Sunday, June 3, 2012

Taste, Snobs, and "High Fidelity"

Yesterday Pat, Kevin, and I engaged in a fairly engrossing debate on facebook about a variety of things, all stemming from what it means to be a music snob.   Essentially, Kevin and I were clowning on Nickelback and how they are really lame and Pat started challenging us because it seemed to him that we were making broad generalizations about the fans of this band and how they like crappy music.  Kevin said he didn’t understand how so many people could like such bad music.  I said I totally understood why people like such bad music, because this music tends to be melodic and simple.  Pat wondered what was so bad about being simple which I admitted that there was nothing wrong with it.  But just like everything else, there is good simple and there is bad simple.

This assertion that Kevin agreed with pretty much set Pat off and he accused us of being elitist and snobs.  Now he may have a point here, and being a music snob is not something that I am not used to being called.  And I started thinking about the movie High Fidelity and how there are so many scenes from that movie that are so relevant for me.  My Webster’s iPhone app includes a definition of a snob as: “One who has an offensive air of superiority in matters of knowledge or taste”.  So yes, I am a snob.  So is Kevin.  So is Patty.  If we ever ran a record store, conversations may go something like this.  Only maybe a little less dickish:  

 But as I consistently stated in our debate is that there is nothing inherently wrong with liking Nickelback or Creed or any other band for that matter.  Taste is such a subjective thing and as with all things subjective there is no inherent wrong or right there.  The only wrong and right is what one feels from a personal standpoint.  I think Nickelback sucks, so for me personally, listening to them would be wrong.  But what this whole subjective medium does to someone who cares so passionately about it is turn that person into a snob.  You know that person who asks others at a party who their favorite band is or which albums they’d take with them on a deserted island or which concerts are the best they’ve ever seen?  Yeah, I’m that guy.

I don’t do this to fish for that person who says something that I so vehemently disagree with so I can chastise them.  I do it to seek out a connection.  I agree with John Cusak’s character Rob in High Fidelity when he speaks so passionately about how taste in music and movies and pop culture matters in finding a partner.  It also matters when befriending someone.  Let’s face it; if you don’t have at least some of these basic interests in common, it’s going to be difficult to establish any lasting and meaningful friendship. 

Now I don’t mean to suggest that it is the only thing that matters.  I disagree with Rob when he says it doesn’t matter what you are like.  But his point here is well taken, and for me, the strongest connections I’ve ever made have been with those who like similar things that I do, at least on some level.  And sometimes when I’m at that party engaging someone in whichever question seems most salient in my mind, I tend to let my snobbery take over me. 

I often tell of the story when I asked my friend Christi what the greatest live concert she’d ever seen.  Without batting an eye she confidently answered “John Mayer”.  To which I just as quickly replied “No it’s not”.  To Christi’s credit, she immediately called me out on what a dickish thing this was to say.  She asked me who I was to make such a statement and that she was only answering my question honestly.  I immediately felt like a jerk and apologized profusely telling her how right she was.  You see, that was my personal subjective arrogant side coming through without a filter.  Maybe it also had something to do with the few beers I had consumed prior to asking the question.  Of course that was Christi’s greatest live show.  But for me, I just didn’t see how that could be possible because I think John Mayer’s music sucks.  I had seen so many great shows and in my head I just didn’t think Christi knew any better and rather than turn that objective filter on and come to the understanding that this was a perfectly valid answer, I jumped the gun and got all high and mighty.  I was being a snob, and felt like a less intense version of this:  

A few years later I was engaged in another music conversation with some friends and I asked them which five albums they would take with them to a deserted island.   Because you know, that might actually happen.  A few of us gave our answers and discussed them a bit when we came to our friend Melissa.  Now I knew her background and tastes stemmed mainly from Nashville Country music which is one of my least favorites, but I was still genuinely interested in what she had to say.  I was prepared for answers that I wouldn’t personally agree with, but I was cool with that.  I just think it’s a great question.  But I was surprised by her answer………..because she didn’t give one.  She only said that she did not know how to answer it.  That she did not really know many albums like that.  That she didn’t listen to music the way I do.  And that she was intimidated by the question.  This was not an answer I had ever heard before, and I had asked this question to a lot of different people. 

