mama, don’t let your baby grow up to be a winner

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You may remember that a couple years ago, a couple of young black metalheads from New York City got some deserved positive press for their band Unlocking the Truth. What’s less well remembered is that there was a backlash against them, on comments and Twitter, because one of them said in an interview “hip hop is whack.” The reaction against that sentiment was utterly fierce and utterly bizarre. People absolutely lost their minds that these kids didn’t like the culturally-proscribedprescribed music form. This mirrored the in-school bullying that is a fact of life for teenage metal fans everywhere. There was this really ugly undercurrent like they were race traitors or something. But of course they don’t like hip hop! They’re metalheads! Metalheads don’t like hip hop! And of course there’s no similar pressure the other way. Hip hop fans aren’t expected to genuflect before metal the way we’re all expected to treat hip hop as the one true art form these days.

I love them, and unlike the large majority of the click farmers who briefly told their story, I listen to the kind of music they make, and I like it. And I love it that they said that they think hip hop is whack. Not because I agree — I don’t — but because it was that rarest of statements, an honest expression of musical taste that doesn’t treat going against the grain of popular sentiment like a violation of the Nuremberg code. I love that they are young enough and honest enough to not run all of their aesthetic preferences through the filter of “will Twitter like this.”  I am so hungry for opinions on media and art that aren’t expressed to satisfy some bullying social expectation.

I thought of them last night as I got into one of those peculiar Twitter fights where a small army of aggrieved people descends to defend something that is in no need of defending. On a podcast for Grantland, the cool dad of #CONTENT websites, Alex Pappademas and Wesley Morris flogged one of those rare pieces that dares to ask whether, maybe, musical acts that rack up five-star reviews by the dozen and are inescapable online and play for the Super Bowl and are in every sense culturally and commercially dominant aren’t actually oppressed. It’s an important topic and both are capable of being really insightful; unfortunately, the conversation was facile and reductive, because Pappademas got defensive. It’s a shame.

He immediately grabbed the biggest cudgel there is in the current bourgie fauxhemian arsenal, which is the “white people like the things I don’t like.” Personally, I find the comfort that white dudes feel in using “white dude” as a pejorative self-defeating; the fact that they feel that comfort demonstrates that the attack is toothless. But for an aging music critic, it’s precisely the kind of rhetorical trump card that gets likes and RTs. And once Pappademas threw it out there, there was no saving the conversation.

A big part of why these issues always drive people insane is because, for a lot of people, liking art produced by black artists has become a surrogate for all of their racial politics. That’s not to suggest that they don’t really like those artists; they certainly do. Pop partisans are nothing if not sincere about their aesthetic preferences. It’s just to say that they enforce a particular narrow vision of pop culture politics because they think embracing that vision means that they are excused from being interrogated in racial discourse. “I love hip hop” is the new “some of my best friends are black” Unfortunately, owning an Outkast record does not make you not racist, and the rabid embrace of cultural politics over politics politics has been a disaster for actual left-wing organizing.

All of this depends on several lies about the actual demographics of pop music. For one thing, the hoary old stereotype of the indy dude who only listens to the Shins and other sensitive guitar bands is at least a decade out of date. The indie tryhard types who are typically referred to as “hipsters” are immensely sensitive to that stereotype and do everything they can to avoid it. They mostly will tell you they love Kendrick Lamar and Run the Jewels now. (And I get it!) They’re not insincere in that admiration, again, it’s just that fronting their love of hip hop or pop prevents them from being subject to attacks like Pappademas’s. The notion of the whiting whitey who loves white guitar music and looks down his nose at everything else is, at this point, like the professor in Marine Todd stories. It’s an invention used to contribute to the self-definition of people who organize their lives around the rejection of what they’re not. I promise: go to the hippest enclaves in Brooklyn, and people are not listening to white guys with guitars. They’re listening to Earl Sweatshirt. And that’s without even getting into who buys, and has always bought, a large majority of pop and hip hop albums. Go to a big pop or hip hop festival. Take in the audience. Seriously, do it.

