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Music for Critics and Music for Us
7.6.2001 by Sean

As someone who takes his music very seriously, I always get frustrated when faced with the simply spirit-sapping statistics of contemporary album sales. I mean, how can you have faith in the world when N*Sync's new album sells a couple of million copies in their first week, and even a popular-but-not-entirely-populist band like Weezer only sells 200 000. I challenge any optimist with some sort of snobby music sophistication to look at the Billboard 200 and not feel a pang of agony. (Is it possible to feel 'pangs' of agony? Or is agony only available in 'Soul-Shattering Bursts'?) I mean, besides the occasional gems (O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, etc), the list is simply atrocious. I mean, if someone offered me those 200 CDs, and I couldn't pawn them at the local fence, well, I'd turn it down. L'il Bow Wow? I mean honestly!

The divide between critics and cretins has always been wide. Most of the world's critically acclaimed bands were far from big sellers. I mean sure, everybody (except morons) loves the Beatles, but when you compare the sales of Elvis Costello against those of, say, Boy George, well, need I say more?

The Velvets epitomize this. It's famously been said that "Almost no one bought Velvet Underground albums, but everyone who did started a band." The Lou Reed fronted group was a minor blip on the music landscape of the 70s, but is cited by hundreds of significant (and insignificant) bands as a major influence. From Sonic Youth to Nirvana to David Bowie, the Velvets were important. But what does the average joe know about them? Well, Lou Reed sang that "doo d'doo" song, didn't he? With the blowjob?

Many people ask why critics have any right to be snobby about music. Do they really know anything more than Suzy K Brite, head of the Britney Spears fanclub?

Well, I do think so.

But it's not just critics. Anyone who makes a serious pursuit out of listening to music, paying attention to what they hear - listening carefully to albums, - exploring both a variety of music and the full depths of a particular genre, well, they've had exposure to more. They know more. They have an impression of what's new and what's stale, how things measure up, and what's most rewarding to the conscientious listener. Sure, Blink 182 is good for driving (maybe), but if you're listening to music in order elicit a real feeling, message, or something that verges on the sublime, well, an "expert" is more likely to be familiar at tracking such things down. A wine enthusiast can identify the best wines. A music snob can (perhaps) identify the best albums.

And as for me? I own CDs by Lifehouse and Prozzak (don't ask), so I don't think I'm really allowed to comment.

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