Monday, June 14, 2010

On Musical Snobbery

For much of my life, I have been a music snob. I have often looked down my nose at "those people" who like "that style of music." This goes all the way back to my youth. In 9th grade, I was a huge fan of Cheap Trick until "Live at Budokan" came out. Suddenly, everybody liked them, so I could no longer be a fan. Later, in college, I was a jazz snob for a while. Believe it or not, I was even an opera snob for a short time.

In retrospect, I realize this is all about exclusivity and elitism. We all want to feel like we are better than the masses. The idea that we belong to a select group of people who are "in the know" gives us comfort. Artistic people are especially prone to this, because we often tend to be insecure.

Interestingly, you can see snobbery from many different camps. For instance, educated musicians often have a strong preference for more complex music. On the other hand, punk musicians (and many rock critics, for some reason) prefer less complexity. And they often hate each other, by the way.

This brings up an important question: Who is right, and who is wrong? Sure, I have a doctorate in music, but is my musical taste more important than the average layperson? Many of the artists I love have little more than a cult following. On the other hand, does popularity trump all? Should I like Justin Bieber just because he is so popular?

Of course, in the end, these are all just opinions, and I believe our discourse on all matters of taste could benefit from that realization. I will refer to one of my musical heroes, alto saxophonist Steve Coleman. In his explanation of the concept behind M-Base (Macro - Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations,) he says:
...the concept of which style is better than another style has no place here. Since the goal is the expression of culture and philosophy, there is no "better". There is only the perspective of the person experiencing the music and what this person hears is largely shaped by his/her own experience. In other words what the listener "hears" depends on who that listener is. The same music can be experienced many different ways by different people.
He is discussing this in the context of musical composition and improvisation, but I think it can apply to music listening in general. This is a model I hope to follow one day. I am not there yet. My first instinct at the mention of Justin Bieber is to turn up my nose. I am still overly annoyed at the amount of auto-tune in mainstream popular music and the TV show Glee. However, I am learning to respect the opinions of others, rather than judge them. Now, if we could all just apply the same attitude toward politics.....

(If you are a jazz aficionado, Steve Coleman has just released a new album, which can be found at: I highly recommend it, especially if you enjoy free and avant-garde jazz.)
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