When it comes to cultural knowledge, fake it till you make it.

February 11, 2016

COLLINS | On Faking Cultural Knowledge

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When I think about music as a body of work, I think first of the Cortland Street J&R. I remember being 12 years old, standing on a raised landing and gazing over a hall of jewel cases. Due to the recent proliferation of streaming sites, the cavernous music store isn’t an apt description of the music world anymore. A year and a half ago, the Manhattan J&R closed and, long before that, my memory of it faded. In retrospect, I don’t think the store even had a raised landing. But wandering the main pop/rock hall (jazz, classical and “world” music were relegated to the upstairs) convinced me that comprehensively listening to music was a Sisyphean task. All of my older friends and favorite music critics seemingly listened to more and cooler music than me. I wanted desperately to have a massive body of musical knowledge, but I couldn’t shake the image of rows upon rows of CDs.

For a while, I simply faked it. I professed to know every band that anyone mentioned. Most of my friends simply wanted to air out their own thoughts and I skated by, thankful that people rarely questioned my knowledge of any particular group. The lying provided me with hollow joy; I got the instant gratification of feeling in the loop without actually being in the loop.

In 2013, Jimmy Kimmel created a segment in which one of his reporters asked Coachella-goers about their thoughts on made-up bands. Time after time, the interviewees nervously smiled, squinted behind their sunglasses and praised nonexistent groups. Dr. Shlomo and the G.I. Clinic, Get The Fuck Out of My Pool, The Chelsea Clintons, it didn’t matter — everyone swore they knew every band. The sun-kissed concertgoers deployed the same excuses as me: my friends say they’re great, I’ve been meaning to listen to them, I think I’ve heard of them.

Over time, I thought of my pretending less as a lie and more as a tactic to keep conversations flowing. At my worst, I didn’t even realize that I was lying. I unthinkingly afforded half-baked praise to any band name that someone mentioned. Fun fact: despite reflecting a lot on faking musical knowledge to write this column, I still instinctively pretended to know a band just this past week! Over time, however, my anxiety over being called out and my apathy towards other people’s opinions about me both grew. When I started college, I also started owning up to my myopic taste in music, books and movies.

I did not, however, immediately pivot to immersing myself in art and pop culture. Instead of professing to have seen The Martian or read Infinite Jest, I just learned the bare minimum about them through the Internet. Wikipedia became my crutch; I enjoyed reading synopses far more than watching two-hour movies. Rather than spending my dutiful hours in movie theatres, CD stores and galleries, I read articles by people who did. My way of talking to other people about media changed too. When people asked if I had seen a given movie, I most often replied, “Nah, but I get the references.”

Without realizing it, I tumbled into an uncanny parallel universe of art consumption. I increasingly knew the plots of movies that I never bothered to watch. I could talk extensively about the relationships between bands whose music I had never heard. My crisis of faith occurred once I started writing regularly about music.

Growing up with dial-up Internet in the middle of a dense forest, I justified my erratic consumption style with my inability to access all the music I wanted to hear. I was stuck in the pre-Spotify era without the high-speed Internet or technical know-how to torrent music. Yet with subscriptions to Kanopy and Spotify, my preference for summaries over details is a vestige of a part of my life I long ago left. Loading up with synopses and other people’s opinions was more honest than lying, but just as lazy.

Thus, I decided to start owning the gaps in my cultural references. The decision had polar-opposite consequences. On one hand, I started flaunting my profound ignorance about hailed works. I loved seeing people squirm when I admitted that I had never seen any of the Lord of the Rings movies, or that I could barely name more than four Rolling Stones songs. I reveled in the middle school contrarianism of looking at the pop-culture canon and snottily shrugging. At the same time, admitting my fear of lagging behind trends and references freed me to actually delve into the music, movies and art in which I was so interested.

After all, I never derived full, proper pleasure from stacking up empty references and Wikipedia knowledge. I grew to understand that knowing nothing about a vast field of art isn’t a personal failing, but an opportunity to learn. Despite all of my anxiety-producing philosophizing about a Biblioteca total-conception of music, I never considered the desolation and boredom of a world in which I had heard music in its totality. To conclude with an admission, I delved into the music of only one band this past week — Don Caballero. In a world of millions of bands, I threw myself into one, but I fully, passionately enjoyed it.

Shay Collins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Morning Bowl of Surreal appears alternate Fridays this semester.