Musical taste can serve as a litmus test of someone's general character. This sounds like a dangerous and smug generalization, but think of it - have you ever met someone who preferred Yoko Ono to the Beatles who wasn't an insufferable prick? Similarly, is it ever a surprise when a hidebound fan of only hardcore punk or heavy metal turns out to be a socially-conservative reactionary? Music is not some autonomous miracle that happens by fluke. Music is dependent on context for meaning and is the direct product of human intervention - even if that intervention is the simple act of listening. (This is how John Cage could find musicality in the traditionally "non-musical.") To both the composer and the audience, music is never politically neutral.
This is why I'm such a staunch defender of indie dogmatists like Steve Albini, and why I'm very skeptical of populism, both musical and political: it discourages radicalism, sanctions tyranny of the majority, and buttresses the status quo. Unhesitant endorsement of pop music applauds the commodification of art and abets the homogenization of culture by consumerist capitalism. The gluttony of the indiscriminate listener enhances the neo-liberal fantasy of infinite abundance. Several years ago, Rob Horning outlined the fundamental danger of then-ascendant "poptimism":
It doesn’t really matter who likes what specifically; what matters are the means by which the big players seek to control the entertainment market... In capitalist society, culture is business, one that’s always trying to expand. Nice of the poptopian to do the marketers work for them and expand the reach and provide the ideological justification for the hegemony of the big commercial music manufacturers.So much of the vitriol aimed at Albini over the past week has little to do with the substance of his argument and more to do with him "being a jerk." This would suggest that, instead of disagreeing with Albini, many people are merely upset that he's infringing on their guilt-free enjoyment of consumer culture. Tom Ewing (author of, appropriately, Pitchfork's Poptimist column) parodies Albini's contempt for the fashion industry by suggesting what Albini's rendering of soccer might look like:
“It’s just 22 men chasing a leather ball around!”Reductive and contemptuous, perhaps, but also 100% accurate. Again, the implication is that the exploitation of an insecure public and the predation upon art by capital is not nearly as offensive as being a buzzkill asshole. What matters not is critiquing and defending against market forces; what matters is letting everyone be into what they're into and, y'know, having fun!
Let me be clear, there are larger real-world consequences to poptimism's timid egalitarianism. Mike Barthel was among the many who, without challenging Albini's position, dismissed the attacks upon fashion and Sonic Youth's Faustian bargain as "stupid shit." Less than a week later, Barthel posted an op-ed at The Awl about Glenn Beck's autodidact schtick:
In terms of motivation, liberals' demands that the unpleasant parts of American history be taught in schools is no different from conservatives' insistence that they be expunged: both want the story told as they see it so that children will grow up sympathetic to their view of the world. Of course, liberals have the advantage in this case of wanting things to be revealing, rather than concealing. But that doesn't make our intentions any nobler, particularly.And voila, in one simple extension of political logic, it's no more noble to fight for truth & accountability than it is to whitewash history in the name of imperialist nationalism. Because apparently it's better to tolerate jingoism and ignorance than to be an asshole and call people out on those things.
Whatever happened to "keeping keen the blade of one's dissatisfaction"?