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Moping Around

MOPEs or rock snobs? Obsessives talk it out in High Fidelity (2000)

Whether it comes through teenage rebellion, alienation, or heavy drug use, chronic music appreciation is not typically a choice made due to a desire for group participation; it's more often about wanting or needing to separate oneself.

Every Tuesday afternoon, I get an email from my former employer. No, it's not a note begging me to come back (though since I left, the organization has not only lost its offices, but its original name as well). It's an online newsletter detailing all the news about policy issues (think health insurance, transportation, welfare, etc.) in Illinois. I researched and wrote this newsletter every week for a year, and, proud as I was of my work, I even added a few friends and family members to the thousand-strong subscriber list so that they could keep abreast of developments along with advocacy organizations and legislative assistants. Much to my surprise, I rarely heard any of these people close to me express their rage about, say, the Governor's lack of an education funding plan, or the continued discrimination exhibited by the Chicago Housing Authority. While my coworkers seemed consumed by the injustice of it all, I rarely heard a peep from anyone outside our circle.

Well, now I'm outside that circle; have been for over a year. And I've begun to understand how unbelievably easy it is to ignore much of what is going on. If a person like me, who has worked on these issues extensively, can't take the time to read a simple newsletter due to other "priorities", what's going to convince an otherwise uninvolved citizen to take a peek? The further away I get from the table (for the uninitiated, the "table" is a mythical place where people "reach out" to each other prior to "shooting" emails all over the place), the clearer it's become why my colleagues and I had so much trouble getting media coverage on "our" issues; no matter what we think their importance is to the general public, they're simply too easy for outsiders to disregard.

While I'm no longer a part of the policy community, there is another equally insular community of which I've been a long-time member. This group doesn't have an official name, but due to my love for convenient acronyms (at least one part of the policy community rubbed off on me), I'll call it the Music-Obsessed People's Enterprise, or MOPE, for short. MOPEs are those people whose lives are controlled, for better or worse, by the music they consume. Everyone knows at least one MOPE, that person who makes mixes for every possible occasion, who sits on message boards debating the merits of ______'s latest album, who sends emails about going to shows every week, and for whom Napster and Audiogalaxy were better than (or, more accurately, ample replacements for) sex. To be clear, I'm not just describing music "snobs", though this loud portion inevitably gives us a bad name. In my broad definition, there are jam band MOPEs, hip-hop MOPEs, jazz MOPEs, even pop MOPEs. I think there's even a chapter of ceilidh MOPEs over in Glasgow. Not every performer is a MOPE, but many are (for DJs, it's a prerequisite).

It's unclear whether MOPEness relies more heavily upon nature or nurture. But one thing I know: my brother is definitely not one of us. For the past couple of years, I've been sending Josh homemade CDs with some of my latest and greatest findings during my musical travels. I include information on most of the artists, though the names mean very little to him except on rare occasions. I've been continually shocked when I find that he only has become aware of artists like Common, Wilco, and Radiohead through my meager tutelage. If I were to bring those same names to a MOPE planning session, I'd be kindly patted on the head and told to return to 1996, when my contributions might've actually been of some use. I can hardly imagine what Josh's reaction might be, for example, to the worlds of Björk or MF Doom; to him, terms like "hyphy" and "math rock" would be as foreign as "Pareto efficiency" is to me. And I'm not nearly as deep into the game as some other MOPEs I've come in contact with -- it's not like I go crate-digging every weekend, or throw on a gas mask, call myself the Dog of Tears, and head to Burning Man every summer to sell my static-filled tapes (long time no see, Dave).

But Josh is so impressed with what he considers to be my vast knowledge that he once thought I could turn it into a huge money-maker. He called me up one night last summer with a business proposition, something he assumed was a revolutionary idea -- essentially, it was a daily music blog, which shared mp3s from new bands with people who wanted to broaden their musical horizons. Now, I may not have taken Harvard Business School classes, but even I know the importance of knowing your competition; and with a little bit of digging, Josh would probably have realized that there is currently an overload of eager music bloggers and podcasters already on the web. Of course, you do have to know where to look, and judging from his continued cluelessness, it's clear that not everyone does. Among everything that is out there, nothing but me is getting through to him.

At least he's making an effort. If there's one thing I've learned in all my years as a MOPE, it's that not everyone wants to hear about your latest discovery or opinion. In fact, it's often in your best interest to avoid identifying yourself as a MOPE, for fear of criticism or dismissal. I've sullied a lot of conversations by seizing upon what I thought was an invitation to talk music, when in reality it was just a tossed-off statement on a song. I imagine my old boss, eager as she was to dispense information, ran into much the same problem with politics at parties. Like wonks, it can be tough for us MOPEs to turn off, which presents some interesting scenarios.

For example, I can remember the first time I met my friend Emily, at a barbecue last summer. In the usual exchange of pleasantries, she mentioned she was from Port Washington, New York. Immediately, I blurted out, "oh, like the Mountain Goats song?" She stared at me blankly for a few seconds before I realized that she had no idea who the Mountain Goats were, even if John Darnielle had recently released a borderline classic album and would soon be a popular act at the Pitchfork Festival. Instead of telling her how much she'd enjoy the group and perhaps starting a discussion of the merits of Darnielle's move away from lo-fi, I quickly switched the subject to someone else we both knew from her town.

From time to time, my brother will bring up things that help me understand what the outsider's perspective on MOPE is all about. "So wait," he'll ask, "since Common was in a Gap ad, does that mean you can't like him anymore?" (After checking the bylaws, I responded that the answer is no -- well, at least I until I get around to watching Smokin' Aces.) It's reactions like these that make it clear why conversion to MOPEdom is rare, enthusiastic proselytizers though we may be. Many outsiders view us in the same way that I view skiers and snowboarders -- every one I've met is eager to teach me about his or her obsession, but there's still a mystique to the community that will always intimidate me. I will never be able to shake the feeling that I'm not one of them, and not just because I nearly mauled a guy on Mont Tremblant last December. Maybe it's because I started too late.

Ironically, the MOPE community is made up almost completely of classic outsiders for whom accusations of exclusiveness would likely be both a surprise and an insult (especially to the hippies, who will hug anyone). Whether it comes through teenage rebellion, alienation, or heavy drug use, chronic music appreciation is not typically a choice made due to a desire for group participation; it's more often about wanting or needing to separate oneself. It may not make sense to lump everyone together under a single term, but I suspect we're all viewed with the same critical eye by those who choose to abstain from obsession.

I rarely hang with other MOPEs. I guess I'd rather not deal with another one of me, even if that does mean I have to drag people to concerts and spend much of my time wondering whether they want to leave. In the end, it doesn't matter, because this isn't really a choice. Like it or not, I'm going to continue to read too much into song lyrics and listen intently to the soundtrack in every bar I enter. I'm going to continue to care too much about what others consider to be not worth their time. If I did follow Josh's advice and send out earnest recommendations daily, there might be a few people who would appreciate it; I'd probably also annoy a whole lot of friends in the process. And that's not even counting the people who'd just delete my missives on sight. Who could blame them? I'm easy to ignore.

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