I kept prodding her to explain herself, not because she owed me anything, but because I was genuinely curious about such a different point of view.  She basically told me that music for her is something that is just there.  She listened to it as background music, or to dance to at a club or wedding, or just to pass the time.  She didn’t consume it, or read about it, or talk about it.  For her, it was just there and she honestly did not have a vast knowledge of the different types of albums she had and could not really differentiate between them.  I explained to her how that type of mindset just didn’t make sense to me and that I was sorry if my question was in any way intimidating, as that was the last thing I was going for.

But that is when I truly started to try to understand people who did not have the same tastes as I did.  You see, it’s not so much that Melissa liked different music than I did; she actually approached and viewed music from a completely different perspective.  She didn’t care.  She chose to put her efforts elsewhere in regards to interests and leisure time.  I suppose one of the things that made this conversation so difficult for me was that most of the friends I had in my life could all relate to music the same way I could, at least on some level.

One final related story occurred earlier this year at a bar on St. Patrick’s Day.  I had met up with two of my uncles at a sports bar and we got to talking about all kinds of things, some of them music related.  A guy at the next table overheard some of our conversations and chimed in here and there.  Eventually, he and I engaged in a pretty interesting conversation about music and I realized we disagreed about every topic that was brought up.  He thought Keith Moon was not a very good drummer, that Hendrix was extremely overrated and merely a “decent blues guitarist”, and that Paul McCartney was far superior to John Lennon in not only his solo career but also as a songwriter in the Beatles.  He also really liked Steve Miller, Lynard Skynard, and Aerosmith.  There were some other assertions he made that I totally disagreed with, but I can’t remember them all.  It's important to point out that unlike Christi and Melissa, this guy was a music guy and played in a band and knew a lot of different things.  But he was coming at it all from a totally different perspective than I was.  He wasn’t like Melissa who really didn’t care.  He just had totally different tastes and opinions than I did.  And no matter how logical I tried to be (like admitting that I really didn’t know enough about the intricacies of playing the guitar enough to determine for myself who the greatest of all time is, but that there are plenty of great musicians who do and that they all agree that Hendrix is the end-all-be-all of guitar players so I’m going to go ahead and take their word for it) he would not budge on his position.  He understood what I was saying, but he didn’t agree with it.  It was another extremely profound moment for me.

This is what I was trying to convey to Kevin and especially Patty.  My point of view, taste, belief, conviction, and understanding are all objectively no more valid than are anyone else’s.  They are all equally passionate and salient.  However, SUBJECTIVELY, no one has a better point of view, taste, belief, conviction, and understanding of anything than I do.  And don’t lie; you feel the exact same way.  Even you who doesn’t care much about music at all.  You feel the same way.  I have been chastised by others for liking certain music, and sometimes by people who I think have horrible taste.  There have been plenty of times when I've played a song or an album in front of a non-music person and that person has told me that they think it sucks.  So one could make the argument that even non-music people can be snobs too.  You know how when people say “I don’t judge”?  They’re lying.  Every.  Single. Time.  We are all judging at all times.  Whether we allow our judgments to come out of our mouths or not, the thoughts are there.  And they never fully go away.  There is nothing wrong with this as it only makes us human.  I’d actually be way more concerned if someone didn’t have such feelings.  Who are you?  Data?!

So when Kevin and I talk about how much Nickelback sucks and how everyone who likes them has bad taste, we both know that this is a subjective opinion and there is no way to scientifically prove us right or wrong.  But we will assert our position so strongly that it comes across like we actually think we are the smartest people with the best tastes in the world.  We both know that’s not true.  It just depends on how we’re thinking at the time as the subjective and objective can rarely share the same space simultaneously.

