Listen Up: High-Brow, Low-Brow, No-Brow, Schmo-Brow

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Listen Up: High-Brow, Low-Brow, No-Brow, Schmo-Brow

Over the past few weeks, as my Paste co-editors and I have shot repeated, fervid glances over our shoulders at the year 2009 and the preceding decade, tallying up the supposedly-best music, movies and everything else from those ultimately arbitrary but nonetheless psychologically compelling periods of time, we've been called many names. Among them: "losers," "douche[s]," "pussies," and "sad, sad people." There were a couple of subtle, and then some not-so-subtle, suggestions that we all kill ourselves, or maybe it was to allow ourselves to be killed by someone else—I can't remember which. Either way, thanks for the ego check, Internet! It's such a relief to know that whenever I'm feeling like hot shit, I can turn to you and just be made to feel like actual shit. Your dependability is profound and greatly appreciated.

Anyhow, it's a good thing that neither I nor my co-workers (that I know of, at least) base our individual or collective sense of self-worth entirely on the comments we get on this website, because even if we hadn't taken seriously the suggestion of group-suicide we'd still be left with quite a conundrum. Specifically, the conundrum of whether to think of ourselves as miserable panderers or as loathsome elitists, which have been the two accusations most often lobbed at us as we've published our Best of the Decade and Best of 2009 lists over the past few weeks.

There were, of course, plenty of nice comments—ones that praised us and took us to task in equal measure—left on the lists, for which we're thankful. Sometimes it's more fun to disagree than to agree, anyway. But it's funny how sometimes people can't just disagree with you—they have to come up with some kind of overarching theory that explains why your tastes must differ from theirs. It can't just be a matter of liking different things. For instance, some folks felt there was too much rap and hip-hop on our best of the decade list, and some felt there wasn't the right kind, but others felt there wasn't enough, which left them balking at our "indie pretentiousness." A dude named Sufjan topped that very same list, edging past the perhaps more obvious choices of Radiohead and Wilco, and that was enough to get us accused of elitism and snidely dubbed "the new Pitchfork." In that case, though, we're even Pitchforkier than Pitchfork, because their Best of the Decade list stuck Radiohead at #1 and Sufjan down at a lowly #16—pshh, what plebes!

But what happened when our managing editor Nick Marino published a list of his 37 favorite songs of the year? Along with tracks by Maluca and Sleigh Bells (neither of whom have released an actual album yet) he professed his love for songs by Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, and so of course some folks lost their ever-loving minds. Suddenly, we weren't pretentious enough. We needed to be more pretentious, more elitist, anything to pull us out of the gurgling cesspool of mainstream tripe we'd seemingly just fallen in. You can read the comments for yourself, but if you don't feel like it, let's just say they involve threats of vomit and swearing off of music forever, and—perhaps most scathing of all— comparisons to modern-day Rolling Stone. Yeesh?

This is all a bit befuddling, to say the least. Am I to believe that there's some grand spectrum of musical taste, with Pitchfork situated on one end and Rolling Stone at the other and Paste flinging itself desperately between the two extremes, perpetually torn between pleasing shrivel-nosed hipsters and backwards-baseball-cap wearing dude-bros? Or is it more like Jann Wenner is sitting on one shoulder and Ryan Schreiber the other, each whispering fervently into our ears, their voices pulling Paste's collective head this way and that, eyes agape and mouth rimmed with spittle, unsure which is the devil and which is the angel and which we should ultimately pledge our allegiance to?

I guess those are amusing scenarios to imagine, and I guess if it helps you reconcile Paste's simultaneous endorsement of Sufjan Stevens and Taylor Swift then you can keep clinging to them. But the truth is hardly so complicated, and we're hardly so tormented.

Maybe what we cover skews towards what the whole wide world now seems to know as "indie," but we've never ever said that's all we were about—we just like good music, no matter where it comes from or who makes it or how well-known they are, and if you spend a few minutes clicking around our website or flipping through the magazine with your eyes wide open, you'll find that's exactly what we cover. Not just independent, not just mainstream, and not just everything in the big middle ground. It'd be unfair for us to limit ourselves, and our readers, to any one specific swath. So we don't. Maybe there are swaths we don't cover as much as we could, but our eyes and ears are always open, and we're always trying to work harder and hear more. (By the same token, it's also unfair to think of Pitchfork and Rolling Stone as total anathemas diametrically opposed to both one another and to Paste. We all do what we do and we do it well, and if we happen to brush elbows as we do it—and we do—that's hardly something to get skittish about.)

