Sometimes if I so much as connect Spotify or some other music service to Twitter and a follower sees that I am listening to a piece of classical music, they will tweet something charming like “posh twat”, “Why do you listen to that boring rubbish?” or “who are you trying to impress?” I’m beyond being bothered by such tragically irremediable rudeness and intolerance, but I do hope sane, open people will give themselves time to listen to music. Classical music isn’t to be danced to, it doesn’t necessarily remind you of your first snog or your first bust up – those inestimable, moving and essential services are certainly part of popular music’s draw and connective power. Classical music, since that is what we must call it, is something else. It must be payed attention to. It is not wallpaper or “the soundtrack to one’s life” as much other music in my life (happily) is. It is Art. There, I said it and I can’t and won’t apologise for making that distinction. I’d go the gallows for it. And while you may think me an elitist, I have never in my 40 years of engaging with such music encountered the snobbery that is routine amongst listeners to popular sounds, who tell you with absolute cutting certainty that this artist is “crap” and this one is “god”. I can remember the embarrassed parties at which older teenagers would muscle up to my hopeful record deck and sneer “Haven’t you got any decent music?” Some people in the classical sphere will always prefer Couperin to Alkan or Debussy to Rossini, naturally, but it’s very very rare to find the equivalent curled lip condescension as one’s music collection or playlists are “inspected” by some self-appointed schoolboy DJ. I suppose “highlights” and endless versions of Pachabel’s Canon and The Lark Ascending might cause the odd eyebrow to raise, but not from me or anyone I’d give houseroom to. Let people love One Direction and let them love Laurie Anderson, or Mahler, Reich, Kate Rusby or Alfie Boe, but don’t they DARE make anyone feel small for their loves.
In a boiled-down, nitty-gritty gist of a nutshell, Nietzsche famously argued that resentment was the key difference between what he called aristocratic and slave morality. Aristocratic people treated those they considered their lessers with disregard, as befitting barbarians (the Greek word barbarophonos signifying both the gibberish sounds of foreign languages, as well as the sound of foreigners speaking Greek improperly). They didn’t really hate outsiders, so to speak, as hatred would require an investment of emotion all out of proportion to the seriousness they were taken with.
When internalized, though, that disregard from others curdles into resentment, leading one to seek revenge and vindication. To repurpose the concept here, a classical music aficionado enjoys the serene self-assurance that comes with a familiarity with high culture and its aristocratic history. Insecure pop fans can’t suffer the presence of such a person without feeling implicitly judged, pitied, or condescended to, and so, like all people with chips on their shoulders, they’re quick to pick a fight for the sake of pride. Stephen Fry is too busy enjoying the straightforward pleasure of music he loves to aggressively lord it over anyone, but people who feel ashamed of their different preferences or their cowardice over expressing them will unfortunately try to level him with shame as well.
Even among different facets of pop culture itself, though, the narcissism of small differences produces countless examples of people using taste as a cudgel. To borrow a recurrent theme of Freddie deBoer, most people, if they were honest, would admit that they don’t really have deeply rooted, intense feelings about Nickelback, Comic Sans font, coffee brands, Uggs, Crocs, socks with sandals, or whether they are iPhone or Android types. But they care very much about being recognized as the type of people who have strong, informed and correct opinions on these things, and about being accepted and praised by others like them. Lacking confidence in their ability to blaze their own path, they look to situate themselves as moral, intelligent, worthy people in relation to constellational patterns of taste as randomly drawn by those confident enough to do so. It’s a shrill, desperate apophenia imposed upon the sound and fury of insignificance.