But back to the most fundamental message of this post.  Most people do not approach things with a highly critical ear.  Oftentimes, people access pop culture to escape into some sort of dumber reality so that they can cope better with their lives.  As human beings, we work hard and have huge problems.  When we engage in entertainment, we typically don’t want to think too much.  We want it to be immediately funny, or catchy, or engaging.  We don’t want to give it time to resonate with us.  If the gratification isn’t instant then it’s not worth pursuing.  Large media conglomerates are very aware of this and will frequently offer funding for projects that are guaranteed to sell.  This doesn’t mean that these companies aren’t capable of producing material that is quality and can appeal to the masses.  There are plenty of times where critical acclaim and mass appeal converge on a regular basis (Adele’s 21 last year is an excellent recent example of this).  It’s just very difficult to pull this off. 

I’m trying hard not to come off like an arrogant jerk here.  It’s not like I don’t like anything that I think is bad.  I freely admit that I watch and thoroughly enjoy The Jersey Shore.  I enjoyed the movie Hall Pass which was panned by the critics.  And I like a lot of generic 90’s rock music, which at one point prompted Patty to claim that my CD collection was like the Bizzarro Library of Congress (one of his greatest lines ever).  Many refer to such likes as guilty pleasures, but Kevin has told me many times that there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure.  If you like something, you should like it and be done with it.  You shouldn’t feel guilty about it and just own your likes and dislikes.  The term only exists because it implies that a significant portion of the population dislikes and chastises the item in question and that one should feel bad for enjoying it.  I have mixed feelings about Kevin’s assertion and can see both sides of the argument.  I know that Jersey Shore is a horrible travesty of modern entertainment, and a part of me feels slightly embarrassed in admitting it.  But man oh man is it fun to watch. 

Sometimes that’s all we’re looking for: pure, unadulterated, and mindless entertainment that distracts us a bit from the complexities and challenges of everyday life.  People have interests in all kinds of areas, mine happens to be in music and to a lesser extent television, movies, politics, and sports.  My uncle JB wrote a speech about this once (he is a big music guy and hosts a weekly radio show in St. Augustine playing roots rock and Americana type music) and his main premise dealt with what he called the 90/10 rule.  That is: 90% of people listen to music as a way to pass the time.  They don’t care all that deeply about it and just get all their musical knowledge from top 40 radio.  They are perfectly happy with this and enjoy music on their terms which is a much of a surface level interest.  My friend Melissa is part of the 90%.  The other 10% are people like me, Pat, and Kevin.  We actively consume music and are very passionate about it.  We like to talk about it and learn more about it through others.  We make mixes, we see a lot of shows (or would if we had more money or if bands played anywhere near Port St. Lucie), and we can argue and debate for hours about it.  We never get bored or content, and we are always interested in hearing new bands and artists.  It doesn’t make us any more right or wrong than anyone else, it just means we approach the medium differently.   And that is perfectly fine, as it promotes diversity which is always a good thing and makes life more intriguing.  For us, just keeping the discussion going is part of the thrill.


So if we’re ever at a party together and I start getting all high and mighty talking about music and you feel I’m being annoying or obnoxious, please just tell me to stop.  My subjective self sometimes gets out of hand and holds my objective self hostage.  I think I’m getting better about not letting this happen, but like everyone, there is always room for me to improve.  But seriously, can’t we all agree on the one universal truth?  The one thing that has been constant since the dawning of time (or at least since 1995)?  Nickelback sucks.



  1. Matt, I am always quoting that bit about "It's what you like, not what you are like" (obviously it's not 100% true, but I do actually think there is some truth to it) Right on. This is great.


  2. I like music and appreciate it and, in my opinion, have good taste, but I rarely consume an entire album cover-to-cover; I tend to enjoy shuffle or Genius Mix! The only exception is a live show where taking it, again in my opinion, ruins the flow of what was being created.

    Great post, though, Matty. I'll always talk with you about music even though there is that one massive cavern between our tastes.

  3. Fun post to read. :) Arrived here looking for a High Fidelity pic to use for a post I'm writing and stayed because of the stories. I do like John Mayer, I don't like Nickelback, and I can't imagine the brain destruction trying to decide on only 5 DIDs (even though that's the point of the exercise). Pretty sure Hatful of Hollow by the Smiths would be one of the five, for sure.