time to change the way we view music and the arts

Secrets, Social Media, Smarty-Pants and Snobs

I guess reactionary posts are my fuel as of late. Discussion fodder is all about the lovely four “S’s” found in today’s header.

The New York Times published an article this morning from contributor Alexandra Molotkow, wherein she gives quite the elaborate backstory and assertive opinion on the declared state of affairs for the “old school music snob” as she refers to in the title of her piece. I’ve tackled the “closeminded-ness issue” before, with Top 40 Radio, as well as the “artist/listener desire for intimacy” issue, when I talked about Spotify last year. No need to beat on the same same dead horse with the same stick. 
That being said,
There are certain observations Molotkow makes that immediately stirred up a need to talk back, even if just to express disagreement. The material we (and by “we” I mean the music industry) talk about isn’t necessarily new most of the time. It’s the responses or emotional reactions to individuals’ positions on an issue that make for original reading.
Molotkow’s contextualizing backstory introduces herself and a friend as the admirers of the old “knowledge guardians” who ran record stores ‘way back when.’ The two of them are being described as the kind of people who flourished on obscure-knowledge-octane, that they amassed via secret house parties and underground bands. Call it the ultimate enthusiasm for sub-culture authority. Also known as,
‘that stage where you can go up to the band and shake hands, hug or get an autograph without so much as a hitch because they’re not popular yet.’

Molotkow makes statements like, 
  1. “What mattered to us is that no one else knew anything about them.” 
  2. “At the time, it was very cool to know about obscure music.”
  3. “To our minds, fake obscure was even worse than popular.” (In reference to the sudden surge in recognition for the obscure, edgy factor brought around by The Shins in the movie “Garden State.”)
  4. “Obscure knowledge was once a kind of currency. To get it, you had to be in the loop.” and the piece de resistance,
  5. “knowledge-guardian culture was pretty much exactly as depicted. We were [as record store employees,] as self-righteous and fraternal as cops, sustained by an ideology that dictated that the more obscure the band, the better.”
You’re now caught up. Where I started to have problems per se, was in reading Molotkow’s belief that,

“Populism is the new model of cool; elitists, rather than teeny-boppers or bandwagon-jumpers, are the new squares. …Knowing one thing about everything is much more important than knowing everything about one thing.”

Her idea in this last declaration is that the majority are now about dabbling in many band/artist camps. One or two facts about lots of people in a slew of completely difference genres and voila: you are the new ‘cool kid’ that can turn down any hallway in what sounds like the metaphoric ‘Social Media High School’ and everyone will think you’re this decade’s version of what were Molotkow’s record store knowledge guardians. If all else fails, the other differentiating point about ‘knowing a little about a lot,’ is the also socially driven, collaborative information media. Wikis, Allmusic and any other blog or source reachable by single click, can give you the one-liner you need, should you ever be at a loss while Twitter is refreshing during a debate.

So Molotkow started out by describing the old-school image of a “music snob” and then says that this new ideal of informed fans makes for a less, or non-snobby, enthusiast, which ultimately is “a lot healthier than the crabby elitism that used to prevail.”       

…How can that be?

I am very much for the disassembly of the elitist figure and the crossing of musical boundaries. That’s a fundamental part of why this blog is here in the first place –I can’t stress that enough. While it may seem like my lack of embrace for this “one-liner philosophy” is me clinging to the old elitist ways, which would make me a huge hypocrite to my mission, it’s just the opposite. If people in general were simply trending toward being music’s Jack of All Trades because they liked broadening their horizons or whatever, that’d be one thing; a change and nothing more. However, Molotkow specifically highlighting the idea that the new way to be admired and “in” as a Jack of All Trades is to keep up with the Joneses in your social media dialogue, almost makes the initial premise of the fade out of the ‘music’s smarty pants’ sound like a complete crock.

Being told by Molotkow, “If you still want to drill deep into your interests, you still have that option. You just have to accept that most of your findings will have no social value,” communicates to me that the mode of regularly honing in on a band’s activities has become the societal lesser of fan ideologies. Then, if I am to understand that the current ‘superior’ choice is to spout a rainbow of facts about 10 unrelated artists “even if you have no idea what the artists actually sound like,” as Molotkow puts it, isn’t that basically just spouting facts for the sake of spouting facts? Sure, you can brag state to others that you jumped in six or so frays on Twitter last week and came out the discussion idol, but surely I’m not the only one who sees what a superficial, statistic dependent, trophy bearing mentality that is, can I? What else comes to mind with superficial statistics and self-imposed trophies (whether real or metaphoric?)

Snobby Elitism.   (*chirp* *chirp* goes the cricket of irony)

Even further, if the new ideal looks down upon music aficionados who have truly taken the time to thoroughly learn and follow a band, (whether those people think they’re better than you or not,) and putting up an informed facade on a band, when you can’t even say you’ve heard their music once, is considered ‘better’ via rising populism, then Molotkow is entirely contradicting her earlier opposition to fake-ness, which is now popular. Jumping ship on two mentalities at once. Impressive. She even admits to it too:

“I know how much the old me would have hated the current me’s guts.”

I do appreciate some of the lighter, more positive points made about the “cross pollination of genres” that can occur amidst the present school of thought. A result of such includes collaborative projects, which can lead to more exposure of artists, the growth of fan bases and the sale of albums –helping the breaking down of stereotype-built walls between bands. All the same, a small degree of separation sustained by the remaining ‘smarty-pants-snobs lacking material of social value’ does need to survive. I’m not saying that as a vote for elitism or exclusion, but as a vote for differentiation. Keeping a level of isolation between the many colors of artists and genres will sustain the ability to compare, contrast, discover and enjoy. Doesn’t matter if you discover first but if a music fan is a paintbrush and bands are colors on a palate, dabble a single drop of paint from every color into every other color and eventually all you’re going to end up with is one discordant shade of sh-t brown.


“I [wrote songs] it for the inherent reward of making songs, so I’m a little bit uncomfortable up here.”  
(Cit. Justin Vernon)

Molotkow’s use of an excerpt from Bon Iver‘s Grammy speech as an example of supporting to need to lose ‘obsession with obscurity’ only further supports my argument: Regardless of being open to increasing your popularity numbers, music needs barriers because the Grammys have long been watered down to crudely muddle together distinctions of style, which leaves it to feel more like a snobby popularity contest (every year) anyway.

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