Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Do you have good taste in music? (Snobbery in Classical Music, Part 2 of ?)

If you follow this blog on Facebook or Twitter, then you know that I promised you this post over a week ago. Sorry for the delay, but I was putting the finishing touches on my dissertation, tracking down signatures, and filing forms to complete my PhD. So, I’m now officially Dr. Shaver-Gleason, or at least I will be once all the paperwork goes through.

So! A little over a week ago, Classic FM posted a quiz to help you determine “How good is your taste in music?” It asks you about the last album you bought, whether you approve of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s existence, and which recording of Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations you prefer, then passes judgment on you. You might be told,
You have great taste in music
You are a denizen, a cultural and musical gatekeeper and tastemaker.
Or it might conclude,
You have awful taste in music
You're awful. We don't have time for you and your blanket praise of terrible music.
Now, I know this isn’t meant to be taken seriously. It’s all in good fun, a little game to post on social media. It’s also worth noting that Classic FM is a British station, so the more serious they sound, the less serious they’re being, in that specifically British type of humor that makes them feel superior when Americans take them too literally. For British readers: Yes, I understand it’s a joke. I get it, I really do.

Even though the quiz is just a lark, it still touches on issues I’ve discussed on this blog before. It’s another instance of Classic FM congratulating their listeners for liking classical music, because that’s what they like to hear. Also, it’s plays on the cliché of snobbery in classical music. The joke works specifically because the idea of “taste” is tied to social standing and self worth, which is pretty silly, when you think about it.

Again, this isn’t unique to classical music; people can be snobs about anything: food, comic books, razors. Yet classical music still occupies a privileged space and carries associations of class and education. There’s a belief that you have to be knowledgeable to properly enjoy classical music, and therefore you have to prove that you know the right stuff to show that you’re worthy enough to like it.

Just look at the terms Classic FM uses to describe someone who answers this quiz correctly: “musical gatekeeper.” A gatekeeper protects something, keeping the wrong people out. Those who like (Heinrich Ignaz Franz von) Biber are welcome, those who like (Justin) Bieber shall not pass.

But it also uses the term “tastemaker,” which is ironic. This quiz doesn’t measure your ability to find music on your own, or persuade others to your point of view. It gauges how well you follow trends that have long existed in the classical music world.

How long? Well, my musicological research focuses on the Victorian era, when presenting oneself as having good taste was crucial to maintaining social standing (much like today). In one of my primary sources, Music and Morals (first published in 1871), Reverend Hugh Reginald Haweis advises his readers on how they should respond to various composers, in a passage full of sarcasm:
Every one likes to understand and talk a little about music, and a very slender knowledge will enable an unmusical person to occupy a very creditable position in most musical parties. The following hints may prove useful.
...You must speak of Beethoven as “sublime, but occasionally obscure;” of Spohr, as “scientific, but too sickly and chromatic;” of Mendelssohn, as “fascinating;” of Schumann, as “a man of some genius;” and you may say of Gounod, that “he is very charming, but that you doubt whether he will last;” and it will always be safe, except in the presence of really good musicians, to sniff at Wagner and the music of the future.

—H.R. Haweis, Music and Morals, pages 516-7
Haweis’s satire reveals how narrow “good taste” really is, the paradox of convincing others you have an educated opinion by mindlessly parroting a few statements. The best way to do that is to complain about the right composers—stating criticism is an easy way to fake critical thinking.

But Haweis knew, just as you know, that this is shallow pretense. The “right” answers to the quiz are mostly obvious: Biber over Bieber. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a hack. Look down on the right people, and you imply that you belong above them.

I could say something like, “True good taste relies on originality, liking things that no one tells you to like,” but that’s not too far off from the cliché of priding oneself of liking obscure things that no one’s ever heard of. It the trap of giving the concept of “taste” any value whatsoever. Don’t fall for it.

Taste exists inasmuch as someone else can have preferences similar to yours, which can be useful for finding new music you’ll probably like. But whether someone’s taste is “good” or “bad”—that’s socially constructed. Realize that, and you won’t need a Facebook quiz for validation.

“Quiz: How good is your taste in music?” by Daniel Ross on Classic FM

Music and Morals by Hugh Reginald Haweis, (16th edition, 1892)

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