I’m reading the 33 1/3 book about Céline Dion by Carl Wilson (who is not to be confused with Carl Wilson), which is less about Dion than it is a sociology of pop culture taste. It appeals to me because it dispenses with the obfuscating fictions that taste is autonomous (i.e. intrinsic to one’s inner being and the music itself), or that taste can be “right”, and looks instead at what social functions taste plays, which class boundaries it helps regulate in a society that pretends to be without them.
The book is framed by the ongoing debate over what the function of pop-music criticism should be, or whether there should be any pop criticism at all. I waver on that question. Wilson mentions the rockist/popist debate, which seems like a red herring; at their worst both approaches are condescending, only in different ways. Embedded in most pop criticism is the idea that listeners need their preferences justified or vindicated by a better-informed outsider. Generally, I get impatient with will-to-power would-be tastemakers, and my experience in the magazine business has confirmed for me without question that pop music critics don’t have any special listening expertise—their ears aren’t refined like a wine connoisseur’s palette. They aren’t doing the sonic equivalent of philology. Perhaps their class habitus affords them the instinct of authority. Usually, though, they are compromised by their own supposed qualifications, the concessions they make to be published for pay. At best, reviewers are clever writers who can startle with a turn of phrase; their work should be appreciated on a formal level, not for anything they might say about a particular record. What reviewers and their editors seem good for is establishing the horizons of relevance—picking out the dozen records worth hearing and talking about in various genres every year. I like reading what other people have to say about a record I already know pretty well; then I can pretends I am part of a conversation, internally agreeing or disagreeing, coming up with objections. I don’t read reviews of records I haven’t heard already; since it is so easy to sample music or yourself rather than rely on recommendations, I imagine I am not alone in this.
It used to be that reviewers also established the parameters for pretending to your own expertise. They taught the grammar of snobbery. When I was younger, reading about music helped create the context within which I, a nascent taste bully, could enjoy it, positing the elitist club I can earn my way into by mastering various facts and references and attitudes. Music critics in the 1960s and 1970s taught where the cultural capital might be in pop music, basically inventing the idea that mastering the canon of pop could have any cultural value. In other words, they helped integrate the free field of pop where anything was permissible, listening-wise (it all failed to register as anything but trivial) into the matrix of social class determinations, so that it suddenly became like an investment, something that could open some door for you and allow you to shut the door on others.
But that need for a context is not limited to aspiring music snobs. Without a listening community, literal or implied, it’s hard for an individual to get much pleasure out of pop. Listening to pop is a way to consume the zeitgeist as pleasure, and critical conversations (which are now more dispersed and democratic than ever) are a part of that zeitgeist, helped render it material. The depth we recognize in music is supplied by the listening context, which works both ways—some rich music is emptied of its potential depth; some rudimentary music is enriched with contextual content. But a pure listen, without the compromising effects of context, is impossible, though bogus criticism will pretend to such purity.
If we want to opt out of the zeitgeist, the music bound up in it is lost to us—what happens is we have to discover certain music years after its popularity (as when I started listening to Dookie last year), with some other rationale than belonging to our time, sharing in the pleasure all the other people seem to be getting from whatever it is. In that case, the pleasure may be in the illusion that one’s own tastes are unique, consuming one’s own special ability to resist conformity. With all this, the quality of the music itself doesn’t matter—it just needs some marked peculiarity, some relative novelty, to hang all the posturing on. The notion of taste then mediates the contradiction between our desire to belong and our desire to be unique, ineffable individuals. Macro-aspects assure us that we’re within the appropriate boundaries, where as the particularities seem to speak to our uniqueness. Tastes can shift routinely and tactically yet somehow seem to us as if they never really altered but merely came into clearer definition.
Of course, when we listen to music, nothing but its intrinsic quality seems to matter; all the identity building and social participatory aspects are suppressed. Clearly our experience of our own taste is visceral, spontaneous—I hear the Red Hot Chili Peppers and my body wants to vomit; my intellectual preferences seem to have nothing to do with it. It seems beyond questioning, like asking why you wouldn’t want to eat a chocolate bar smeared with mustard. That’s why it seems that criticism’s most important function should be to demystify taste so that the ideological freight it carries is at least exposed. Wilson’s book is a model for this; it’s great at showing the sort of class contempt that gets disguised and authorized by manifesting as musical taste (especially in Chapter 8, which lays out sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas in an accessible way). Wilson suggests that middlebrow, straightforward, sentimental conformist music like Dion’s is hated because it is associated with average people who don’t register on the media landscape. It’s “schmaltzy”—it’s engineered to succor the status quo. Wilson explains, “It is not just cathartic but socially reinforcing,a vicarious exposure to both the grandest rewards of adhering to norms and their necessary price.” It’s blandly aspirational for what has already been endorsed, for what seems given, in all its inequities and imperfections. Hating such music makes us feel above average, with bigger dreams, until the opportunity opens up to become avant-garde by salvaging it, loving it. Musical taste, from this perspective, is sublimated prejudice, social bias turned into something you might be proud to display. Which is why it can seem that a good default position to always insist that people’s tastes are wrong.
But in hating other people’s music, we may perhaps fall prey to a different quasi-utopian illusion, a kind of aesthetic eugenics: that if we messianically hate what seems like average, mediocre music with enough ferocity, mediocre and average people will somehow vanish also. Everyone will be special and wise in their own way, and society will so attenuate itself that conformist mediocrity simply won’t be possible. We won’t have the option to like blah things (and thus be blah people) if we make impossible for the culture industry to manufacture blah art. Social classes determined by cultural capital will be obliterated along with cultural capital itself. Everyone will be forced to be free. It’s a contemporary, secular variant on the recurrent fantasy of ending religious wars once and for all by simply forcing everyone to convert to your faith. It can be difficult to resist this and adopt a kind of indifferent tolerance when we yearn to make the music that moves us into a religion.
Is it possible to avoid these pitfalls, or should one discreetly drop the subject of music from one’s conversational repertoire? Is what’s left a tepid relativism that forces one to feel guilty every time one doesn’t like something? Not long ago, a friend randomly sent me a link to this video of “The Witch”, by the Rattles. I’d never heard it before, and it was reassuring that I knew someone who would know that I needed to hear it. Discourse about music always has a chance to open up the possibility for feeling recognized, understood, like that, and that can makes the discrimination and mockery it engenders seem a price worth paying. And Wilson’s book itself exemplifies what careful attention to taste can reveal, though the price then is a endlessly recursive conversations on the level of meta-tastes.