Tape Wyrm L: In Defense of Elitism Tape Wyrm L: In Defense of Elitism

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In Defense of Musical Elitism


This is Tape Wyrm 50. 49 columns ago, this feature was started to allow me to write about metal, so I would stop submitting “these damnedable” articles to Pinpoint. I think it has gone well. Over the course of these 49 articles and the past two years, I feel that we have explored a lot — often through reviews that act as recommendations. Well, a lot of recommendation articles. Most of Tape Wyrm’s columns have followed the same format with recommendations listed one after another. I think it has worked out wonderfully for 49 articles. This is why we are not going to do this today. In lieu of new releases or an investigation of a certain time period, I wanted to share some of my notes on a subject dear to my heart, metal elitism.

Elitism can be defined as the belief that certain persons, classes, or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority. This superiority could be connected to social status, wealth, or knowledge. Over these two years, I have become increasingly interested in the concept of elitism and how it relates to music. While elitism can be seen throughout history as a source of political conflict, musical elitism comes at lesser stakes but still with the same amount of intensity. Somewhere between music and a person experiencing music, there exists a source of conflict. Not between person and music, but rather person and other people listening to the same music This is where we encounter the strange and complicated world of elitism.

Musical elitism is apart of a larger cliché of hipsterism. Beliefs about hipsters include the embrace of cultural authenticity and a rejection of mainstream commodification. The image of the urban hipster began in the 1940’s with the beatniks but did not become its modern image until the 1990’s with the rise of college radio and independent rock. In recent years, hipster has become a derogatory term to denote a sense of privileged delusion perpetuated by a sense of cultural superiority. Rather than progressive or knowledgeable in the arts, hipsters have gained negative traits including an air of lofty lunacy depending on the amount of caricature involved. Something along the lines of “you never heard it before.” Hipster is now a place holder to denote the point in which one can go too far in judgment and appreciation. To start defending musical elitism, one must eradicate the notion of hipsters and start at a love for music.

I: Attiude and Recreation

Musical elitism stems from knowledge. It is important to point out that we are discussing the elitism within a field of hobbies and recreation. Unequal academic knowledge, ardent beliefs, and unwavering judgments within the fields of math, science, and anything that possesses an objective component do not come with any claims of snobbery or elitism. It is not as common to find snobs of science or elitist mathematicians, rather just those that know more about a given subject than others. This is where we can detach elitism from just knowledge and deal with it as it relates to the hobbies.

Claims of elitism are found in more abundance in areas of the arts and hobbies because the relationship with the object is more subjective and possibly comes with a sense of recreation. Further, the more accessible a subject is the more egregious the claims of elitism. I do not think everyone knows about particle physics, only some know about Bayesian statistics, but for the most part, everyone knows music — or at least can form an opinion on it. The problem is formed then when people assume all opinions are equal and should be treated as equals. Everything was fine when we were discussing Paleobotany but now everything has changed when talking about Kanye West.

One possible problem with elitism is attitude. At the basic level there appears to be complaints regarding snobs and their tact when discussing shared interest with newcomers or even people with a casual relationship in the same subject. If this were the case, however, then this whole subject would really just be about people being assholes to each other. One person being an asshole is simple. They are just an asshole. This is of course solvable by not associating with assholes or not caring about what assholes think about anything. Why would you? They are just assholes. It is my belief however this issue goes deeper than people being assholes to others. I feel regardless of attitude, a sense of tension and conflict exists between the ones that know and the ones that do not. Knowing more and caring deeply for something does not make one an asshole, but can make them perceivably look that way to ones that know or care less. It is this sense of inequality which begins the narrative of elitism.

II: Newcomers

Getting into new things can be nerve racking. There is excitement in doing new things but also the desire to do things correctly. There is also a innate desire to organize new information. When approaching a new subject, an over-abundance of information is encountered very quickly. While this is of course exciting, it can also be daunting to organize and understand. At times, everything can become frustrating. To give an example within heavy metal, this whole idea relates to people’s compliments about subgenres.

Do we really need all of that? If one of your more adventuresome friends asks for metal albums, you might be inclined to recommend Emperor, Grave, or even Candlemass. If, instead, your recommendation referred to each of them as Norwegian black metal, OSDM/Swedish death, and epic doom, as opposed to simple names, it may crush any excitement your now ex-friend would have with the genre. Why? Because at that moment, that amount of information had no place and made little sense to them. It came off as pretentious, showy, and needless to put so much organization into a genre. To your now upset friend, the genre was formless and was not ready for that hyper transformation. In our hypothetical situation you would be a shitty friend.

If these classifications are meaningless and an obstacle to many trying to get in to the genre, the question is, do we really need them? The short answer is, yes we do. These specific genres just mentioned exist and do make sense for those that delve deeper into the genre. Jargon and detailed language are used by people to further delineate information and break things into smaller groups. Norwegian black, Swedish death, and epic doom all are very different from each other and can be identified by others with even an intermediate knowledge in the subject. This is why, in heavy metal, things like USBM, OSDM, DSBM, NSBM, NWOBHM, USPM, and NWOOSDM may seem ludicrous on the surface but still exist without irony and are useful to those that know more about the subject. Jargon and detailed language may not be useful to newcomers, but this does not invalidate their existence nor does it make it needless to those more experienced.

