Staff writer Lewis Walsh writes that we should listen widely and be proud of our music tastes
It’s a house party, complete with drunken chat and dubious dancing. All of the ingredients of a successful night are in place, yet there’s one element left shamefully unattended: the music. Conversation is rendered near-impossible due to a cacophonous drunken sing-along:
Coming out of my cage, and I been doing just fine!
And after all, you’re my wonderwall!
I know when that hotline bling!
This playlist is an act of aggression. After being granted access to the almighty aux cable, I decide to play “People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul” by James Brown. It’s groovy, danceable, and (perhaps most importantly to party attendees) relatively familiar. I look around the room for faces of approval, but am met only with ones of scorn. 30 seconds pass before once again the air fills with top 40. I may be defeated but my attitude is not: I leave the party thinking that their music is terrible. Mine is far better.
This is pretentiousness. Pretentiousness is often associated with condescension, playing inaccessible music and carrying an air of unwarranted “coolness”. However, it’s important to use this label when talking about people, not music. I have met people who think they’re God’s gift to music consumption. They’re irritating, but that doesn’t mean their music taste is bad. Controversially, the opposite tends to be the case.
Although I agree that listening to music is a subjective experience, and it’s near-impossible to qualify something as objectively bad, objectively boring music does exist. Some examples of this are the viral Youtube sensations in which a guitar player is able to play over fifty charted songs using the same three or four chords. The audience gawks and applauds, viewing the spectacle as “amazing”.
But is it actually amazing? There are a couple of sad conclusions to be drawn from these videos:
- People are entertained by the continued use of just three or four chords.
- Modern pop music exploits this, as the majority of chart music is composed in strict alignment with these chords, with only the musical garnish being changed.
These facts provide a strong case for such music being unoriginal, and, ultimately, boring.
What is it that differentiates this music from “pretentious” music? For a start, pretentious music tends to exist outside of the mainstream. Generally speaking, it’s free from the clichés that are rampant in pop music, such as four-chord progressions and structural conventions. There’s more room for experimentation.
Going beyond the mainstream opens up a musical gamut that the top 40 doesn’t cater to. The exclusion of this music to the zeitgeist provides another aspect of pretentiousness: it requires effort. Listening to mainstream music is easy. Any mainstream transportation or public space plays the radio, thus the experience of listening to this music becomes passive. Listening to music outside of the mainstream requires effort on the behalf of the consumer; it’s proactive. By investing time into their musical habits, listeners care more about what they listen to. Subsequently, they ask more questions about it. Where did this artist come from? Are there any artists who sound similar to this? What is this genre called? What began as finding one band becomes a rich tapestry of musical movements, connections, and histories. Proactivity in music discovery means gaining access to a world of musical knowledge that would otherwise be of no concern.
As previously stated, one of the elements of pretentiousness is an unwarranted sense of “coolness”. Now, this concept can be cringe-worthy and off-putting. However, this perceived coolness can also be extremely desirable. James Murphy, frontman for LCD Soundsystem, provided insight on this other attitude in an interview with The Guardian in 2010. He said, “[...] the first time I read Gravity's Rainbow, I did so because I thought it would make me seem cool. That was my original motivation. But now I've read it six times, and I find it hilarious and great and I understand it. You can't be afraid to embarrass yourself sometimes.”
To listen to something for social currency isn’t uncommon. As Murphy points out, this passive engagement can breed a genuine respect and love for the music. What starts as:“Well, actually, I listen to this very obscure band,” can very quickly become: “They’re my favourite band. I’ve heard all their albums, seen them live, listened to all their side projects. I am one with this band.” The desire to be cool through musical status can certainly be seen as the wrong motive. However, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t provide a platform for people to engage with music that they otherwise wouldn’t have.
I am aware that this article is not applicable to everybody. Music is sometimes a means to an end, whether that be dancing, studying, or working out. This I fully respect and am not about to lecture against. Still, I believe that if you genuinely care about music, then you owe it to yourself to believe your taste is the best. Experiment with genres that you wouldn’t have previously considered. Dig deep into musical history to learn where it is your favourite music comes from. Be proactive in your music listening and appreciate the kaleidoscopic landscape that is original and interesting music. Anyone who takes the time to listen to and explore music owes it to themselves to be proud of their taste in music and be, even just a little bit, pretentious.