Friday, July 29, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 117 - Queen, and the Conclusion

Chris has been trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he would write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

The final installment requires a bit of reflection. I'll try not to be too self-indulgent, but I am listening to Queen this week, so that might be difficult. 

It is with sadness and a tad bit of relief that I'm ending this written feature after nearly two years' worth of writing about new music (well, new to me, anyway). But it's also with not a small amount of pride; I've managed to go above and beyond the original point of this project, which was to teach myself a little bit about popular music. This is not to say that I'm a music snob yet, but I'm ready to advance to the next level. An "intermediate music snob" perhaps. 

When I started this project, it was to acquaint me with some of the bigger names in popular music and start to piece together its history. After 117 weeks and some change, the project has evolved to the point where I'm able to look into more niche genres and lesser-known acts, and start to connect the dots myself. I'd still hesitate to even begin to call myself an expert, but I realized when I could easily place Faust within the context of post-war German avant-garde music, or the Pretenders within the context of the post-punk era that gave way to 80s "alternative" rock, I was not really a neophyte any longer. 

I don't know if I'll ever be a full-fledged music snob. For one thing, I don't think my tastes are discriminating enough. This project has taught me that I like all sorts of music, and there's very little that I find offensive enough to avoid entirely. If I'm going to be a music snob, I can't be the type who turns up one's nose at entire bands or genres. Maybe because a lot of this was new to me, I found myself liking a lot more than I disliked (as any given post will probably attest). I'm not sure why this is - I still am pretty tough on books I read and movies I watch, and I can approach those with a much more critical eye. But even the worst weeks of this project found me admitting that the Act of the Week could be all right. I don't have it in me to loathe music. I'm glad that that I can still find most music new and exciting.

Music fandom is also a rabbit hole that goes deeper and deeper the further you explore. Even after two years of frantically burning through entire discographies in a week, I still feel like I know very little. Venture anywhere on the Internet, and you'll find someone who knows more than I do and is willing to debate the merits of, say, rare B-sides and bootlegs and out-of-print live albums. This project gave me an opportunity to take a broad look at a lot of artists, but I sacrificed the depth of really getting into a single act. I'm looking forward to being able to approach music at a slower pace, in my own time, and maybe not approach my listening so methodically. 

Doing my research every week was still a bit of an adventure, and I'm willing to admit that it might be harder to become a full-fledged snob of popular music than classical. When I was getting into classical music in late high school and early college, there was a wealth of easy ways to get information. When I decided I liked symphonies, I checked out some books on the symphony. If I liked Schubert, it was easy to find a good scholarly work on the music of Schubert. The scholarship on classical music is so good that making connections, discovering influences, understanding context, analyzing the music itself, was very easy to do. There was a lot of guidance. 

In contrast, even after nearly one hundred of these posts, I'm still at a loss when searching for good  information on a lot of popular music. There's not really an easy place to turn to, and a lot of weeks I found myself triangulating between Wikipedia, critical reviews and interviews to try and piece together a history of any given act. There are a few books on popular music, but most of them are written by journalists and rock critics and approach the subject in a more informal way (and a good deal of them are more sycophantic than scholarly). I was hoping to find some sort of Grove or Grout equivalent for popular music that could easily lay out a narrative history for beginners. 

But its not out there. Allmusic and Wikipedia are good starts, but they provide very short entries. And sites like Pitchfork already assume a base level of knowledge on the part of the reader. Looking for a primer on say, krautrock, is difficult, and objective sources are almost impossible. There's certainly a need for a good scholarly beginner's history to almost every genre in popular music, from rock to hip-hop to electronica. I feel a lot of aspiring music snobs still learn first-hand from others, trading those rare books like Krautrocksampler and old CDs and explaining the context. 

Being a music snob also means immersing oneself in the culture, something I don't have the time or money or inclination to do. After seeing both the National and Sufjan Stevens in concert last fall, I do want to make a concerted effort to get to more live shows. My current locale isn't conducive for that (even those two concerts required driving through multiple states to get to), but it's a facet of popular music I haven't explored very much. 

At the end of the day, though, I'm starting to feel comfortable with my own opinion on music. In the beginning, I was suspicious of my own tastes, and worried that I would commit some awful faux pas by liking the wrong band and therefore ruining my chances at snobdom forever. Two and half years later, I'm over it, and more than willing to state in public that Urge Overkill is really good even if everyone forgot about them, and the Sonic Youth kind of suck, critical acclaim be damned. 

In this way, maybe Queen was a good band to listen to for this final week of the project. I had selected it not knowing in advance this would be the last week, but it fits all the same. Queen seems to be anathema to a lot of rock critics (Rolling Stone called them "fascists" back in the 70s, but they also labeled Devo and Kraftwerk this way, so maybe it was just a moniker Dave Marsh rolled out when he didn't like something). They're loud, silly, childish, ludicrously over-the-top, and they don't even really take themselves all that seriously. I suppose all that stadium-anthem posturing and those soaring melodramatic opera-influenced ballads are pretty ridiculous. If this were the early days of the Project, I might be careful as to how much I admitted liking them. 

But you know what? Queen rocks. Their bombastic operatic pretensions are palatable because the band is very clearly playing it up as a joke. This is a breath of fresh air compared to, say, punk rock in the 70s, whose music pretended to be Hip and Uncaring and Iconoclastic but really took itself very seriously. And it's wonderful that Queen became such a huge sensation when their music was so fucking weird. 

Yeah, "Bohemian Rhapsody" is overplayed, but who'd of ever thought that a song like this would reach the level where it could suffer from overexposure? Somehow Queen managed to combine the progressive and the avant-garde with populism and mass appeal, and they got away with it, multiple times with multiple singles. Even the detractors have to give them credit; Queen might be silly and sophomoric and have no lyrical depth, but they never pandered. In its own way, "Bohemian Rhapsody" (and the entirety of A Night at the Opera, my central album for the week) is an incredibly risky work, especially with how much money went into it. What should of been a cult-classic somehow became one of the defining songs of rock and roll. 

But to end this project, I'll leave you not with "Bohemian Rhapsody," but with another strange success story, a Broadway-style anthem sung by a gay man that's become a symbol of macho sports victories. It's another song that's silly but you can't help but enjoying yourself. And it seems a suitable song to go out on. 

A thank you goes to the editors for giving me my little corner of the Internet to explore this. And thanks for reading, and thanks especially for all those who made recommendations for me or pointed me in certain directions. There's a lot of acts I never got around to, but while my writing may be done, the listening has only just begun.