A common stereotype about people who are into indie music is that they only listen to it to look cool. This has always struck me as a very suspect hypothesis: if my goal was to be cool, I don’t think I would start by listening to a bunch of obscure bands that the people I’m trying to impress haven’t heard of and don’t care about. My experience has always been that listening to the kind of music I like is deeply uncool and listening to what everyone else does would be a far easier ticket to popularity.
That old indie stereotype has become even more laughable lately, as enjoying popular music has now become perceived as a virtue in many circles. A good example of this is over at Pitchfork, which is justifiably considered a hub of indie music and culture. They used to never touch pop music with a ten-foot pole, but lately they’ve taken to posting blathering articles where, for example, their writers argue back and forth over what the “song of the summer is” and talk about how much they love Justin Bieber and some other artists whose names I definitely recognize (fine, I’ll admit it: I understood maybe four words in that entire article). That post is emblematic of this brand of performative pop-worship I see a lot, where even writers for what was once a site focused on independent music gleefully stump for their favorite pop celebrities, like they’re desperate not to appear “above” pop music.
Beyond that, I keep seeing these articles where people feel compelled to jump to the defense of pop when someone reasonably criticizes it. A recent example of this that really rankled me was when indie musician Dan Bejar was asked a question about Taylor Swift in an interview and said that, frankly, he wasn’t a fan. So Deadspin then felt the need to make a reaction post discussing how great Swift is and how much of a big elitist jealous jerk Bejar must be for not liking her music. I really dislike that working independent musicians like Bejar are now expected to kneel before pop idols or risk being portrayed as villains — especially the way this piece searches for a motive for his “hating” when maybe he just doesn’t like her music. So many of these pop-related articles resemble a bunch of people being sideline cheerleaders for artists who have already won the game.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying pop music, and I particularly respect critics and fans who can really analyze pop and find serious meaning in it. But despite its mass appeal, it’s not for everyone. To me, listening to pop brings back memories of hearing the popular kids from high school yammer at each other about prom or other crap I didn’t care about. When I started getting into music, it didn’t take me too long to realize that pop music wasn’t made for me — the themes almost never resonated, and I rarely cared about the celebrities making it. I don’t need to keep up the illusion that all artists I listen to would be friends with me or something, but I find it hard to get invested in most pop stars who feel more like brands than people.
Sometimes I feel like everyone needs to go back to level one and think about why they got into indie music in the first place. For me, I found there was value in music that wasn’t just about money or popularity. I liked listening to artists who wrote and played the music themselves, who did it because they cared about music and had a message they wanted (or even needed) to share to the world. Some artists pull this off while working within the pop machine (and certainly some “indie” artists are concerned about status and wealth just like pop stars), but in general I don’t feel that kind of connection to pop music — it all feels too artificial.
If this makes me a snobby jerk, so be it. I just don’t really see what the problem is with disliking music if it doesn’t appeal to me. I wouldn’t expect most Taylor Swift fans to be interested in abrasive noise-rock music like Pharmakon. The flip side of that is that fans of pop shouldn’t expect me to listen to music that I know I won’t like. Pop music doesn’t need anyone’s help — it already dominates the cultural conversation, pretty much by definition. It will survive a few people not listening to it.
All that being said, I do occasionally like pop that has some of the qualities I’m looking for in music (hi Carly Rae Jepsen). But I reject the idea that liking pop music is an admirable or noteworthy act, or that disliking it is elitist. Attitudes like that have the distinct feel of anti-intellectualism to me: “stop listening to those obscure artists you like and fall in line with everyone else.” I’ve always felt there was value in looking outside of the mainstream for art, in supporting artists who aren’t playing stadium shows or being put on the cover of magazines. Do the winners really need to win more? Because right now, pop stars feel like a football team running up the score against an opponent who has already conceded defeat.