[This is an except from UNCOOL #1: Guiltless Pleasures. Download the new issue to read the rest along with articles by Devon Maloney, Jamieson Cox, Harley Brown and many more.]
On March 15, 2013, David Greenwald, Simon Vozick-Levinson and Lindsay Zoladz (via Google Hangouts) gathered in Austin, Texas to discuss the future of snobbery at an SXSW panel. It went something like this.
David Greenwald: We live in a time when anyone with Internet has access to nearly any song that’s ever been recorded, thanks to YouTube and Spotify and other services. Yet people are still picking sides or pushing aside interesting art because reasons well beyond the music. What we’ll explore today is how artists and consumers are changing and the future of music snobbery. For the purposes of our discussion, let’s define a snob as someone who is more than just a nerd—it’s someone who imposes his or her taste on others. One reason for snobbery throughout history, I think, is the way music relates to identity and how our taste differentiates us from others. We’re probably all familiar with the High Fidelity image of the record store guy who hates Art Garfunkel, but one interesting wrinkle of the Twitter era is the rise of pop artist fan armies: Beliebers, Directioners, Swifties and so on, tweens and teens who think other artists are totally unacceptable—like cheering for the Yankees in L.A. We’ve always had rivalries, like the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones, but it’s fair to say this takes it to a new level.
Simon Vozick-Levinson: Yep. Pop stars by definition have always had fiercely loyal fan bases—but I think you’re right that today’s organized fan communities are different in some interesting ways. Just ask Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, who got a dose of the Beliebers’ wrath earlier this year. His sin: Shrugging off a TMZ reporter’s random question about Justin Bieber’s exclusion from the Grammys (“I dunno, he’s rich, right?”). This was not O.K. Bieber joked on Twitter that Carney “should be slapped around haha,” and his fans went for it—bombarding the drummer with seriously enraged rhetoric and even death threats for days on end. I couldn’t help but flash back to the spring of 2010, when I made the mistake of writing a slightly snarky blog post about the first-week sales of My World 2.0 and was rewarded with a tweet from Justin himself (“Its [sic] sad that some adults need to try and bring people down”), followed by a predictable wave of furious tweets and emails from his supporters.
The Internet was a crucial ingredient in both incidents: 20 years ago, most of Bieber’s fans probably wouldn’t have heard of either offending remark, and even if they did, it would have taken way more effort to track down me and Carney and tell us how much we suck. Now it’s trivially easy for the most hardcore fans to mount concerted campaigns of verbal abuse against anyone who’s perceived as not sharing their taste. How dare we not love Justin as much as they do? I suppose you could argue that Carney and I are the snobs here, for making very mild fun of a pop star—but at a certain point, you have to wonder whether this absurdly aggressive brand of fandom isn’t its own form of snobbery.
David: On the other hand, one perception of the indie world is that it’s very snobby, when we might argue that it’s really just geeky and curious. Lindsay, do you think Pitchfork still has that snobby tag attached to it or has the site moved beyond that?
Lindsay Zoladz: Well, I’m obviously biased here, but I want to believe Pitchfork has moved past the whole “music snob” stereotype—and I think that the perception of our readers has moved past that, too. Now that the Internet gives listeners unlimited access to everything, we’re living in a moment where the person with the most cultural capital isn’t the (often myopic) “music snob” but instead the cultural omnivore, who listens to a little bit of everything. Even among people we’re labeling as music snobs, the whole stereotype of the person who listens to “everything but hip-hop & country” would probably be dismissed as unfairly judgmental. This shift has been happening for a while—the music critic Carl Wilson writes about it in his great 2007 book Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste—but I think the rise of social media has really accelerated it in the past few years. And you’re seeing a lot of publications respond to this shift.
David: Both Pitchfork and Rolling Stone have a certain coverage scope. Pitchfork might not do a cover story on Green Day, but Rolling Stone would be less likely to do a Q&A with Youth Lagoon. I saw Paramore play here in Austin a few nights ago and they were fantastic—I’d love to see their new album get Pitchfork notice. What’s the difference here between reader service and snobbery? Is there the danger of losing your identity by making coverage too broad?
