Sunday, January 26, 2014

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Tauriq Moosa:

The main thing should be whether the performer or artist is bringing pleasure to someone’s life. If that pleasure is not harming anyone, it is bigoted and arrogant to mock that individual for enjoying it. We’re not the deciders of what is “real” or “proper” music, art, film, and so on. Shaming should cease so we can all listen and enjoy whatever we like – while recognising we are all capable of enjoying more and enjoying things in new ways. We just don’t have to.

Of course I agree that musical taste, like almost any other type of taste, is a poor signifier of the sort of personal qualities that matter. A shrill, desperate apophenia imposed upon the sound and fury of insignificance, I believe I said once. Why, I even proclaimed rhythm and melody to be empty of moral significance as well. "Do what the fuck you like!", as Ozzy Osbourne loudly encouraged us from the stage at the inaugural Ozzfest. To the casual viewer, he may have been urging us to spring from our seats and go apeshit for three-fourths of the original Black Sabbath, but I'm pretty sure he was also, on another level, making a subtle commentary on the facile divide between the supposed gravitas of certain art forms and the causal effects they supposedly engender in the listener/viewer. In fact, if I may be permitted a bit more leeway to interpret, I believe he was reminding us that you can surround yourself with signifiers of profundity like classical music and modernist literature yet still be a dolt, while the feel-good factor of listening to ear candy might help facilitate a breakthrough in your thinking or writing.

But part of the problem is with the utilitarian perspective on what constitutes the boundaries and defining character of pleasure. I'm sure most people would agree that those who listen to Nickelback are enjoying pleasure in that moment, pleasure which doesn't hurt anyone. The subsequent judgment and argument hinges on what that supposedly entails, though. The Nickelbackian subject doesn't exist in a vacuum. He (and I assume this is one of those cases in which the generic male pronoun will not only be acceptable, but positively insisted upon) is embedded in an existing culture. He is an actor in the world. And how does he act? Well, there's where all the fun begins, as the artistic license to connect dots which may or may not exist is limited only by one's imagination. If we were to poll any number of music/pop-culture sites for their portrayals of the typical rawk fan, I think we could feel safe in expecting a common image to coalesce: one of an aggressive, beer-swilling, womanizing dudebro. Sure, maybe he's doing no harm as he drums on his steering wheel and hollers along with the lyrics to "Something In Your Mouth", but what's he thinking about as he does it, huh? And how is he going to behave later on at the club as a result? Can we trust people like him to draw the correct conclusions without supervision? This is the stuff of which a million A.V. Club flamewars are made.

In fact, Tauriq is doing a little question-begging here (in the proper sense of the term, not the bastardized popular-usage sense). He takes it as a given that pop music is value-neutral, just a harmless collection of melodies, rhythms, fluffy lyrics and fashion trends, and thus wonders why people can't just get along and live and let live. Because the issue of pop music's supposed value-neutrality is precisely the point of contention here, that's why. Ferzample: let's say I announce myself as a fan of Skrewdriver and Prussian Blue. You would rightly claim that that says something extremely significant about me. Now, you might argue that groups like those are more overt propaganda than art or entertainment. Still, the point is to establish the principle that somewhere between them and Justin Bieber, there's a vague line demarcating political significance from personal preference. People simply don't agree where that line should be drawn. You're not going to convince them to stop arguing by talking as if the line doesn't exist.

Even if you accept that Nickelback is just a generic rawk band and not really worth the energy it takes to hate them, well, you have to consider that pop-culture snobbery is a tributary feeding into deeper-running rivers that have existed for quite a while. Romanticism gave us the ideal of violently passionate thrill-seeking, living on the edge, sacrificing one's health, sanity and life itself for artistic purity and innovation, which by definition entailed utter scorn for the safe, predictable, traditional and typical. Then you have the politicized critiques of elite leftist intellectuals over the last century or so, where pop culture was either seen as a narcotic, keeping the masses stupefied and unable to heed the true calling of radical emancipatory politics, or an mindless expression of the moronic, conformist status quo, which was naturally conservative if not reactionary. To many people, "harmless entertainment" is highly suspect itself.

Moreover, as Freddie says, you have to keep in mind how much of this is an Internet phenomenon, where the mostly-text-based environment means that people have to explicitly spell out their character in the absence of the nonverbal cues we normally use. Using words, it's not easy to describe your essential sense of self in a way that you will feel does you justice. It's very easy to present a top-ten list of your likes and dislikes, though, and to use those as vehicles for concepts they were never designed to carry. I have no idea how to give you a written facsimile of what it is to know me in the context of daily life. I do know how to clearly tell you that I hate the fuck out of that goddamned band, you know, the one with that awful song, and man, what kind of asshole would actually choose to listen to that?

And thus it's only a couple short steps to arguing that it's your moral duty to shame people out of liking entertainment that will supposedly set them on the path to a lifetime of abusive relationships, or condemning a singer's moral character based on confirmation bias psychoanalysis of a few quotes and lyrics. Granted, Marcotte's idiocy is legendary and more tenacious than that of your average Internet pop-culture snob, but the sentiment is common. Some of the people Tauriq is talking about are simply being mean for the fun of it, but the true believers are certain that they can see the structural elements behind supposedly innocuous differences in taste, the broad, underlying patterns which determine the particular, individual scenario down to the details. What do tolerance and politeness matter when there are souls to save?

Ideology aside, there's also the basic fact that, for social animals, there is no clear distinction between individual and group identity. The individual is mostly a legal fiction (one I approve of!), whereas the imperative to maintain group cohesion is deeply ingrained. Sociopolitical hygiene requires constant monitoring for outbreaks of idiosyncratic behavior which could be threatening to the group's stability. Pace Sly and the Family Stone, it makes all the difference in the world for everyday people which group you're in. I suppose it's possible you may convince people that music is an empty signifier, that judging people for their taste is like an autoimmune disorder — an overreaction to harmless allergens. But there will always be something else to replace it. I mean, I'm down with Tauriq's message, but I'm a misanthropic hermit; you're not going to build a functioning society around people like me.