Refuting Accusations of Elitism

April 29th, 2008 · 6 Comments · By

OR, why arguments about the quality of music which are based on popularity and commercial success are silly and disingenuous

I’d just like to take a minute to refute some of the claims made by a particular Letter to the Editor in this week’s C-Ville Weekly (scroll down to “Rag-time” by John Dove), which was written in response to Brendan and John’s article on local music in last week’s issue.

Regardless of one’s view of the specific artists discussed, I wanted to refute some of the claims and accusations that Mr. Dove makes, regarding the value of popularity in music. His claims are old, tired ones, but I still keep hearing them over and over again: namely, that people who like independent or underground music are “elitist,” and that people who like commercially successful classic rock and popular music are somehow more authentic or better.

Firstly, the claim that a musician’s commercial success is a direct correlation to the quality of their act only makes sense if you entirely ignore the existence of the music industry. Popular music is a multi-billion-dollar industry run exclusively by people whose job is to maximize profit, regardless of (and often at the expense of) artistic integrity or credibility. There’s a large degree of luck and guesswork involved, given the actual talents of any given artist and the fickle tastes of the music-buying public, but for the most part the artists who are the most well-known and the most commercially successful are the ones who have been hyped and promoted the most by the CEO’s and A&R’s who dictate the narrow range of tastes in mass culture. One of their major strategies is to concentrate all their resources behind a small group of artists who have proven themselves commercially viable, treating all other artists as expendable. Which means that for every Bruce Springsteen or Madonna, there are a few of their contemporaries and a dozen artists since who are just as good or better, but who have never achieved their level of fame because of purely commercial concerns.

Secondly, the idea that people who support or make independent or underground music are motivated by snobbery is laughable. If you’ve ever attended a small concert or spent any time at all talking with any of the dedicated hardworking musicians who live here or who come through town on tour, then surely you have some idea of how much work and how little money goes into being an independent musician. Most of these people have day jobs are just trying to make enough gas money to get to the next show; they work hard at making music because they love it and care about it, not because they think it earns them “cool points” in some sort of contest that exists only in the imaginations of their detractors.

Furthermore, Mr. Dove’s presumption that these artists might aspire to Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame induction is hilarious, and his criticism over their lack of “units sold” is revealing. Clearly, by his reckoning, the quality of music is proven by two factors: a certificate of acceptance from an established institution, and the ability to make millions of dollars.

BUT in his view, the folks who are open-minded enough explore and support independant and underground music are the ones who are “elitists,” whereas the people who have an entire multibillion-dollar industry catering specifically to their narrow and unchanging tastes are somehow the legitimate, salt-of-the-earth types. Up is down, black is white.

This is especially ridiculous considering the current state of music venues in Charlottesville, where small and medium-sized venues are constantly endangered by everything from noise ordinances to ambitious landlords, while places like the Charlottesville Pavilion, the John Paul Jones Arena, and the Paramount continue to thrive because there’s an actual economic elite who think that these venues represent the ultimate form of music appreciation.

Thirdly, Brendan Fitzgerald and John Ruscher are, without exaggeration, two of the least pretentious and most sincere people that I know in the Charlottesville music community (and I’m not just saying that because Brendan is my editor and I write for John’s blog). If you’re going to throw around charges of insolence and snobbery, calling out these guys will only make you look foolish. Neither one of them has an elitist bone in their bodies; their columns may include some snarky comments here and there, but I see that largely as a symptom of the forum in which they’re writing. Frankly, I was surprised that their jabs in the “Washed Up” sub-article were so tame; it would take two guys as nice as Brendan and John to have difficulty finding more musicians that they want to make fun of. At the very least, I expected some dinosaur-related jokes at the expense of Dylan or the Stones.

Anyhow, back to the issue at hand; Mr. Dove may think it’s quite beneath his dignity to attend a 30-person warehouse show, but those of us who actually bother to venture outside of the narrow range of choices offered to us by mass culture and to get involved in the music community will have opportunity to be directly enriched by a shared artistic and social experience, while Mr. Dove and his ilk are paying hundreds of dollars to sit in the back of a stadium, hundreds of feet away from a tiny speck representing an artist whose creative peak happened several decades ago.

Lastly, I’d like to point out that quoting song lyrics always makes you sound like a dweeb. Especially if you’re quoting the guy from The Eagles, who weren’t even all that great back in the 70’s.

Tags: feature

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 baconfat // Apr 29, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    wow that guy sucks almost as bad as the eagles do. he has a blog; it’s awful.

  • 2 James // Apr 29, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    Actually, I take the whole thing back. DJ Baconfat is a magnificent snob, motivated almost entirely by elitism. He’s really good at it though, so it kind of works.

  • 3 John // Apr 30, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Nice post, James. Scott Weaver, who was actually the one who penned the paragraph that so enraged Mr. Dove, just put up a post about it on The Spiral, his brand new C-VILLE blog.

  • 4 HORSEFANG // Apr 30, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    Whoa whoa whoa!!! Whats wrong with the Eagles?? Ten bucks says Mr. Dove will be the night manager at Cville’s newest CVS!! Any takers?

  • 5 James // May 3, 2008 at 2:16 am

    Durrr, egg on my face. John and Brendan didn’t write that article. Anyway, they’re still not snobs.

    As for The Eagles: to their credit, they did write “Depserado.” Unfortunately, they also PERFORMED “Desperado.” Their version is interminably terrible, but all covers of that song somehow come out great (Langley Schools Music Project, anyone?)

  • 6 davis // May 8, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    In fact, James, that singularly amazing cover of “Desperado” may single-handedly have saved Don Henley’s soul. Also, Joe Walsh was in the Eagles. He is pretty fucking great, so that helps the cause a little. As someone who has been called a leader of the Charlottesville pretension scene I feel obligated to weigh in here: people actually make money playing music? Fuck, who knew.