At some point, there is a momentary decision by frustrated newcomers that whatever is known is fine and any perceived needless knowledge is too much. This attitude is compounded by the fact that whatever is being enjoyed is for fun and recreation and in the grand scheme of things no one needs to know that much. To continue our discussion on metal, if your one friend would say “there is no need for all of that, metal is metal,” he would be wrong since there exists, outside of his arena of knowledge, a system of knowledge that easily categorizes specific details of the genre that others can make sense of. Despite your friend’s refusal to travel any further does not negate the fact that this information exists and is useful to those that need those definitions to express exactly what they mean. Your friend would then be making judgments and parsing out what is useful for them as what is useful for everyone. At this point, he would be the shitty friend.

III: In Defense of Elitism

After much time spent in a subject, elitism is natural. While this sounds elitist, this idea is just a progression of taste. Elitism can be thought of as the refinement of taste and an overall judgment of experiences and history with those experiences. After much time spent with a hobby or field, one will develop judgments regarding what is superior and what is inferior. While this judgment is in not entirely objective, experience with a subject can not be overlooked. I fail to see the logic in not heeding recommendations by ones more familiar. Food and beverage critics have judgments regarding their favorite meals. This does not negate your own love for Burger King but just because you enjoy onion rings does not mean the critic is taking things so seriously. This also does not negate the fact that the food critic probably knows other perhaps more delicious places to eat depending on your love for fried bread and meat. People seem to get upset when others continue with a hobby past their range of knowledge or even scope of interest.

Experience is measurable when quality is not. It is difficult to say, with objectivity, this is good and that is not. While it sounds like this is contradictory to elitism, individual and cultural opinions are different than affixed qualities. There is no inherent good or bad, rather quality measured by culture and experience. While you can not measure an object’s innate quality, you can make summations based on its place within a culture. A film critic’s Top Ten list does not make those 10 films good, rather are chosen by someone who has seen many films and makes judgments on cinema. Since there is no definitive formula for quality, elitism can distinguish an object’s place within culture. It weeds out the ordinary and highlights things of possible interest. Elitism is not the creation of good and bad rather cultivation of merit. Recommendations from the knowledgeable are not pretentious and showy, but rather a decent guide from people with a long time spent in one subject area.

With experience comes the ability to define differences. These differences are what separates the favorable and unfavorable. To bring back heavy metal, a seasoned veteran would be able to delineate between shrieks, growls, grunts, gurgles, and rasps, where others just hear screaming. Both summations on the music are not equal since one is based on experience while the other is lack of experience. It is this experience that can help people find subtle appreciation where more immediate pleasures once dominated. While one can certainly enjoy a subject without any knowledge at all, higher comprehension will change opinion, allowing things once met with opposition to be seen as favorable. Hobbies with large ranges of knowledge are transformative experiences that are often, at least in my experience, interesting when not left static.

This does not have to be personal. One of the most difficult things to do is divorce oneself from their tastes when being criticized. Since there is much emotional investment made in enjoyable hobbies and the search for new things, criticism will ultimately feel like heartbreak. It feels good when ones tastes are validated and shitty when they are not. While one could certainly become irate and say “metal is metal, why do we need all that,” or “what is this techno-viking-speedcore,” others can take a more mature and sensible route. One can and should search for new things without any preconceptions or emotional involvement when they are told things they do not want to hear. The quest for knowledge beyond the fray is filled with uncertainty and those who chose to go a little bit further than everyone are not trying to show off rather see how far this interest goes.

IV: True Elitism

Elitism is useful. It helps one to classify nuances of a subject and easily categorize it based on experience. Elitism also opens up a myriad of nuances where formless enjoyment once thrived. Elitism allows one to become confident in a field. Refining tastes and developing new opinions in an area can enhance ones experience with an object, making elitism in the subject only natural.

True elitism does not pertain to a feeling of superiority rather the mastery of one subject. Mastery over a subject also includes an understanding of the structure and ways to scaffold it for others based on inquisitions. It also means not being an asshole — to anyone. Your shitty friend who tried to impress you with his heavy metal words was an asshole but so were you for dismissing knowledge that rightfully existed. You are both terrible people and I do not know why I invited you here. A true friend would portion out the history of metal depending on level of interest and start with possible introductions before more advanced selections. True elitism is not the hording of knowledge but the ability to share and convey excitement with the intensity of when first acquired.

You could also do none of this. Everything I just said you could discard and go about your business listening to whatever you wanted and chasing onion rings with fountain sodas. This is fine because who am I to tell you what to do? Why are we even talking? People get confused with elitism because they think it is something they should do rather than something they could do. One could also not really care about music but know a fuck ton of things about fly fishing. I think this is great and if ever the time comes when I want to get away on vacation and cast a rod in the great outdoors, I’ll know who to talk to. Why? Because I know shit about fly fishing and do not pretend that my opinion is equal to the guy with the homemade lures in his tackle box.

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