Power to 'The People': Cultivating Taste in a Pitchfork Age
  • MONDAY, AUGUST 13, 2012

  • Posted by: Amanda Scherker

They say that in our time, what you like is more important than what you're like. Anybody who has ever been to the hip hinterlands of Williamsburg can tell you that; anybody who hasn't has surely experienced at least one moment in a bar of "Oh, no shit, the Clash was my favorite band in middle school, too!" In the new millennium, it seems, we're often judged less by content of our character than the contents of our iPod.

Yes, "cultural consumption" has become an art in and of itself, of constantly staying abreast of the latest sea-punk craze or having the "right" favorite Beatles album and knowing who "is the new Lykke Li." And whether you're the Leonardo Da Vinci of cultural capital, a humble Etsy craftsman, or just an innocent dude turning on the radio, it's an art in which you participate. And there is perhaps no more fervent artisan of taste than the music blogger.

If the music blog in question is Pitchfork, your livelihood rests on your ability to cultivate a very specific musical palette, an acoustic diet of escargot and Creme brulee. With that swagger comes the apparent ability to rank, in order, the Best Albums of the 80s, the Best Singles of 1996, the Best Songs of the 1977 Holiday Season. And if you can convince people that your list is the musical equivalent of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, congrats baby, you've got yourself a blog. Your readers, in turn, have got themselves an A+ in music history.

And now Pitchfork is bringing its incessant list making to the common folk, in "The People's List," which asks readers to list their most-loved albums since 1996, when Pitchfork first began dispensing wisdom. This could be the chance to something super radical. Maybe Radiohead will finally get their dues. Or that grunge rock group with the naked swimming boy on the cover? No, my prediction is that The People's List will be not so different from that of Pitchfork's grand jury. After all, the pool of "People" voting is largely comprised of the people who rely on Pitchfork to know what they should like.

As we less than anxiously await the results of this poll, we're left wondering; why the incessant listing your way to taste?

Lists make the haul up the ladder of culture as easy as kiddie-level rock climbing. You're no Andy Warhol when it comes to The Velvet Underground, but you know that liking them is the right thing to do because they soar to the top of every "best of" in the book. Lists ascribe a science to taste, an "Idiot's Guide to Not Embarrassing Yourself at Parties." So, obviously, it's simplistic, reductive, and gratuitously subjective.

Being a "taste maker" comes with a lot of assumptions and entitlement. Now, hell, I plead guilty to third-degree taste snobbery. I felt way too pleased with myself when high-school me snubbed radio toppers for my Dad's Simon and Garfunkel collection or when I inexplicably and hilariously spent the entire year of 2005 listening to only Bob Marley. Eschewing the horrors of the mainstream is the bread and butter of today's music fan.

And I've taken that cultural studies class where the snobbery of the intelligentsia is pitted against the more democratic, lackadaisical "everybody's taste is valid" argument. I don't feel comfortable with either claim, really. Sometimes "the mainstream" is wrong. Need we beat the dead Nickelback horse? And sometimes, the culturally selective folks are jerks. Neither the most played songs of 2012 nor Pitchfork's guide to cool gives us the full story.

Still, you can't spend most of you day listening to music without feeling like some of it is really important, and like some of it is bad for humanity. I can't tell you the Best 30 Albums of the 1990s. But I can list the 10 songs that make me cry -- well probably more like five, I'm pretty stoic -- and the best songs to listen to when you're a teenager who wants to punch a pillow. Like emotions, music is subjective. Although if you don't like the Velvet Underground.... well, you're just plain wrong.

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