Contempt for the Popular: Music, Morality, and the Culture Wars
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It is the summer of 1982, and I’m riding in my father’s car on a warm Santa Barbara afternoon. There’s no cassette or eight-track player in Dad’s red VW bus with the slipping clutch; there’s only FM radio, and one single preset: KUSC, the Los Angeles classical music station.
Pachelbel's Canon in D comes on.
I groan, reach to switch the radio off.
"Why are you doing that, Huggle?" (Rhymes with Muggle, and it is all papa will call me all of the 39 years I have him on this earth.)
I lament that it’s too popular, which it is. The Oscar-winning Ordinary People had come out 18 months earlier, and turned a heretofore 300-year old piece by an obscure German baroque composer into ubiquitous background music. It was already being used in countless commercials and starting to show up in weddings.
Papa asks what’s so bad about music being popular, and I burst out that people dare to think of themselves as classical music lovers just because they love this single composition.
“Perhaps,” my father replies, “some things are popular because they're good. Taste isn't about only liking the difficult and the obscure."
I sit with that a moment. A lot of my early adolescent self-image is about trying to become an expert on things that others found bizarre or boring. I secretly like Crystal Gayle and Styx, but won’t admit it to my punk rock friends who are into cool bands like the Germs and Suicidal Tendencies.
Papa continues. "Art isn't a device for demonstrating your superiority. It's a tool to take you deeper, and to bring joy. Please turn up the radio. And if you want something difficult, we can go home and listen to Hindemith." (A challenging 20th century German composer).
The truth was, I would rather have listened to Pachelbel. But if I liked what everyone else liked, how was I unique? Like so many insecure teens, I used taste as a moral divining rod to discern other’s intelligence and sensitivity. Like many insecure teens, I confused a fondness for the “inaccessible,” or the merely “difficult,” with wisdom. When you don’t fit in with your peers, your obscure tastes legitimize your ostracism. It’s not because you’re clumsy, or physically unappealing, or a know-it-all, or perpetually glum — it’s that you have a particularly refined soul, able to delight in what bewilders or bores others.
As you may know, the massively popular Netflix show Stranger Things is set in the mid-1980s, and the just-completed season four featured a number of popular songs from that decade. Two songs in particular were diagetic (meaning, they weren’t just soundtrack, but were themselves essential as plot devices): Kate Bush’s Running up that Hill and Metallica’s Master of Puppets.
I graduated from high school in 1985, and am just a year or two older than the show’s protagonists are supposed to be; a great many of the show’s fans, however, weren’t even born until a decade or two later. (My son David is a bit young for the show, but he has a strong stomach, and we are lax parents. We let him watch it. My daughter is tired of being told she bears a resemblance to the series’ star, Millie Bobbie Brown, and boycotts the program altogether.) Metallica and Kate Bush were both popular in their day, and decidedly not obscure, and yet many fans of each took to social media in the days after the show aired, lamenting that the artists were now besieged by “fake fans” who only knew a single song. Metallica, to their credit, set those fans to rights.
Many of us who pride ourselves on what we imagine to be our own excellent taste are evangelists for the music, literature, or cuisine that captured our imaginations. We want people to have the same delight we have already had. Or, at least, we think that’s what they want. On the other hand, if all of a sudden we no longer need to evangelize, because everyone has discovered our passion, some of us may be crestfallen. The little-known composer we admire suddenly writes an Oscar-winning movie score; the cheap little hole in the wall in a rundown neighborhood, the one we cherished, now has a line of hipsters out front every evening; our favorite underground author just got her latest book blurbed by Oprah and Gwyneth Paltrow.
I am no different. To give a recent example, I started listening to country singer Zach Bryan when he was uploading Youtube videos while on Navy deployment in 2018; he’s now selling out arenas. My favorite off his latest album:
There’s also a class element here.
As Vance Packard pointed out over 60 years ago in The Status Seekers, modern American consumer culture allowed “the masses to become the dictators of taste…we have to endure the horrors of our roadside architecture and billboards; our endless TV gun-slinging; our raw, unkempt, blatantly commercialized cities; our mass merchandising of pornographic magazines; our faceless suburban slums-to-be; our ever-maudlin soap operas. Voices have been crying out for the restoration of some kind of elite that can set standards and make them stick.”
