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The Perniciousness of Upper Middle Brow Music

Alan Jacobs links to this William Deresiewicz post about the “Upper Middle Brow” and comments (Millman’s thoughts here):

Deresiewicz concludes by arguing that the purpose of upper middle brow art and entertainment “is to make consciousness safe for the upper middle class,” whose “salient characteristic” is an “engorgement with its own virtue. Its need is for an art that will disturb its self-delight.”

But the cultured upper middle class is what almost every educated person seems to aspire to these days: not the vulgarity of the very rich, but something beyond life in the suburbs — a brownstone in Brooklyn that’s just small enough to make you feel non-ostentatious, say, and a set of cultural touchpoints (Deresiewicz gives a good list) that you can check off with your friends over a nicely hoppy microbrewed IPA at what you like to call “my local.”

So I ask, is there a music “ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices”? Or how about one that “stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook”? If a trust-funder’s ego falls in the forest, does it make a sound? What does emotional validation sound like?

It sounds like this:

Jacobs points out that challenging the values of music like this can leave one feeling excluded. That’s certainly something I’ve noticed but I’ve learned to keep my objections to myself.  Why bother with other people’s poor taste? Besides, tell some people you aren’t moved by Mumford and Sons and they stare at you blankly for a minute before deciding you must not have a soul.

In music, I wonder how much of this has to do with the expectation, especially among young people, that every moment of their waking lives be soundtracked. Though we spend more time listening to music than at any time before, that rarely leads to listening to longer compositions or a broadening of one’s musical horizons. If you have time to listen to a few tracks on the way to work, this kind of indie folk suits your purposes well. I’ve heard people defend this music as “life-affirming.” I have no idea what that means, but it sounds like nonsense. Functionally, the music is life-distracting. It’s like emotional crack; a quick jolt of nostalgia or sentimentality to get you through the day. Some throwaway lines about mountains or trains to consume on the subway before sitting at a computer for eight hours. It seems like most people don’t expect anything more out of music than this, and that’s tragic.

(n.b. Barack Obama’s campaign seemed to have a disturbing affinity for these mealy-mouthed faux-folkies, holding events with the above Head and the Heart [Full disclosure: my old band opened for them once], and the deplorable Delta Rae. I’ll leave the question of whether the bands and the candidate operate on the same psychological level to someone else.)

about the author

Arthur Bloom is editor of The American Conservative online. He was previously deputy editor of the Daily Caller and a columnist for the Catholic Herald. He holds masters degrees in urban planning and American studies from the University of Kansas. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Spectator (UK), The Guardian, Quillette, The American Spectator, Modern Age, and Tiny Mix Tapes.

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