Confessions of a music naziI get email. I get a lot of email: a few hundred messages a day, often, and very little of it spam - at least, not in the conventional sense. I get poetry, philosophy, pedagogy, pedantry. To satisfy the demands of alliteration, I sometimes even get pornography. And all thanks to the wonders of the Internet, and the curse of email lists.
See, I'm a music nazi; I'm Indier Than Thou, subversive as hell, non-mainstream
to the core. I'm a band geek, a noise freak, and when I hear something that I
love I invariably sign up to any email list that pertains to the band or individual
in question; that leads to a lot of email. I've recently trimmed things down,
somewhat, so I'm only left on mailing lists for The Sisters of Mercy, Godspeed
You Black Emperor! and the World Serpent Distribution label. Even so, the diversity
of content and crap that wings its way into my mailbox is often staggering, not
least in the wake of the September 11 attacks that have polarised opinion of music
fans as of normal human beings the world over. But this isn't an article on that
phony war; I merely mention these facts so that if this article is half-formulated
or ranting, you will understand that it's because certain sections come from discussions
I've recently had on various discussion lists. And so, to get down to it:
I am a music nazi - that's what I'm told, and I've been told it enough times that I'm not in any place to disagree. Apparently, I listen to music that's deliberately, wilfully "different"; not because I like the music, but because it's not like what other people are listening to. And you know what? They have a point.
I buy a fair bit of music; more than I can afford, and more than I have time to listen to properly. I buy music on impulse, at random; I've bought albums because I thought that I remembered the name of the artist from somewhere, or because I liked the cover. And what's more: I've deliberately avoided buying music that's become too popular. Oh, I know that's shocking, or stupid. I know that it says something about me. But the fact is, I've been stung too many times. I've read the reviews, listened to the hype, only to be disappointed time and again by what I heard. I bought The Strokes' album on the strength of its reputation, and I found a few nice songs - but if I want to listen to The Velvet Underground, I'll stick on White Light/White Heat. I listened to Coldplay, to Travis, to Doves, to JJ72, and found each of them rather insipid, rather lacking; and only a little while later, it seems, the music press had itself forgotten all about each of those bands that they had so hyped up.
But that's not my only excuse. There is doubtless new music out there which deserves the hype it receives: "White Blood Cells" is quite good, for example. But I know that there's also a wealth of wonderful, challenging, rewarding stuff out there that will never see the front page of the NME, that will never reach Top of the Pops; and when I'm accused of only listening to such music because of those things, I can only agree: much of the music that I love is brilliant precisely because of its quirkiness, its difficult aspects, its non-melodiousness, its ugly frontmen; all of those things that prevent it from being accepted by the masses. And so it's not because it's not popular that I love it: it's because I can love it that it's not popular.
Have you ever noticed that the bands which are labeled "classics" are those which most people have never heard of, or that weren't especially popular in their own time? I always find it remarkable that so many cutting-edge musicians in every genre tend to pay tribute to the same kinds of musicians: it was instructive to me to realise that pioneers of electronica, never my favourite area of music, cited as influences such luminaries as Joy Division or Can or Motorhead. Indeed, It's fascinating to see how interconnected all areas of music are: when ex-Faith No More frontman Mike Patton strays into the Avant Garde, or when Lambchop express their love of the Sisters, or when Kid 606 mixes classic 80s tunes into his hard breaks, or when Plaid work with Bjork. It's in the spaces between the hard-and-fast genres that incredible new things are born. And so it's within those genres that things become stagnant; it's in what's expected, in what will make the charts, in what will be safe.
I buy a fair bit of music; more than I can afford, but I couldn't afford not to do it. I'm always desparate to find the next thing that will blow me away, that will change my life and my outlook on things. That's only happened a few times in the past: my discovery of The Sisters of Mercy and their intelligent, passionate rock and roll (forget the goth tag) in my teenage years; my long love affair with Current 93 and all their odd, frightening, humourous, humanistic and deeply moving albums; my more recent flirtations with so-called "post-rock" bands such as Godspeed You Black Emperor, Arab Strap and Tindersticks.. all of these were mindset-changing, idea-changing, life-changing discoveries that served as testament to the power and importance of music. And you'd have me give it up for what's popular, what's accepted?
Of course, though, music is an inherently subjective matter; one man's Einsturzende Neubauten is another man's noisy crap. And I've absolutely nothing against different people holding different views as to what constitutes good music. In fact: I don't think I've ever met anyone who was truly "indier than thou", or a "music nazi". It's an accusation that's often leveled against those who listen to more "different" music, to those whose tastes are more eclectic, since of course anyone who doesn't share your own tastes is doubtless just trying to be cool and different. But when you actually take the time to talk to people, it tends to turn out that they've some fairly conventional music lurking in their music collections; that they too went through a period of listening to Bon Jovi; that they're not all that elitist after all. Here's my true confession as a music nazi: I've a whole load of more mainstream music that I love dearly, from Guns n Roses to Madonna. So, why do I refer to myself as a music nazi, as "Indier Than Thou"? I think it springs from a reaction of those people who have always told me that my music was weird, or crap, or that I was an idiot for listening to it. I get quite annoyed when I have friends with more mainstream tastes collectively laughing at the music that I listen to, and so I have the desire to reply that much that they like is comparatively bland, non-envelope-pushing stuff that's doing nothing new. It's not so much because I've anything against the music, but rather that I'm forced to defend my own tastes and the most obvious way of doing that is by comparison with theirs.
It's fine to say "good music is in the ear of the listener", but it's rather akin to saying, for example, "good literature is in the eyes of the beholder". While you're welcome to listen to manufactured pop and to read pulp fiction, and while it's great if it does it for you, I would nonetheless argue that there's a greater level of depth, and more reward to be found, in music and literature that makes more demands upon its listener. Of course, most people don't want to have demands made of them; they'd rather just listen to music that "sounds nice" and to read books that wash over them. And there are doubtless times when we would all rather read comic books and listen to cheesy 80s tunes; but I don't think there's anything wrong with the desire to also go for something that makes us think a little more, or to listen to music in different ways. While I agree that we should try not to be snobbish, I deplore the anti-intellectualism that prevails in both music and literature.
So, if you too are considered a music snob, then be proud of what you are and of the music that you listen to. Don't mock others for having their own tastes, or deride someone for not knowing a band that you consider a "must-listen", but rather seek to understand the relative merits of different kinds of music: remember, it's in those cracks between the genres that magic happens, and by dialogue and understanding of why each of us gets into our own music tastes we can make those cracks larger, and make the magic grow.