bigger Than Yours

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If it weren’t for iTunes song counts, how would you ever know if someone was cool?
A Grade-A loser hovers around 200 songs, his library a mishmash of ringtone rap and acoustic whine-alongs. You don’t want to hang out with this person. A little farther up the chain is the part-time aesthete, who’s built an approximately 1,000-large collection of entire albums and favorite ’90s singles. She’s alright, depending on how much Kelly Clarkson’s included in there, but still rather dull. Next is the under-10,000 would-be indie kid, his library sprinkled with Fugazi LPs and Radiohead B-sides: respectable, but nothing special. The real coolness lies with those masters of the 20 or 30,000 song count, their iTunes collections bursting with Kronos Quartet box sets and Yo La Tengo’s every last bootleg. 90 percent of the stuff in there no one else has even heard of, and that’s what makes it so alluring. These folks are inimitable, almost too cool, and their well-practiced sangfroid puts the fear of God in all of us.
If you agree with my general assessment, you’re probably a snob like me. We’re college students and, being unable to assert our cultural superiority through opera tickets or gallery openings, we turn to easily quantifiable criteria like song counts and Facebook profiles (just for the record, I’m not yet up there with the coolest of the cool: my song count hovers around the kind-of-voluminous-but-still-suspiciously-slim mark). And if you haven’t noticed, the number of art-house films you have listed under “Favorite movies” shares a positive correlation with the volume of flannel in your wardrobe.
So why are we so concerned with outward signs of aesthetic discrimination? On the one hand, the ability to pick and choose the really good stuff from amongst the manifold of pop culture betrays a certain skill. With so much being beamed at us at all times, it takes a deft mind to cultivate a selective taste. Or that’s the idea, at least — when someone plays a bunch of unknown bands at a party, it’s meant to convey the hours they’ve spent perusing Pitchfork and listening to seldom-visited Myspace pages.
But the real attraction of amassing obscure EPs and watching Turkish cinema is the fact that these acts of cultural sophistication are in themselves a type of creativity. The sum total of a person’s iTunes song count, DVD collection, Facebook favorite books list and dorm room poster collection is supposed to be a unique artistic sensibility, a demonstration through the works of others of what that person cares about and how they choose to express it. And if the whole endeavor seems hopelessly contrived and calculated to impress, well then you’re just not in the know.
Some people avoid this vain pursuit of artificial erudition, of course. Their iTunes libraries are filled honestly and their Facebooks profiles detailed with integrity. To them the promise of baffled stares at their iPods and muttered responses to questions about film matter little: they’re in it for themselves, and the world can think what it will.
But where’s the fun in that? If you’re an accomplished filterer of the mass media blather and have distilled the cultural white noise into some notion of what’s important, then you should let people know. Cultural elitists are the sign of a healthy civilization, and in the age of Joe the Plumber and American Idol they’re positively essential to our society’s health.
I am not, however, going so far as to say that there is no distinction between the truly refined and the effete poseurs chasing at their heels. Anyone with an Internet connection and a penchant for piracy can bloat their iTunes library with files, and it takes little talent to mine Wikipedia for oft-ignored artists. And for all their efforts at mysteriousness, the hacks always reveal their true colors by listening to Pavement.
The sign of real cultivation is the blithe mixture of the high-brow with the low. The legitimately cultured person feels the weight of the too-popular (Radiohead, Perez Hilton, The Dark Knight) but does not dismiss it out of hand. He stands above that most favorite indie past-time, the disavowal of bands who have become famous, and sticks by his choices. But, all the same, he’s usually a snob. It just comes with the territory.
So if you’re planning a life of urbane cosmopolitanism filled with season subscriptions and discussions about Jeff Koons, you should get started now. Artificially inflate that iTunes library and dust up your Facebook profile. Because if no one knows you’re culturally sophisticated, then it might as well not be true.

Ted Hamilton is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at thamilton@cornellsun.com. Win a Date With Ted Hamilton appears alternate Mondays.