Obscurity Sucks

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There is no conversation about music that is less interesting than one party talking about a band/album/song/genre that the other has never heard of or heard. Obscurity is a necessary evil when dealing with music, particularly for those constantly seeking a new aural thrill. But taking pride in obscurity is one of the lowest forms of music appreciation, second only to disliking an artist based solely on popularity.

I teach guitar lessons as a day job -- or, more accurately, late afternoon/early evening job. I am frequently put into situations where somebody who comes from a completely different place in life (such as "loves Avenged Sevenfold" or "grew up on AC/DC" or "is eight years old") asks me what music I listen to. I rarely answer this with complete honesty, and I usually fall back on an answer representative of something larger -- Radiohead, The Beatles, jazz.

I respond that way because I hate the way a one-sided music conversation feels. I become anxious when a discussion or small-talk devolves into "have you heard (insert band here)?" That game was a blast when I was younger, but hoarding music becomes less fun with each passing year.

The overarching issue is the difference between our public human interactions and our private explorations. I find that I listen to music much differently when I am alone, and this affects what I actually listen to when I am with another person. Whenever I put on a song that I privately enjoy for somebody else, I become nervous. It is an intimate experience, revealing something personal about myself. Maybe this is why I have such a hard time relating to the bragging mentality of so many obscurity fetishists; it comes off like divulging unsolicited information about his sexual conquests.

Also, the immature quest to find music that nobody else has heard closes off the potential for common ground with another person when discussing music. I find it much more satisfying to talk to somebody I have never met before about Kanye West than to tell them they should listen to (insert band here).

But when an interaction about something obscure can be deep and thoughtful between two people, it is strangely powerful. A friend who I rarely see casually recommended a Fela Kuti record to me a few months ago, and I loved it. I was inspired to recommend to him a Brazilian artist I had been listening to for weeks, but hadn't mentioned the name to a soul. I remember waiting to hear back from him as though I was anticipating a response to a "do you like me? check yes or no" note. He emailed me to say he likes it, and even though we haven't talked much since, I feel inexplicably closer to him.

My dislike of obscure music conversation might seem hypocritical. After all, I write about music for the RFT and, therefore, am in the business of recommending artists to others. But we have a system worked out here - we being everybody who participates in music dialogue via online or print publications, not we the Riverfront Times and the greater Village Voice Media conglomerate. The information is optional, and readership is consensual.

Furthermore, if the subject of a piece in the RFT happens to be unpopular, part of the motivation is to remedy that injustice, to suggest what is worth checking out so the reader/listener is fulfilled and the artist is rewarded for their good deeds. The standard profile of the pretentious music fan involves a selfish desire for the artist to not succeed - not wanting to "share" the music with others, not wanting to pay extra money if the artist begins playing larger venues, et cetera.

Obscurity is not poverty; it is not something we can campaign or work to eliminate. But it is something we can destigmatize with tasteful conversation and a selfless attitude.

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5 comments
Reader
Reader

@DrewMossman

No, the point of the article -- to stop "...taking pride in obscurity..." (direct quote from the first paragraph) -- is exactly what I responded to. I maintain that no one actually does this.

DrewMossman
DrewMossman

Reader seems to have missed the point. "Have you heard (insert name here)" can be satisfying, depending on the context. When I told someone I liked Talking Heads, the (insert name here) conversation lead me to Fela Kuti, Parliament, and other works by Eno. 

Reader
Reader

Who are these people that only like a band or artist because they're obscure? This article addresses a "problem" that feels completely bogus, and I believe the writer is doing some major-league projecting based in his insecurity. I call bullshit. 

 

I like a pretty huge range of music, and my only criteria are if it sounds good and I can feel like I'm relating to what I hear in some way. Some of what ends up sounding good might include obscure bands, but that's never, ever been a reason alone to like a particular band or artist. Likewise, nearly every one of my friends are musicians / music lovers and in the decades of great conversations we've shared about the music we're all into, not once has obscurity factored into the appreciation. Maybe the people you're talking to just suck.

 

And then there's this old canard:

"The standard profile of the pretentious music fan involves a selfish desire for the artist to not succeed..."

Pure bullshit. I know a whole lot of music lovers of all types and cannot think of a single one of them who has ever endorsed this idea. Literally none of it rings true. Many of these people are in bands, and achieving success as they define it -- organizing a good tour, releasing albums, progressing creatively, etc. -- is never seen as some barrier to "cool." Of course we all want each other to succeed.

 

Well, unless... you're talking about an artist conducting herself in a way that may limit what others perceive as success -- say, not working with a Clear Channel venue for political or ethical reasons, thus missing out on a show, and having one less bite of that "success" as defined by someone else. In that case, fuck 'em -- the artist only has to answer to herself.

 

Anyway, this whole series reeks of the perspective to be found in someone not actually involved in a musical community on a regular basis; someone who thinks of artists as clothes to try on and see how others react to it. Writing about music certainly doesn't mean you're steeped in it.

Court
Court like.author.displayName 1 Like

For me, the apathy toward music obscurity was directly proportional with becoming more comfortable with myself. I used to gravitate toward more obscure music because it drew me closer to a certain subset of friends and strangers with whom I did (wanted) to identify. Now older, I know more with whom and what I identify and more open to those I don't. Now I'm just glad music is out there to make people less lonely.

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