Contra Snobbery


I am a snob.

There. I admitted it. Happy?

There's no getting around it: I go for the better things. I prefer the original Star Trek to the JJ Abrams remix, microbrews to BudMillCoors, Hondas to Fords, Steinways to Kimballs, iPhones to Galaxies, Dick's Kitchen to McDonalds, HBO to NBC... I could go on for several more paragraphs, but you've got the general idea.

These are not just mild preferences. Some of them have been developing for decades. I'm not, in general, given to quick judgment, and lacking adequate knowledge and experience, I will not jump to conclusions about the relative superiority of one variety of a thing to all other iterations of that same thing. One bad experience does not necessarily eliminate an item from my favorites list, though it does result in a warning tag. My experience with Japanese cars, for instance, has been almost universally excellent, with one exception: an Acura that, in the three years I owned it, had two major breakdowns. That has made me suspicious of luxury trimlines, but not of Hondas (Acura, in case you didn't know, is Honda's luxury division); my next Honda will most likely be an Accord, a model I've had tremendous luck with.

So in many cases my snobbery is based on objective analysis: I prefer brands that, over time, have proven reliable. But there's more to it than that, as a glance at the post just below this one will reveal. There's an aesthetic side to my pickiness. My tastes in the performing arts, as well as the visual arts and literary arts, have been refined by education and practice. But rather than focus on other aspects of my snooty aesthetic palate, I'm going to focus again on the one I have the most solid grounds to defend: music.

When I first started college, my musical tastes tended toward schlock. I loved movie soundtracks, especially those with a John Williams score. Mind you, this included the frequently atonal soundtrack to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but the parts of it I really preferred were more impressionistic. I had no taste for popular music (which, at that time, was disco at its most over-produced, just beginning to give way to New Wave and punk), and as far as jazz, it was strictly big band, the more easy listening the better. My favorite jazz records were those recorded by Woody Herman in the 1970s, which were borderline easy listening, loaded with slightly jazzed-up arrangements of Broadway and light rock. I was just beginning to discover classical music, and coming at it through the most popular works of the Romantic era: tone poems by Tchaikovsky and Smetana, Dvorak's New World Symphony, some of Beethoven's more accessible symphonic music.

Part of being a music major was attending concerts. There were two symphony orchestras performing on campus at Willamette at that time, and I never missed a concert. I could get in free if I ushered. Often I would do homework during the concert, but over time, the music began to work its way under my skin. It wasn't always well-performed--the Salem Symphony was a community orchestra with very few professional players, and the Oregon Symphony had a long way to go before it could be considered world class--but still it was steeping me in great works, music of far greater sophistication than the soundtracks and light classics in my collection. I was also learning about what makes music tick in theory, literature, and history classes. Most important, I was performing great music as a member of Willamette's wind ensemble; and in jazz ensemble, we were playing funk, bebop, fusion, blues, and progressive charts that challenged my definition of music. After four years, I was the most dangerous kind of snob, one who not only knew what he liked, but why it was better than what you probably liked.

I stayed a snob for a very long time. Going to seminary and, at first, studying church music only made matters worse: the sacred music department was loaded with musical snobs. I've written elsewhere about the challenges of programming great music in a church that prefers schmaltz. I'll just say that a steady diet of Palestrina and African-American spirituals may be uplifting to a music major, but will most likely leave the average congregant cold.

That's where the problem with snobbery starts: ordinary people base their artistic preferences on different criteria than those of aesthetes. Chances are that if they really love a song, it's because it affects them at a deep level.

The late Roger Deschner, a sacred music professor at SMU and one of my favorite people from my time there, was on the committee that edited the 1989 edition of the United Methodist Hymnal. He talked often about the difficulty that committee faced when it came time to decide whether to keep an old hymn many on the committee considered theologically inappropriate: there was always someone on the committee with a personal story about that hymn, how it had brought comfort during a trying time, had been the very ground of faith for a beloved child now tragically dead. How do you tell someone who has a personal relationship with a song that it's a bad piece of art, trite, superficial, even offensive?

