The Science and Prejudice of Music Snobbery

September 07, 2016

For a long time, I’ve been intrigued by the phenomenon whereby a certain kind of music fan (myself included) professes disdain for the mainstream, and doesn’t want to be seen to like anything too popular.

Once upon a time Oasis were a thrilling new band. Is it a coincidence that the point where I went off them is around the time that they became the biggest band in the country? For many people, a similar story could be told about Coldplay. When something is too popular, it must be rubbish, in the eyes and ears of the contrarian.

In some cases, a successful artist’s early work might be acceptable, but high sales figures are a sign of something wrong.

Why do we want to like obscure music? Is it because we think we’re better than everyone else? Do we feel that liking something uncommon somehow sets us apart from the common herd?

The same seems to be true of books and films and art. Anything with mainstream popularity must be somehow trite and banal. Liking something that fewer people like is a sign of sophistication.

We can look down on those who like the X Factor as simpletons, addled by a different kind of opium for the people, while cognoscenti like ourselves are marked out as special by the atonal, dissonant music we choose.

But why do some people prefer that different mood? Is there something in our brains that means we’re wired to prefer a minor key?

I’ve wondered if there’s something scientific in it. There seem to have been some investigations into the neuroscience of music, but not of music snobbery. My guess is that it’s more psychological, or perhaps it’s more about the culture.

Perhaps we want music to belong to us, to be a little secret that we can share with our friends. Once something gets too popular, it becomes music for them, whoever they are. By liking someone before they get big, we’re part of something. A tribe, a clique. Or if we’re into something really obscure, then we can prove our uniqueness.

This rejection of the mainstream must be more common among those who were outsiders at school, the bowlie kids, the geeks and freaks. Is there a connection between liking “alternative” music (whatever that means these days), and a general sense of misanthropy?

There’s a horrible bullshit idea that it’s unacceptable to like certain kinds of music. If you do subscribe to that, where’s the line? Are you not allowed to like anything popular, unless you’re indulging in the bullshit that is ironic guilty pleasure?

In that worldview, why are certain artists and albums OK?

It isn’t just about record sales or mainstream acceptance - except among a certain kind of deliberately contrarian misanthrope, we can pretty much all agree that the Beatles and the Stones were great.

Maybe there’s something about the music itself. When it sounds too big, too stadium-y, too glossy, it doesn’t ring true - it feels more like the radio-friendly unit-shifter part of the music business. Then again, authenticity in popular music is a murky subject (explored excellently by Yuval Taylor in Faking It).

Stadium rock needs to be big to reach the back rows - at that scale, it’s difficult to keep vulnerability or subtletly, and those are the things that we want. Maybe that’s why something in me wants to cling on to the notion that the early U2 albums were miles better than the ones that sold in their millions. Maybe that’s why it’s OK to like Bruce Springsteen, even though he’s basically an American version of Dire Straits, or a less theatrical version of Meat Loaf.

As it was for many people, it was the stripped-down Rick Rubin albums that got me into Johnny Cash, and into country music more generally. That may have been the gateway drug, but I still can’t really face any rhinestones, and Dolly Parton just feels like an ironic step too far to me.

The same trick didn’t work for me with Neil Diamond (probably because it just felt like an attempt at the same trick), although I will admit a certain soft spot for the UB40 version of Red Red Wine (which would definitely be a black mark against me in any notion of cool music snobbery).

Incidentally, I’ve never been entirely convinced by that Sunday afternoon Glastonbury old duffer slot, but maybe that’s partly the point - perhaps I want my legends to remain mythical and undiscovered, so that I can feel cool by knowing more about them than someone else. Besides, I’m too much of a grumpy old man to enjoy Glastonbury these days.

So why do we need to keep score about what kind of music we like? Why can’t we just enjoy the music, without all its cultural baggage? Maybe it’s because music is so important to us that we need it to mean something more.