March 26, 2009

The Upper Echelons of Music Connoiseurs

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Attention music listeners: If you have more Animal Collective on your iPod than you do Bruce Springsteen, if you can name ten shoegaze bands, if you were into Vampire Weekend way before anyone else was, then you, my friend, are most likely a music snob. And let me make one thing clear — you need to reform your ways.
It has taken me a long time to come to terms with the fact that my — ahem — sophisticated musical palate does not make me any better or smarter than the frat-rap-listening, iPod Shuffle-owning music simpleton. And while I still have difficulty harnessing my snobbish tendencies, I am making progress. For example, just this past weekend I drove back to school with a girl whose musical taste (see: Shania Twain) could not have been more diametrically opposed to mine. Yet even as she sang along with “Any Man of Mine,” I swallowed my despair and said nothing the whole ride.
My own development into a music snob was borne of a lifelong love of music, a passion shaped largely by my dad who, via a lengthy, indelible, and yet ongoing indoctrination process, left me with a permanent soft spot for The Beatles, Joni Mitchell and, regrettably, Bonnie Raitt. My performance career, after achieving a sputtering lift-off in the high school talent show, has long since crash-landed. A recent afternoon spent leafing through my songbook from ninth grade left me queasy with sentimentality: I was a god-awful songwriter. And while I’d rather not divulge any of the lyrical gems glistening from within that notebook (hint: they wouldn’t be out of place sprawled among O-Town liner notes), I will say the experience was so thoroughly humiliating that I’ve sworn off writing music ever again.
Which brings me to my most recent avenue of musical exploration: criticism. For the most part, the job of a critic holds great appeal to me. I get to write about music, if not actually perform it. But after writing reviews for almost a year now, I am beginning to question whether I have the stuff, the gall, to be a critic. Kurt Vonnegut once declared that any reviewer who has written a scathing review of a book is “like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae” — and certainly I feel for that. Aren’t I less qualified to judge other music because I can’t create my own? Could I tear apart someone else’s art without feeling guilt or remorse? I’m not sure.
Take, for example, Pitchfork, the notoriously hip, pre-eminent music website, and its review of the most recent Kings of Leon album, “Only by the Night,” to which it gives a 3.8 rating out of 10. Stop right there. How on earth can music be quantified to the tenth decimal place? It strikes me as both completely arbitrary and, at the same time, shamefully calculating. Critics aren’t supposed to crunch numbers, and there is no formula to evaluate art. It’s much more subjective than that.
Next, look at the rating itself. A 3.8? Can anything, excluding Shania Twain, really be deserving of such a dismal review? The music lover in me says no.
So what if you think the music is awful — to someone else it may be brilliant, life-changing. That’s the beauty of art: it’s relative. It means different things to different people, and nobody can say otherwise.
Yet despite my earnest tolerance for others’ musical tastes, and my deep-rooted cynicism toward critics, I am still skeptical whether I will ever completely root out my inner snob.
Not too long ago I was reading in the Green Dragon Café when I overheard a barista tell his friend that he thought Radiohead was overrated. As he did so, I felt a violent shudder pass through my body, a mounting feeling of repulsion, anger and disgust, as if, instead of merely expressing a musical preference different from my own, he had professed to hating black people, or to murdering puppies. I looked the unwitting barista over, sneering at him as though he were Hester Prynne and I a Puritan townsman, and began muttering invective under my breath, before finally snapping out of it.
Judge and be judged, the bible says. Or, you know, just judge.