This is the problem with the ivory tower. My junior year of college, I demonstrated a real knack for music history. James Cook, who taught the course, was a living, breathing cartoon of an effete aesthete. He routinely dismissed whole genres of music, spoke with full confidence about how preferable it was to perform baroque music on original instruments, and proudly recounted stories of stepping over the ropes in European museums to play old harpsichords that must, he insisted, be used if they were to age properly. Toward the end of the year, after I'd submitted my final paper, he took me aside and asked if I'd considered a career like his, in musicology. I think I managed to adequately supress my urge to shudder, because I told him I was headed for the band room rather than the lecture hall. "You're sure?" he asked, a little hurt despite my efforts at diplomacy. "You're very good at this."

I was sure. I knew even then that, as well-grounded as my distaste for popular music might be, it was still popular for a reason, and that people had a right to like what they liked, and often very good reasons. It would still be many years before I could truly embrace that concept, but I would eventually arrive there.

By the time I left seminary, I had finally been exposed to enough music that I was beginning to see the value of pop. I'd been listening to Simon and Garfunkel for years, and had added to that playlist Paul Simon's later experiments in world music, but what finally kicked me into the 1990s was a cassette tape of U2's The Joshua Tree I picked up at a garage sale. The first time I played it, it turned my world upside down. The production of that album was unlike anything I'd ever heard. Brian Eno's orchestrations were lush, eerie, moving. The variety of styles, the shimmering guitar chords, the way one song complemented another, but most of all, the passion of Bono's voice, showed me that art could be both popular and great. In contrast to the falsetto of late Disco and the clipped, robotic vocals of New Wave, Bono sang from his gut, the same way I'd been taught to play my trumpet, the same way opera singers deliver a line so that it melts a listener's heart.

U2 was the soundtrack of the end of my first marriage. Almost every song on Joshua Tree and its followup, Achtung Baby, spoke to me of the cruelty of spurned love, dying affection, and broken promises. This wasn't just their music, it was my music. I have been to every U2 concert in the Pacific Northwest since 1997, and like all the other U2heads, I'm on my feet for the entire concert, singing along at the top of my lungs.

And here's the irony: looking at this music critically, with my aesthetic magnifying glass, I see how pretentious the lyrics can be, how simplistic the chord progressions, how monotonous the melodies. There are rock musicians writing far more subtle and complex music, and I appreciate much of their stuff, too; but the bottom line is that I don't care. No other musician or band gets me, right in the gut, the way U2 does.

Why? It's hard to know for certain. They were there when I needed them; their music spoke very specifically to what I was experiencing; there was enough craft to it that I could appreciate it artistically; but none of those really answers the question. It just works for me, and I don't know why.

And this is the ultimate defense against snobbery, and why, as critical as I am tempted to be of whatever my students, my neighbors, my brothers, my children, my partner are listening to and enjoying, I hold my tongue. Oh, corner me about why I'm not thrilled with a song, and I'll carefully explain what about it doesn't work for me, but I will not judge you for loving Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Gotye, or the noisy clanky dubstep stuff that kids are dancing to these days.

A number of years ago, composer/comedian Peter Shickele had a public radio show in which he took people on a musical journey around a theme. You never quite knew what you'd hear on Shickele Mix, because its star had extremely eclectic tastes. A Wagner aria might lead into a Beatles song, to be followed by some honky tonk. The one rule he adhered to, and which he quoted at the head of every program, was this dictum, originally spoken by Duke Ellington: "If it sounds good, it is good."

What sounds good varies from one person to the next. Who am I to challenge you on what sounds good to you? I have no right to cast aspersions on your heartsong. And that is why I have opted, more and more, to set aside my snob hat in favor of a more inclusive approach to good music.

Yes, I'd still rather listen to music that challenges and surprises me. And you have every right not to like it. You do not, however, have the right to revile me for my taste. It is my own, formed in the foundry of a high-faluting college education, but refined in the trenches of both church and school. Your tastes, in turn, are your own, and you have just as much right to them. If it works for you, if it moves you, helps you through a hard time, sings to your very soul, then yes, for you it is good. And I congratulate you for having found it.


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