Nor does the designation “white dude music” have anything whatsoever to do with the people who actually make the music that is furthest from pop. Here in America, the original anti-pop, the music that was least interested in conforming to crowd-pleasing major scales, catchy rhythms, or traditional song structure, was free jazz. The most quintessential American art form, jazz is also one of the blackest and one of the furthest possible from chart pop. In a similar vein, I’m a big fan of noise music. The people who make a majority of the most influential, most listened to (by the tiny number of people who like it) noise music are Japanese. I’m sure it would come as a great surprise to Merzbow or Melt Banana or Boris that Alex Pappademas thinks they make white people music.

Worse, even purely from the standpoint of fans, sweeping rejections of large genres of music as white dude music erases lots of individual human beings. The first person who ever turned me on to a Primus record, when I was in high school, was a women of color from the local university. So is she not real, or does she not meet the current criteria of being a black woman? It reminds me of nothing so much as when socialism or anarchism are dismissed as white dude politics. I have known hundreds of people of color and woman who are socialists and anarchists in my life. In the use of the rhetorical weapon of white dudeness, people are always erased and marginalized. It’s gross.

Finally, there is the emptiness of the progress that gets discussed. Pappademas complains that the gentle pushback against poptimism seeks to eliminate progress, that women and people of color are in a position of power at last. But this is precisely the kind of false progress that cultural politics seduces us into taking too seriously. Sure: it’s great that pop music is more diverse than it once was. Definitely. But racial inequality is worse than when I was born, and sexual inequality remains vast, and if you’re representing poptimism as some sort of political radicalism then your standards are way, way too low.

Ultimately I was in one of those absurd internet situations which resembled being surrounded by a crowd of people who keep pushing you and saying “Why are you bullying us?!?” I made some innocuous complaints to Pappademas and he immediately big timed me, pulling the kind of jokey condescension that is the default response of big time #CONTENT types. Meanwhile, my anodyne criticism of poptimism brought the acolytes out of the woodwork, popping out of every corner like the scene in Three Amigos where the whole townsfolk are dressed up identically to talk out El Guapo. You would think that the very ability of these people to immediately whip up a crowd to fav every negative comment made about me last night would clue them in to the fact that, far from being some oppressed rump, they are the dominant social and cultural force today. If there ever was a poptimism “war,” it was won in an utter rout years and years ago. One of my many critics defined poptimism as merely the belief that chart pop should be taken seriously by critics. Well then I have good news! You have already won. It has already been accomplished. Where, I’d like to know, is chart pop not taken seriously by reviewers? What sad website didn’t run a rapturous review of the latest Kendrick Lamar? Jesus, Rolling Stone can’t fall over itself fast enough to seem down with the hippity hop. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have the Beygency sketch on SNL and posture like you’re a despised victim. You can’t dictate the conversation on Twitter and then act like no one listens to you. Sorry.

Contrast that with, well, liking what I like. I’m not oppressed, I’m not silenced, I’m not marginalized. I’m fine! But consider what I have to do if I don’t want to hear the latest song of the summer. I can’t listen to the radio. I can’t go to the gym. I can’t go to the bar. I can’t go to a party. I can’t put on Pandora. I can’t walk by the frat houses all over campus. Here’s what you have to do to never hear a Sunn O))) track: literally nothing. In fact, if you want to, you have to work hard to do it. That’s fine. That’s just a facet of having my own tastes. I don’t have and have never had a problem with people saying “I don’t like what you like.” I’ve never even had a problem with “what you like is bad.” That’s what tastes are, disagreements. What I am tired of is being told “you don’t really like this; you only claim to like it to seem cool/arty/different/intellectual.” That is something else. That is something different. That is not disagreement. That’s refusing me the right to be myself. It’s particularly aggravating because I don’t think artistic consumption says much about you as a person at all.

