Classical gas

by Rob Horning

8 March 2006


I used to listen to classical music sometimes, usually when I wanted sound that wouldn’t distract me too much while I was reading books for my prelim exams. I am one of those hopeless philistines who think of classical music as sonic wallpaper. So I would just turn on the classical music station, and whatever was playing was fine with me; I didn’t need to know anything about the composer or the performers or even the titles of the works, and I would get completely annoyed with the deep-throated DJ would come on and read through the details of all that information. It seemed like so much bullshit connoisseurship. The idea that one would invest the time and energy to master all that data seemed preposterous to me; it much better to let that kind of music just wash over you. My atttude toward classical music is probably most people’s attitude toward music in general.

Like his cousin, the comic-book nerd, the music snob is subject to all sorts of derision, in part because he tends to be represented as someone enacting a revenge fantasy against the world through something that most people take for granted—they will accept whatever music is in the air. I think most people accept that popular music is popular without questioning why, and they appreciate that it will be diverting for a time and then vanish and then maybe reappear again years later to spur fun memories. Music snobs are the butt of jokes because they worry about why, are perhaps even tormented by the alienation it makes it impossible for them to ignore. People generally have incentives to accept the given culture and the apparently spontaneous way it is ordering itself rather than to heighten their separation from it and keep themselves constantly aware of the potential ulterior motives. The former get to be swept up into a shared joy via whatever song has captured the zeitgeist (even if its “My Humps”), whereas the latter must regard his peers as either brainwashed or idiotic. The former accept notions of spontaneous order—the idea that society regulates itself with no master plan or purpose and without any specific person guiding it —without any angst; the latter perhaps is secretly horrified by this and wants someone in charge, some cabal of profiteers who have a conspiracy against, say, decent music reaching the masses. But DJs don’t have an agenda; there’s no reason to “hang” him per that Smiths song. Most of them care only about ratings, if they care about anything at all.

(Spontaneous order: I was just in Duane Reade to get a gallon of drinking water, and per no one’s instruction a single line formed for the three registers. Then at some point, the line naturally dissolved into three separate lines, per no one’s instruction or initiative. What does this anecdote express: the inherent desire of humans for order; the proof of well-internalized codes for social behavior; the invisible hand that patterns economic life at work? The post-facto construction of rules to organize any group behavior? Or the implicit natural law that we all coordinate with? If these questions interest you, read more here.)

The rock snob is tortured by the very existence of popularity, of the monentum that gathers behind seemingly arbitrary songs or bands or phenomena. The snob is a rationalist, who expects careful deliberation before one makes a choice to assent to some piece of music. But everyone else is content to let their taste be accidental, driven by contingency and circumstance, not planning and deliberation and study. The snob wants the efforts that go into establishing a coherent collection of tastes to be the whole of identity, something that can be curated and groomed and managed like a collection; but the chaos of actual life requires much more flexibility than that in identity, which is much more fluid, much more a matter of who one is surrounded with at any given time, and with whom one wants to get along or associate oneself with. Identity is tactical; snobs have the profoundly conservative wish that it were a monument. The snob cares about music as information more than he cares about it as sound.

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