“So you’ll write an article that will make me sound pretentious and arty, and you know what? I’m pretentious and arty. And I’m proud of it”.
—David Thomas of Pere Ubu
There are very few negative adjectives more brutally crippling than “pretentious”. Very few can whittle away any pleasure from that description, and it’s often the kiss of death word when analyzing anyone’s artistic work. Think about it. What sort of images does that word conjure up when you hear it? Since music is such a large part of this site, we’ll attack it from that angle. To me, I usually conclude it’s probably something totally devoid of anything fun, first and foremost. Long and meandering songs that don’t really go anywhere, full of lame sociopolitical/interpersonal messages that are of importance to no one except the creator. Something Robert Christgau would definitely drool over. Nothing you could really play in the presence of other people in the fear they would waste no time asking “What’s this shit?”
That’s a lot of conclusions based on a single adjective. But those are literally all thoughts that race through my head the minute I read that word. I’m much better at trivializing them now, but they’re still there to a degree. As a rock journalist, at some point or another you WILL be called this, either by a spiteful fan of a band you just ragged on, or possibly by the band themselves. I used to absolutely hate being called that. It would ruin my day. I didn’t see any positive way to interpret this. Surely there were times I deserved to be called that word, but I’m fairly certain a lot of the time I was just dealing with vindictive responses based on someone heartily disagreeing with my stated opinion.
Maybe other writer’s don’t mind as much, but every time I opened an email only to find someone went out of their way to call me pretentious, it really stung. I think it sucked because I know when I employed it to describe something, it was to describe something I really loathed, generally an awful experience listening to an album for review. Sometimes a fan would leave a comment under my review like “The ____ record is great. The reviewer on the other hand, is a long-winded, pretentious asshole who shouldn’t be allowed to write in any public forum.” I’m paraphrasing, but I’ve seen that a lot of times. Sure we’re a bit wordy, but for some folks who fancy themselves semi-successful ‘wordsmiths’, incessant babble on a certain topic shouldn’t necessarily be construed as pretentious. It’s more likely they haven’t honed their craft yet to the point of being able to edit themselves pragmatically.
So tell them they suck, tell them they shouldn’t be allowed to write telephone directories, tell them you’d rather read Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto on the toilet for the rest of your life than read even one more of their sentences… but try not to call them pretentious unless you’re absolutely sure they are absolutely channelling their worst, most self-indulgent impulses. Take it from me: most reviewers/columnists on pop culture sites don’t have the ego power to be truly pretentious. A lot of them just have really pedestrian skills so they’re trying their best to sound elitist and as an offshoot, pretentious, so you don’t feel comfortable questioning the arguments they are making. If you really want to screw around with them, say something like “Hey, only a totally shitty writer would try and be pretentious and fail. I suppose on that level you’re a bit of a savant, well done.” That’ll mess with the writer for days, I assure you.
On the other hand, music journalists love to use this word too. It’s one of our favourite weapons. The effect is profound, even when you’re on the inside like me and are acutely aware just how frequently it gets thrown around. I remember years and years ago I bought Goldie’s Saturn Returnz album. I truly loved it, and still do to this day (listening to it as I write this actually), but I went through a phrase of sort of trying not to listen to it. One day out of curiosity, I sought out reviews on it a couple years back, and every single review savagely employed that dreaded ‘P’ word in their write-up. They were probably right; I mean it is a double album with one of the discs being just a single hour-long song. Doesn’t get much more obvious than this. The interesting thing is though, I started literally looking for ways to interpret the music on Saturnz Return as horrible offerings of pretentious material! The word infected me like some sort of viral plague, and wouldn’t stop until I infected every single note found on this once treasured album. It took me a long time to ignore that description and listen to the album organically again, and trust me, I’m not proud to admit that such a trivial description written by a bunch of dinks I have never met had such a powerful reaction on my enjoyment of a piece of music, but that’s just a testament to the power of this word.
That brings us to the present. Now, it means very little to me but I’m starting to understand why its effects can be so damaging. The core elements of pretention as we understand the word, represent many things most human beings absolutely detest. Let’s truly break it down in accordance with public perception.
First of all, it indicates the entire effort is that of a charlatan. And not just a charlatan mind you, but a charlatan who just released music that strives to produce the impression this is something beyond you, something specifically designed to be that way, to make you feel small. Someone who doesn’t have a ton of talent, but is creating something that attempts to create the impression they’re so loaded with musical gifts, it’s not their responsibility to make any of it relatable on any discernible level. A pretentious album can be seen as that coked out guy in the men’s restroom unleashing rants nobody gives a fuck about. Imagine that rant on the disappearance of the middle class or whatever, assembled into a prog-rock offering. Now are you starting to see why people hate truly pretentious material? That moron in the john is unbearable for two minutes. The thing is many of those exact same guys have record contracts and artistic license to make a career out of that nonsense. They do exist, but probably just not as much as we’d been led to believe; even if it’s such a handy word to employ when we hate something we don’t understand.
There’s also one other thing we have to understand, and this is probably the most important thing to take away from all this: pretention isn’t all that bad in most cases. It’s really not. Either through this article, or through just general exposure to a large number of record or book reviews, you should know by now it’s used much too often to be taken all that seriously. Having said that, let’s say something is outright, categorically pretentious. So what? Most of the bands you’re listening to are arty people! What do you really expect? David Thomas had it right… they’re wired to be pretentious in many ways. Pere Ubu’s Terminal Towers release is completely pretentious if you listen to it these days. But it also happens to be one of the best guitar-driven albums of all-time and that’s an important observation in this context.
Something can be pretentious and terrific at the same time. An album might come from a self-indulgent place and still provide something of significant meaning to a completely different person, and that’s what is completely overlooked. It should never imply there is an automatic disconnect from the music and the listener just because it comes from an overly self-aware place, but that seems to be how it’s perceived these days.
Of course there countless examples of gross pretention that are in no way redeemable. Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown and Dandy Warhols’ Odditorium are two albums that leap to mind as textbook examples. Feel free to use their lunkheadedness and buzz words as a blueprint of something we should reject from every possible angle. When something is released that flagrantly attempts to detach the artist from the audience who buys their records, that’s the sort of pretentious garbage we need to openly despise. I could go on here, but would probably detract from the overall point of this article…
All of this means we can conclude the word still does have applicable meaning, but it doesn’t really mean all that much when you just consider the fact there’s really no way to tangibly prove something is or isn’t pretentious, even though many feel their subjectivity can create simple black/white worlds where that word can be allowed to exist and thrive in. I’ve been a music journalist for four years now, and you know, maybe I just stink at it, because when I listen to Saturnz Return, I don’t perceive anything on that album as pretentious. I can enjoy it the way I would a Nick Cave or Neil Young record.
On some level, I think all great art runs the risk of being called pretentious at one point or another. With power comes a great responsibility, and the power of the word has eclipsed that of the beholder. Like I said, if something is called pretentious, smart money is on the artist trying a little too hard to put something out there that will make you glad you invested in their gift of creation. No harm in allowing them to succeed. Who knows, maybe we all have a lot of pretention in us, more than we like to think. If that’s the case, then that word has should truly yield a marginal amount of negative power. Let me take this moment to salute anyone who has been called pretentious! The world will understand someday. Here’s to hoping everyone finds their own Saturnz Return.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.