On Twitter last night, when I brought this up, the insistence was not that these people don’t represent poptimism, but that they don’t exist. Literally: that my lived experience is not true, that it couldn’t be the case that people are so aggressive as to deny the sincerity of other people’s tastes. Like, “I never do this, so it can’t possibly happen.” Sorry, but I promise, this has happened to me, many times. It’s happened in real life and especially online. The accusation that you only like art that is conventionally considered unusual or difficult to seem cool flows like water on the internet. It happens every day. “You don’t like this, hipster, you just want to seem cool.” I know that this is crazy, you guys, but there’s this funny thing: when you treat your artistic preferences like they’re a holy crusade and anyone who disagrees with them as racist conservatives, people will get aggressive about enforcing those preferences! Who could have known! When I was younger and I would go see a band like Converge with a couple dozen other people in some Elks Club in Massachusetts, I didn’t feel cool. Promise.

The mob doesn’t bother me at all. Like I said, I’m fine. The internet don’t hurt. What interests me, once again, is why so many people who are clearly winners want to posture as losers. Pop art is commercially and critically dominant. Why do its defenders labor so hard to present themselves as victims?

When the latest Star Wars trailer dropped, I made the fatal mistake of publicly expressing inadequate enthusiasm to match the cultural moment. Christopher Hitchens once said that Christmas season is like living in a one party state, where you literally can’t get away from the holiday; it’s on the lamp posts and in the music in the elevators and on the tip of everyone’s tongue. When that trailer dropped, for a couple days, it was like that. Star Wars was unavoidable. While I’m rooting for the movies to be good, I’m also surprised that so many people have dropped their defensive skepticism about it, given that people were also amped up for the prequels. So I said that, just that. And of course I was immediately harangued by a guy I know, launching into the same tired argument that geek culture is oppressed by the terrible forces of artistic snobbery, like the world is full of tophat-wearing opera fans on every corner, sneering at the poor huddled masses of Star War fans. This despite the fact that Star Wars by itself is a multi-billion dollar industry. Despite three days of ambient cultural celebration. I’m left wondering: if he couldn’t have felt secure in his artistic preferences on that day, when would he ever feel that way? What would it take?

Ultimately, the question is one of access and power, as always. Pappademas writes for ESPN, one of the most powerful media properties in the world. He was joined in time by people who write for Fusion and Vice and others. If there are any genuine “rockist” music snobs out there anymore, they are a dying breed, grandfathered in to cultural irrelevance, or lonely voices on the margins. They are no threats. And because Twitter’s supposed openness is a lie, where people maintain the pretense of equal conversation until it becomes rhetorically useful to abandon it, Somebody-ness is everything. Dan Kois takes to The New York Times Magazine to complain about the massive social pressure we all feel to watch the films of Andrei Tarkovsky; I’m here on WordPress. That’s the reality of who dictates the conversation and who doesn’t.

If you’re lucky enough to be Somebody, you can use that station to argue for making things more different or for making things more the same. It’s on you. In rare occasions, that might mean defending pop against a snob. But please: let’s get real. You aren’t encountering a ton of people on your Slack feed talking about how Bob Dylan is the only real musician. Most of the pressure today is to love pop, loudly, enthusiastically, and aggressively. That’s reality. As for me, well, horns up. Life’s more fun when there are more opinions instead of less. And even if you don’t want to participate that, don’t be like the Star Wars guy. It makes winning a kind of losing, and it’s good for nobody.

Update: Steve Hyden, also of Grantland: “an album that the majority of pop fans will have no interest in hearing (in part because it’s been rigged to turn those people off) can never be meaningful.”

That, friends, is cultural hegemony. That’s the person telling me what to like and not like that so many people say doesn’t exist. That’s the person saying “you will share my tastes or you have no tastes at all.”

Update II: Hyden writes in to note that my gloss on his sentence is reductive and unfair, given that it’s taken from its specific context. I think he’s right. I retract the update!