Simon: This is an interesting one. No publication can cover everything. Resources are finite, and you have to draw the line somewhere. But I actually think both RS and Pitchfork do a good job of covering a really broad range of music, from chart-topping pop to indie gems. There are gaps, inevitably, and room to improve—but in my experience, we’re both staffed by people who recognize that there are all kinds of great music out there, and whether it’s “cool” shouldn’t be the only thing determining whether we pay attention to it.
David: There have been a few situations in recent months that have really shown modern snobbery on display. Simon, can you walk us through the Nicki Minaj “real hip-hop” incident?
Simon: Sure. I think of this story as a counterpart to the Belieber wars: there we saw a mob of zealous fans trying to enforce their taste on others, but of course individual high-level gatekeepers can be just as guilty of this behavior. Before proceeding, I want to say that I’m a fan of the Hot 97 morning show that Peter Rosenberg co-hosts with Cipha Sounds and K. Foxx. Funny guy, most mornings. But wow, did he embarrass himself on this one.
It happened at last year’s Summer Jam, the annual all-star hip-hop concert put on by Hot 97, the radio station where he works. Nicki Minaj was booked as the headliner, and Rosenberg took it upon himself to denounce her from the stage shortly before she was supposed to go on: “I know there are some chicks here waiting to sing ‘Starships’ later. I’m not talking to y’all right now—fuck that bullshit! I’m here to talk about real hip-hop shit.” (Nicki, understandably, backed out of the show after hearing this.)
Where to begin with this wrongheaded bluster? “Starships” is one of Nicki’s most poppy songs. It was a huge hit. To Peter Rosenberg, that means it’s not “real.” The gendered language he used—trying to force a false distinction between the “bullshit” that “chicks” listen to and the allegedly more authentic stuff he likes—just emphasizes how lame and outdated this way of experiencing music is. Are we really supposed to think that Nicki’s dance-pop songs somehow invalidate the ones where she’s rapping her ass off? Does she magically stop being a great MC when she dares to flex another creative muscle?
Rosenberg is free to dislike “Starships,” obviously, but belittling those who do like it in these particular terms raises red flags. Ultimately, it felt like he was nostalgic for a (possibly mythical) time when genres were more rigidly constructed. This just isn’t how people listen to music anymore—there are lots of us who love both Illmatic and Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, and it’s really O.K. I think that’s exactly why Rosenberg lashed out. It’s the move of an aesthetic conservative who is scared of progress.
With directions similarly foggy, we wander into the Hotel St. Cecilia courtyard. A dozen or so people sit at tables and chairs with the ease of old ladies playing bridge. As we step closer, one group includes the rapper J. Cole, while Carrie Brownstein, smiling in a white Peter Pan-collared shirt, lingers nearby. “Did you see her?” I whisper to Jeremy. “Who?” “That’s Carrie Brownstein.” He tiptoes back to peek before we walk up the stairs, looking for a party and finding a catering table and a fussy head waitress instead. She points us in the right direction: down the hill, toward the big tent. We make our exit and I wonder if I should tell Carrie I’m thinking about moving to Portland.
More from my exhaustive SXSW diary, which you can read in full on Thought Catalog.
I wish I could say my night ended with Snoop Lion, but at 5 a.m., I find myself wrapping up my review on the hotel’s second floor as Kyle edits photos. “Is there a show we can go to right now?” I’m joking. I’m not joking. 45 minutes later, we’re at the W, in line for the KGSR taping. I thought 8:30 a.m. crowds were flat-out bonkers: turns out, they’d been there all day. The first 300 people through the door get free breakfast tacos: we do not get free breakfast tacos. The KGSR line seems to be an older crowd, the kind that’s crazy like a fox for the day’s main attractions: Steve Earle, on about four delirious hours later, and Third Eye Blind at 9. Third Eye Blind. For this and breakfast tacos, 300-plus people are in line at 5:45 a.m. at a boutique hotel. Kyle and I spend $10 on the stupid tacos and think seriously about waiting it out to hear “Jumper.”
My SXSW diary is live on Thought Catalog. It includes a Zombies performance, true love, indie rock, physical limits and a bad lasagna. Photos, too.
Charli XCX and Kitty are great. I’m in the bottom right corner of the Charli video at the 1:10 mark, checking my shots. The Kitty set really was that hilarious and ambivalent. I love how she is an actual human being on stage and willing to call out a bad crowd instead putting on a performance hat and toughing it out.