“What does that mean, ‘the loudest album of all time?’ ” the young teen asked the college student behind the counter. The kid had just finished reading a blurb about a new rock group featured next to the cash register. The college student—glasses, beard, and flannel—paused and deliberated. A blank wave washed all expression from his face; he stood listless and insouciant.
His reply: “Well, when you listen to Britney Spears or the Backstreet Boys, they record sound at low levels. This band records sound at high levels, and, in fact, [pause] the highest levels.”
By the end of the sentence, he had already lost interest in his own words. He begrudgingly rang up Collective Soul and a used copy of Boston. The kid, insulted and dejected, browsed awkwardly for ten more minutes until his mother came to pick him up.
I’m that kid at thirteen. A current acquaintance of mine is that jerky college student. Some Japanese punks dressed like the Ramones recorded the “loudest album of all time,” but I don’t remember their name. That record shop is Plan 9 Music, and it miraculously stays afloat in Harrisonburg, VA. I would grow up to work there before relocating to Nashville. That little shop was a big part of my music education. It’s where I bought all my records, and it’s where I learned what, why, and how pop culture things are cool. Plan 9 Music was/is a community for indie music hipsters, and the club was/is highly exclusive.
Sure, it isn’t the most positive community. The membership is just crawling with cynical little bastards who deny their crippling insecurities by ridiculing the rest of the planet. These people are the salty cooks who spit in your food. These people are the surly cabbies who drive the long way to charge you extra. Let’s face it: these people suck. But, these people need a home, and we take them in. Besides, they often have some of the best records.
I’m a genuinely nice guy (albeit an occasionally curmudgeonly one), and I often feel ostracized from my own community as one who believes in music for everybody. In other words, I say it’s perfectly okay to prefer Nickelback to Nirvana. Go ahead and join the Flat Earth Society if it makes you happy. Even we bona fide music snobs are allowed at least one guilty pleasure. At Plan 9, Robert liked bad skater punk. Jason liked bad metal. Hell, John liked Regina Spektor. My guilty pleasure was once bad bubblegum, but these days I enjoy plumbing the depths of smooth jazz. You may be thinking: hey, if you actually like the Paris Hilton album (and I do), then your taste is entirely suspect and you can’t stake any claim to insightful artistic criticism. Fair enough, but that’s not necessarily in the mission statement of the music snob community.
The fact that music snobs pretend to be privy to some sort of “central intelligence” regarding art is merely an annoying character trait. Music snobs are really like social scientists. The critics are the historians and educators. Then, there are the explorers. Have you ever met the guy who goes to every show? That dude’s looking for the next Arctic Monkeys like a junkie’s looking for the next fix. Then, there are the archaeologists. They’re the ones digging through the bargain bins trying to find a copy of Swaddling Songs by Mellow Candle. There are my kinds, the sociologists. We are the types who try to find connections between Beethoven and the Beatles. We’re studying Einstein’s theory of relativity to see how we can mathematically prove that the Velvet Underground is qualitatively and quantitatively better than Dream Theater. The local record shop was once the place for the snobs to assemble, to discourse on the important issues of the day; like, “Kid A and Amnesiac should have been trimmed down to one record. It’d have been much tighter overall…” and, “Dude, you can’t call yourself a reggae fan if you’ve only listened to Bob Marley. Here’s Marcus Garvey by Burning Spear and Blood & Fire’s Niney the Observer compilation. No, Matisyahu does not count…” These days, the snobs are hitting the blogs instead of the shops, but the rhetoric is similar.
The music snobs help to steer the musical taste of the masses, and arguably in the right direction. Thanks to music snobs like Ahmet Ertegün, we have artists like Ray Charles. And, it’s well known that Mr. Ertegün virtually grew up in the Commodore Music Shop in Manhattan. It’s fun to imagine what kind of conversations went down there: “Come on. Comparing Fletcher Henderson to Duke Ellington is like comparing Lester Young to Coleman Hawkins. It’s apples and oranges, man.”
So the next time a music snob sneers at your taste, simply ask them what’s on their mind. You’d be surprised to find that most of us just want an excuse to talk about our obsession, and we’re always excited to turn somebody on to something new. On the other hand, if you’re unlucky, you may end up with an overly expensive cab fare or a coq au vin that tastes curious.
Image by: graciepoo, flickr
Tripper Ryder is a composer and session bass player in Nashville,TN. When not studying counterpoint, he enjoys the music of Madonna and Meshuggah.