Listening to Music is Harder than it Sounds

Dear Trent,

I suppose this is going to read largely as a Part Two in my series of “don’t be a jerk to people” op-eds. But with the immense amount of letters about serious issues that matter already in this issue, I figured it was only appropriate that I spend my energy paternalistically commenting on general social behaviours.This week it’s all about music.

Basically every major subcultural group that I’ve ever witnessed, and probably almost all of the ones I’ve been interested in that were before my time, have had the same attitude toward music that “hipsters” apparently have.

I think hipsters have become a bit passé, but they continue to function as a useful illustrative example of the point I’m trying to make. I mean when I was hanging with emo and scene kids this was going on, and they’re just about as passé as it gets. And it was certainly going on with early punk music and metal as well, which is so passé at this point that it’s quite possible readers of this will have parents who once blazed those subcultural trails.

Anyway, this idea is roughly that the more obscure the music is the better it must be, that somehow when a band becomes popular it loses part of what makes it good, etc. (In reality the attitude is more complex, but we’ll get to that.)

I can really sympathize with that worldview insofar as the music these people are referring to isn’t being made with the express intent of being a Good Song, nor is that music being written or composed to serve the same ends as your average pop song. They aren’t made to be catchy or get stuck in your head or to be sung along to at the club or on the radio. That’s why you never hear any of it on the radio unless you tune into stations like the one over at 92.7 FM.

But a lot of derision launched towards this music or these people never takes that into account and, as far as I can tell, assumes that all music is being made to be accessible to by anyone at any time. Thus we arrive at the view that these people are just being overly heady and analytical or pretentious or whatever else.

One that gets thrown around a lot is how hipsters apparently often say things like “oh you probably haven’t heard of this band.” Fair enough, that’s a pretty dicky thing to say. Except I’ve never actually heard anyone say this in a condescending way, and whenever I’ve said it or heard it said it was in fact (and quite obviously) the case that the people being told about whatever band didn’t know about that band.

I mean I don’t go around expecting people to know unpopular musicians. When a band has very few apparent fans it’s not a jump to assume that most people don’t know them. But so like one of the things about this sort of music is, in not being accessible, it often has a lot to say and a lot to offer, even if it’s something as trivial as an alternate aesthetic experience. It also opens up a space to engage in whatever it is that it does differently.

Punks, for example, paid no mind to the technical skill involved in music, and instead focused on the ways in which music can be used to communicate a message. Usually one that was a counterpoint to the day’s right-wing governments.
So there’s an extent to which hipsters or members of these groups actually do want lots of people to like their music, they just want people to appreciate what the music is doing as part of liking it.

To me that’s a totally valid desire, and it’s understandably annoying when lots of people miss the point of a given thing, or when artists give up on doing what they had done for so long to instead pursue music for profit—a system they once eschewed.

These people are just, in their own way, searching for people they can talk to about this thing that is culturally uncommon without feeling alienated. I mean they’re really just searching for people they have something in common with, same as anyone else would do.

Like, there really is something there to “get” and most people don’t “get” it because most people aren’t even looking for it in the first place, they might not know it’s even there. I think anyone who has been a member of a group like this can also speak to how absolutely lonely it is to be really invested in an idea or an aesthetic and to be mocked not for whatever the interest is, but on the basis of having a divergent interest in the first place.

I wrote this originally because I wanted to complain about how it annoys me that no one I know really likes Circa Survive and how the bass line in the song “In Fear and Faith” is really fucking amazing but I have no one to talk about it with. So yeah, I guess I ended up a bit far from there.

guy playing a guitar

About Pat Reddick 85 Articles
Pat was co-editor of Volume 49, along with Matt Rappolt. He's primarily interested in arts coverage, often editorializing on arts issues. He graduated from Trent with a Bachelor's degree in English Lit. Pat hosts or co-hosts several programs at Trent Radio, such as Media Are Plural. You can follow him on Twitter, or watch him eat through his kitchen window. In his spare time Pat reads a lot (q.v. English major), plays video games, and writes fiction. He has a blog or something but I couldn't find out too much about that.