Incomplete Theses on Audio Aesthete-ism: Beginnings of a Rant

1. One or two generations ago refined taste in music meant familiarity with a fairly limited (and stable, learnable) Western concert music repertoire. Today that refinement is reflected through a carefully cultivated, willfully eclectic cosmopolitanism. The déclassé listener likes or understands only one genre of music or a limited genre of music. Even apprentice aesthetes know the opening gambit is “I like everything.” “I don’t listen to any particular genre.” Only later do the same predictable references emerge, interspersed with enough surprises to keep others guessing and demonstrate ingenuity. There is still Bach and Mozart, but they are joined by countless others.

2. Snobbery of genre still exists but it is now more specialized and subcultural (or limited by age). It has been replaced by a profusion of snobbery in equipment (which has existed for a century but is now less specialized). There are legions of self-described experts who proclaim that records have more “fidelity” to a made up source than compact discs. [Wait, what is fidelity?] Other legions will decry digital formats’ “degraded” sound even as they parade around with earbuds that cost pennies to make and distort the audio more than any modern compression algorithm. If your collection of recordings has lost value, equipment is still a refuge for distinguishing yourself from others. The sleek interface of the Apple product or the heady practicality of choosing the cheaper alternative speak volumes of who you are.

3. As in food or painting, one can hardly escape having likes and dislikes — even strong ones. I would not exempt myself. But we must be wary of moral elevations of like and dislike, which, as Bourdieu taught us, is also at the same time an attempt at social elevation.

2 replies on “Incomplete Theses on Audio Aesthete-ism: Beginnings of a Rant”

  1. 1. Forgive me if this is obvious, but this point is made in a number of sociological studies on “cultural omnivores” (a google search of that term will turn up lots of citations). But I like the term cosmopolitanism better in some ways, b/c omnivore suggests a lack of discernment (I’ll eat anything) while cosmopolitan has connotations of class and mobility.

    2. As you suggest, snobbery in equipment is also generations old and related to the pre-eclectic taste in Western concert music. I’m thinking of the Playboy-era hi-fi connoisseur. Maybe I’m mistaken because I’m a total non-snob when it comes to earbuds etc., but the new snobbery of equipment must be related to a kind of distinction of distribution format as well, which is certainly somewhat new, with online file-sharing and vinyl superior to buying CDs from Wal-Mart.

    3. Yes.

    (I’ve been reading this blog for years but I think this is my first comment, so, hi!)

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