Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Whence Thou Art a Snob

Anybody who knows me will say, “That Bookfraud despises pretentious people, writing, and art. That’s probably why he can’t sit through a ballet, video installations, and ‘Jackass 2.’”

Those people would be right. I hate pretense, for the simple reason that most of the time, I don’t get what the bugger is trying to say, making me look stupid. I’d rather be hit with a sharply hit line drive in the face than look stupid. So I’ll just ignore the whole thing altogether.

Hand-in-hand with pretense goes snobbery. If you don’t understand a work of art, thinks the snob, you must be uncivilized or just plain dumb.

I’ve been cogitating on this ever since I started seeing raves for Joanna Newsom’s “Ys,” a 2006 CD full of long, digressive tracks filled with heavy orchestration, harps and oblique but poetic verse.

Wondering what the fuss was about — “Ys” seemed to be on every “Best of 2006” list out there — I downloaded a couple of tracks.

To say this was difficult to listen to is like saying it’s hard to listen to the screams in a psych ward. Newsom is undeniably talented with the harp, but her compositions head towards atonal, her lyrics are digressive, and she has a voice that sounds as if it was born from the unholy union of Kate Bush and a hillbilly. It’s like listening to Schoenberg while a train screeches to a stop.

It’s pretense personified. Only snobs (i.e. critics) could get into this crap.

Ah, but you've probably spotted my hypocrisy. Only someone who is a snob would even mention Schoenberg (see extremely constipated-looking man, below), and only a person with amazing pretense would even compare Newsom to a classically trained composer. That’s my weakness. When it comes to music, I’m a snob. And I hate myself for it.

Twelve tones and 1,000 broken eardrums

I was one of those insufferable teenage boys who defined his friends by what graced their turntables. If you hated The Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, or the Clash, I probably would not have been your friend. You just didn’t have taste.

This snobbery got worse through college, as I learned more about music, proving that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I went so far as to write embarrassing letters to friends why they had to listen to the DKs and surrounding oneself with bad music was a living death.

As I expanded my horizons, my sense of superiority grew with it. You don’t like Coltrane? You don’t even own any Coltrane? Or even any Charlie Parker, Lionel Hampton, or Dizzy Gillespie? You troglodyte!

But it wasn’t until started going to the symphony in my mid-20s that my snootiness grew completely out of control. I signed up for a concert subscription, bought CD after CD, and really listened to them.

Today, classical music is the only kind I ever attend in concert — about five to ten times a year, on average. I’ve probably been to the symphony or recitals about 50 or 60 times.

Of course, I would never mention such a number gratuitously in order to show how cultured and intellectually superior I am over knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who wouldn’t know a concerto from a symphony from a Paris Hilton album.

This is pretty strong stuff from a fellow who can't play an instrument or read music.

I’ve talked about my hatred of pretentious or humorless fiction. And I know I’ve blogged about music ad nauseum, to the point that if you read between the lines, you can clearly see a nose pointed skyward. But the more I consider my youth — an exercise that I do frequently as the brat approaches birth — I realize that much of my worldview is shaped, for better or worse, by music.

Rock concerts and LPs sustained me through my sexless teenage years; a piano concerto played a role in my courting of Wife.

But what really strikes me is how much music plays a huge role in my writing. My novel is, essentially, about music and youth. The protagonist plays in a rock band, hangs out at blues clubs, and finds that is life is defined by a certain swivel-hipped fellow from Tupelo, Miss.

There’s more and more of this crap. Several short stories feature song lyrics (invented or existing) or entire scenes are set up with notes in the background. One story was predicated on the protagonist hearing “Also Sprach Zarathrusta” while he’s on hold. Another was titled “Sinatra Saves Stephen.”

So I come full circle here. Perhaps I judge Ms. Newsom too harshly; after all, many of her fans admit that her singing takes a bit of getting used to. It can’t be that all those critics who put “Ys” on their “Top 10 of 2006” are all wrong.

What the hell

I’ll probably give it another chance, otherwise, I risk being a reverse snob, fearing that what I cannot understand is inferior.

Or I can just blast “It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock and Roll)” at 11, and to say, to hell with Joanna Newsom.

Excellent choice, Bookfraud.