For more than six decades, do-gooders across the political spectrum have sought to elevate popular taste and in doing so, redeem America. For all our professed contempt for elites, a great many of us want to submit ourselves to the judgment of those we imagine to be our betters. Trumpers stand in awe of the imagined uncanny leadership gifts of their hero; young libertarian-minded men wet themselves with excitement at Elon Musk’s next bold pronouncement; stern social justice warriors long to be led by the vast wisdom of the BIPOC, rather than the white mediocrities with which America is apparently so unjustly and tiresomely burdened. Everyone and their llama has an idea of who could do the right job of “setting standards and making them stick.”
The right wants to pull books out of libraries. The left wants to stop certain books from being published at all. Both sides flatter themselves that their efforts will create a more just, saner, and far kinder nation. Both sides imagine themselves to be vested with the power to decide what others should read. Both sides imagine that they are involved in an existential struggle to decide what kind of culture we will have, because, they believe, the culture we have will ultimately determine the people we become.
What does this have to do with my puerile pooh-poohing of Pachelbel? The through-line is contempt. As a nerdy teen, I thought many of my peers were superficial, dim-witted, and possessed of deeply pedestrian tastes. They just liked what everyone else liked. I imagined myself to be smarter and more discerning. Many young people believe themselves to be both chosen and scorned, and some — tragically — do not outgrow this strange mix of self-loathing and exaggerated self-regard. Contempt for what delights the masses becomes the proof of one’s refinement.
Depending on your personality, you may want to quietly enjoy your obscure passions unchallenged — or you may want to foist your love for the arcane and (to your eyes, anyway) the sublime on to everyone around you, using their acceptance or rejection of your faves as a litmus test for their worth.
Most culture warriors on both sides believe themselves to be possessed of something special. God has put a calling on their hearts, they tell me, to turn people away from filth and towards the true, the beautiful and the good. Or they tell me that their eyes have been opened to the appalling scale of racism in our country, and how bigotry is woven into each and every one of the rhythms and texts we adore. I have to do something, these friends tell me; I can’t sit idly by; I have to wake people up. By waking people up, it means in part getting them to stop consuming the media they delight in.
If only they wouldn’t show Elvis shaking his hips. If only there weren’t so much sex on TV. If only those jokes weren’t allowed anymore. If only grandma would stop watching Fox. If only my brother would stop watching MSNBC. If only kids these days would stop listening to this repetitive pablum on the radio and turn on real music, like the kind I — enlightened, special, ever-so-discerning me! — have discovered.
The great crisis of our present moment is contempt. You cannot have contempt without first having certainty that someone is doing something wrong, something they shouldn’t. We use “poor taste” as justification for our derision.
This need to deride the other side is part of what drives cancel culture. This tends to work reciprocally. Last year, when country singer Morgan Wallen was videotaped drunkenly yelling the n-word, there was outrage on the left. Wallen apologized, and the right-wing said, “that apology is sufficient.” The left said, “no, it most certainly is not.” Both sides campaigned furiously; one to get Wallen’s music banned, the other, to have it promoted. The whole thing ended up doing wonders for Wallen’s sales and streams, because in a democratic society, whatever it is we are told we shouldn’t listen to — no matter how valid the reason — becomes something we feel we must hear.
The left saw Wallen’s success as proof of enduring racism in country music; the right turned this cheerful be-mulleted son of Sneedville, Tennessee into an unlikely and probably undeserving cause célèbre. The end result was that how one felt about banal country songs about beer became a reliable indicator of one’s politics, and therefore, one’s fundamental morality.
”Taste isn’t only about liking the difficult and obscure,” said my daddy. He might well have added, “And it isn’t something you can use to feel superior to others, or to justify making decisions on their behalf.”
It’s a lesson we desperately need in this fearful, exhausted, and petulant summer.
Lots of music links in this letter, and I’ll finish with one from this weekend’s Newport Folk Festival. Yesterday, in the blistering New England heat, eighty-year-old Paul Simon invited Rhiannon Giddens on to the stage, to sing with him his “An American Tune.”
The lyrics are famous, and have perhaps never been more apt than they are in this divisive and frightened time:
I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
Oh, but it's alright, it's alright
For we've lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we're traveling on
I wonder what's gone wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what's gone wrong
Giddens changes a line about arriving on the Mayflower, to rapturous applause; the song becomes an even-more stirring reminder of the possibility of joy when there are so many reasons to despair.
You don’t need to like it. It’s not for everyone, and what you like or don’t says damn all about your character. But I think it’s pretty swell. (The song doesn’t begin until 1:50.)
Thanks for including the video link- I love both Rhiannon Giddons and Paul Simon. When you mentioned your daughter resembling Millie Bobbie Brown, I pictured them both in my mind and realized this is true. "Eleven" is beautiful, as is your daughter. My llama and I enjoyed this post.