I’ve done it before, you’ve done it before, and you’ve probably seen your friends do it before, too. The situation looks something like this: you’re talking to someone new, or someone who you know as an acquaintance, and the topic turns to music. Now, there is an internal alarm that goes off, because you know that what band you mention listening to is going to define the rest of the conversation; one of you will claim musical superiority, the question is, who? The defining game is a musical elitist favorite: the one-up. You have a few options in band selection: 1.) Be honest about what music you like, 2.) Keep quiet about your taste until you find out what they like and then choose a band from that genre, or 3.) Talk about a band that they have probably never heard of. Now, you may really enjoy that new Taylor Swift album, or Nickelback, or something either deemed socially “lame” or only acceptable as an ironic fixation, but you want to impress, so you go with option two or three. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, we’ve all done it before!
This cultural phenomenon seems to be universal for all genres, from rock to hip hop to classical. Now, you may actually like lots of bands that may be obscure, and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing at all. I’ve just noticed that this structure of discussing music contains, as my Peace and Justice Studies professor would put it, a “structural violence” to its ideology. It means that music becomes a platform on which to judge people’s character, their interests, their “label”. Call me sentimental, but in my opinion that’s not what music is about. From the first drumbeat in the Stone Age, music has been used to unite, not to divide. This practice of creating a musical hierarchy is contrary to the heart of the thing.
I’m a DJ for WMFO and I was putting together my playlist for my Friday show, when I came across the new My Chemical Romance album Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys in my music library. I will state it here: I like this album. It’s energetic, it’s crazy, it’s got a great narrative to it, but most of all it’s fun. It makes me run around air guitaring and dancing and singing. But as much as I like the tracks on it, I hesitated before putting a song or two into my pool of music to make my radio playlist. Why? Because my first thought was that: “If I play that song, people would judge me.” That they would think, “Oh, she listens to My Chemical Romance. That’s so mainstream/emo/’insert judgment here’.” And I would subsequently lose whatever “cred” I may have. It may sound like I’m just being self-conscious and superficial, and maybe even paranoid about people’s opinions, but think back to the times you’ve talked to people about music. What did you omit? What did you say? Why did you do that? Wasn’t there some instinctual decision about what would influence people’s opinions about you?
Look, in an ideal world, anyone could admit they listen to Justin Bieber and people wouldn’t judge. I know that’s not very realistic, and I know that I’ll end up going through this practice even after writing this article, but also now I’m aware of what I’m doing, and aware of the musical morals it implies. And hopefully, next time I find myself staring down the option to enter a one-up contest of musical elitist proportions, I’ll be able to say with a big smile: “I listen to My Chemical Romance and Frightened Rabbit and Taylor Swift and Arcade Fire, and the Velvet Underground and the Beatles. And if you don’t like that, I don’t care!”
That, my lovely friends and readers, is part of the gospel of Rock and Roll.