Confessions of a music snob

Over at Down With Snark, Michael sometimes fights snark with snark, especially when he takes on NYT music critic Jon Pareles. Oh, sorry — let’s get the full title out there: “Jon Pareles, Indie Rockist Moron of the Year.”

I like DWS in part because Michael, like Steven Johnson, is one of those guys I can read even when I disagree with him. In this case, I’m still deciding whether I agree with him. In fact, Michael has forced me to confront my own inner musical snob. More on that in a minute.

Pareles deserves the takedown, no doubt about it. He writes the typical “woe is me, I’m too intelligent for this year’s music” piece that makes a good-hearted reader hate him even when he has a point. It’s all too easy to picture him in some coffeehouse listening to some fourth-rate Paul Westerberg thrash through some boring set.

In fact, let’s stick with Westerberg for a second, since rock critics of a certain age fawn over him like Academy Award winners fawning over their agents and lawyers. He and the Replacements were OK, nothing … nothing … more. Dyslexic Heart is fine and peppy in the context of the excellent film Singles, but “my heart could use some glasses” isn’t much of a line if you don’t happen to be staring at Bridget Fonda. In fact, glasses can’t actually cure dyslexia, so what’s the point? Nothing, but it didn’t stop the critics.

So when Pareles extols the virtue of Kanye West and calls us all idiots for listening to Coldplay,
it’s easy to drift off. We all know these people. They’re the ones who tell us Saturday Night Live hasn’t been good since Belushi left, etc. etc. He’s me in high school, insisting that Rush or any other band full of virtuosos was necessarily superior to all other musicians. (Later, I discovered that writing a good pop hook is actually tougher than the bass solo from YYZ.)

Yet Pareles does have a bit of a point. We’re in the biggest period of social upheaval since the late ’60s, and though there was more pop fluff in that period than the rock historians care to admit, we had plenty of groundbreaking music. Creedence Clearwater Revival was a mainstream rock band, but Who’ll Stop the Rain is one of the greatest understated protest songs ever. We don’t have that today.

And while it’s a bit unfair to compare Fallout Boy to Green Day, for reasons Michael spells out very well, it’s valid for Pareles to ask if anyone did anything comparable to American Idiot or the recent U2 catalog. My favorites at the moment are Stereophonics and Carbon Leaf, both great and unique in their own way but not new entries into the rock canon.

(Music doesn’t have to have a message to be groundbreaking. I’d quibble with Michael over Madonna — you don’t hear much dance music with the melodic twists of Ray of Light, and you have to respect the way she re-invents herself every couple of years.)

Deep down, we’re all music snobs. I’m broadened my tastes since high school, though I still like Rush. But perhaps there’s nothing wrong with demanding more out of our musicians. Pareles, at this point in his career, is simply the wrong messenger.

One thought on “Confessions of a music snob

  1. Everything you wrote is 100% correct, most importantly that we are all snobbish to some degree. The subjectivity of music demands a bit of snobbishness. I just get riled when it runs amok a la Pareles, who treats pop music like its religion.

    There were passages of what I wrote that were hard for me to reconcile, largely because:

    1. I am not a fan of Mariah and like Alicia Keys quite a bit.

    2. Despite the general tone of the article, I don’t hate Gibbard/Death Cab/Postal Service. I haven’t given Sufjan a really thorough listen, but I like what I have heard thus far. I like Jenny Lewis and Rilo Kiley. Some indie rock is great. Other indie rock is so very awful (the Firey Furnances, just about every Modest Mouse song I’ve ever heard) that whenever I hear anyone praise it I just instantly disregard everything else they have to say.

    3. Fair point about the lack of good protest pop. I think there are social forces at issue. Kids are more generally complacent than they were back then. Better general quality of life, more entertainment choices, more sugar in their food. Who knows?

    Anyway thanks for the careful read. I’ll link to this if you don’t mind.

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