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What's the Word? With Obscure Language Like Music Speak, It’s Hard not to Feel Like a n00b

Winslow Leach in Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Music writers and IT guys have a lot in common – at least when it comes to their cultivated, insular jargon.

Domain controller. Command line. Bare metal. Hypervisor.

This is just a sampling of the terms and phrases that now dominate my Twitter feed. Unless you’re an information technology professional, you probably don’t recognize many of them. But if you work in IT – or in IT-related media, as I now do – it’s likely you have at least a passing understanding of what they refer to, and have maybe used one or two yourself in a conversation with a colleague.

Most industries, from medicine to manufacturing, have some sort of associated jargon. This shared terminology serves a few different functions. First, it speeds up common tasks, as professionals are able to bypass painstaking explanations and get to the point. This makes sense in some communities of practice more than others – a journalist’s ‘graf’, ‘lede’ and ‘stet’ are not the same as a doctor’s emergency room shorthand (insert canned ER quote here), but both are useful, in their context.

The lingo binds similar workers together regardless of other divisive factors, like age or location. Just as every real baseball fan knows the meaning of ERA and RBI (and now, maybe, WAR and BABIP), every system administrator worth his salt understands AD, VM and DR. (HP is another matter – no one understands quite what’s going on there.) More importantly, though, this language acts as a barrier to entry – it shuts out those who can’t talk the talk.

The stereotypical perception of “the IT guy” is not exactly complimentary: pale, geeky, looks down his nose at regular computer users who forget to run virus scans or don’t know how to find their IP addresses. I’ve had the chance to work with a variety of IT staff at my last couple of jobs, and I’ve found that that characterization is almost totally unfair (a little more sun wouldn’t hurt, people). In truth, they’re largely misunderstood because we don’t understand what they’re talking about.

It’s not their fault, really. As I’ve begun to learn more about the industry through my work, I’ve realized that a lot of the concepts are not as complicated as I thought – the issue is that they’re dealing with abstractions that cannot be easily described in traditional terms. You actually need these other words and acronyms, foreign as they may seem. Once I realized this, I began to sympathize a bit more, because trying to explain something like group policy, virtualization or even that magic word of the moment, ‘cloud’ (a term I’ve explored often in this column) is kind of like trying to articulate the finer points of, say, shoegaze, or math rock. The music-obsessed have been dealing with these same issues for a long time – and alienating just as many people in the process.

Writers and reviewers are probably the worst offenders. Whether it’s an over-applied adjective (‘angular’, ‘ethereal’) or a vague sub-genre ('chamber pop', 'backpack rap'), music writing often becomes something that can be parsed only by the most devoted followers. Go ahead, show a recent album review to a casual music fan and gauge the reaction; odds are, some translation will be needed. It’s no wonder that numerical ratings and “recommended if you like” are so common: the rest of a review can often mean little to the untrained reader.

Reviews often seem written for other reviewers, but they’re also for dedicated fans, who build their own walls of terminology. Music genres are largely defined by the communities that form around them, and these communities can become as insular as a group of technical professionals. Where lawyers have their Latin, electronic music aficionados have a dictionary full of descriptive terms to apply to the various sub-genres they follow. Ambient, drone, Chicago house, dubstep, glitch – faced with obscure language like this, it’s hard not to feel like a n00b. I can remember a train ride home once with a co-worker who was very into the trance community – he might as well have been speaking in French for all the subtleties I missed.

As in business, much of this linguistic game-playing is necessary, because otherwise it would be hard to differentiate one type of beat from another. But again, it can feel like this stuff is as much about keeping people out as it is about explanation. It lends a sense of exclusivity, like you have to pass a verbal test to join the club. But where such protection is understandable in a business context – if a knowledge worker loses his mystique, he could soon find himself out of a job – it's kind of pointless in music fandom. There’s always room for more, right?

Still, fans learn from those whose music they love – and musicians can be among the most technical talkers around. The language surrounding musical production, whether in the studio or on the stage, is not exactly straightforward. Though years of listening and reading have helped me to understand the basics, it’s occasionally been difficult to interview musicians and remain rooted in the conversation; there was a lot of nodding and smiling that went on with some of the more cerebral artists. In fact, it’s not so different from what I’m doing now, talking to tech analysts and industry experts about unfamiliar concepts. It’s just that in this case, none of my friends are impressed that I just interviewed a Microsoft MVP.

So when The Killers took the stage in Las Vegas recently to close out VMworld 2011, one of the biggest events of the year for virtualization professionals, I wonder if they looked out over the sea of attendees and recognized some kindred spirits. That is, after they stopped asking their manager why they were chosen to play for a bunch of “bare metal” enthusiasts.

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