I understand where the consternation over uber-mainstream pop songs appearing on any Paste-approved best-of list comes from: Despite the recent breakdown of the major-label music economy and the Internet's broadening effect on the mainstream, the Miley Cyruses of the world still take up more radiowaves, bandwidth, screentime and general cultural brainspace than the Sufjan Stevenses, the Neko Caseses, the The Antlerses. That's why we'd probably never put Miley or any of her ilk on our cover—there's always going to be someone more worthy of our time and energy.

But still, there's no point in our managing editor pretending like he didn't think "Party in the U.S.A." was one of the most fun, blindly enjoyable songs of the year. And there's no point in me pretending I don't agree with him.

If I had made a list of my favorite songs of 2009, that one plus Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me" would have been right up there with tracks by Dirty Projectors, Bon Iver and a buncha other hoity-toity bands, plus a few others I'm sure even Pitchfork hasn't heard yet. You're not going to see that list because, at least for this decade and/or year, I'm done with list-making. But I will leave you with two of my favorite musical encounters from my trip home for the holidays, one of which involves a band I'm quite positive you've never heard of, and one of which involves Ted Nugent. For anyone still confused about this magazine's position on the grand scale of low-to-high culture, consider it a late Christmas gift from me to you.

On Christmas Eve, I went with my parents and sister to midnight mass at the Episcopal church I attended in high school, the one where in the summers I worked at a two-week pre-school camp helping four-year-olds make arts & crafts and opening their applesauce at lunch and taking them to the bathroom. The kids that were tiny then are now all in middle school and high school and the church's music director has cobbled all of the ones play in their school bands into a miniature youth orchestra, which performed before the service Thursday night. I'm not a parent and, aside from those two weeks at pre-school camp every summer of my adolescence, I haven't spent a lot of time around little kids throughout my life, so it just never ceases to blow my mind that these wee people that I once had to open string cheese for and also help up onto toilets are now doing things like wearing makeup and doing Algebra homework and playing musical instruments—playing them well, even. A group rendition of "Go Tell It On The Mountain" was a little rough but the kids each tweedled and squonked their ways through solos with grace and aplomb, and I sat silently giggling and beaming in my pew seat. Even moreso than Snowed In, and even moreso than the copy of Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas I'd found on my iPod a few days earlier, this was the best holiday music I heard all month long. I wouldn't want to hear it piped through Walgreens speakers two weeks before Thanksgiving, mind you, but it was everything I really could have asked for.

Two days later, though, I was ready to banish all traces of red and green and jingle bells from my life, so when my family went up to my grandmother's house for our annual Day After Christmas celebration, I was relieved by her choice in background music. Whatever cable company or dish network she subscribes to offers about seven hundred different Sirius/XM satellite radio channels—I guess all the ones you'd get as a regular satellite radio subscriber, but accessible through her TV. At Thanksgiving she had it on Lite Pop Hits (to which I blissfully passed out on the couch after dinner), but this time she kind of randomly flipped around and landed on the all-'70s hits channel, which we proceeded to listen to for the rest of the day. We unwrapped gifts to Kiss and ABBA and the Jackson Five; we all tried (and all failed) to warm up to her moody, world-hating cat to the tune of Cat Stevens and, even more appropriately, Ted Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever"; after we decamped to the dining room, the music played on to no one, cycling through Marvin Gaye and Donny Osmond as we ate. Various relatives kept suggesting we change the channel, I think for the sake of my sister and I (the only two there who hadn't lived through the decade the first time) and perhaps it just seemed like I was being overly polite when I refused each offer, but I honestly didn't want to listen to anything else. It was perfect in this way that I have absolutely no explanation for.

I loved every single song, even the songs that I actually hated (like Donna Fargo's "The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.," which makes a certain Miss Cyrus sound as emotionally nuanced as Joni Mitchell, and which I'd be glad to never hear again).

I have no idea why, and for once, I'm not even going to try to explain.

Rachael Maddux is Paste’s assistant editor. Her column appears at PasteMagazine.com every Monday.

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