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Highbrow Vs. Lowbrow And The Problem With Musical Elitism

Last week, Junkee published an excellent article by Patrick Lenton about the unnecessary and pointless arrogance of those in society who turn their pointy noses up at the kind of culture that might be considered “lowbrow”. Titled You’re Not Smart Or Interesting For Shitting All Over Popular Culture, Lenton looks how many compare “highbrow” and “lowbrow” pop culture, such as a literary novel like War And Peace and a reality show like Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

Lenton notes that his article stemmed from an elitist Guardian review of the latest Captain America. I similarly commented on an overwhelmingly sanctimonious Coachella review earlier this year, and this article got me thinking about how many of us look at music in the same way.

Like popular culture, popular music and its many branches, be they pop, EDM, trap and so on, have been considered plebeian preferences, music for the untrained ear, the underdeveloped brain and just plain bad. Aphex Twin, Brian Eno and Talib Kweli are profound and significant, canonical essentials to any serious collector. David Guetta, Jason Derulo and Tyga on the other hand? Get out.

I recently had an interesting conversation about music you listen to for various activities, such as cooking, cleaning and driving. When it came to exercising, I mentioned (not for the first time) that my gym days are often soundtracked by EDM, trance, pop-punk, aggressive rap and heavy metal. The person I was chatting to literally cringed, scoffed into their drink, and went on to challenge the validity of my being a music journalist. They seemed betrayed, appalled at the concept that someone can write about conscious hip-hop and immersive electronica if they’re also pumping iron to Armin Van Buuren and Jimmy Eat World.

I preface with this anecdote as it’s a spectacular example of everything that is wrong with being that guy who insults everything that is popular or considered lowbrow just because it is.


Apples and Oranges

Music, much like all entertainment and art, does not all exist for the same purpose or to serve one function. There is no need, nor point, in comparing War and Peace to the Kardashians, because they exist for entirely different reasons. There’s also no point in comparing, Four Tet to Taylor Swift, or Radiohead to Tiesto. Four Tet’s music is challenging and thought-provoking, Swift’s typically romance-focused pop songs are incredibly catchy, bright and easy to follow. Radiohead’s music is deeply cryptic and experimental, blending organic and electronic elements together, while Tiesto’s is adorned by heavily synthetic melodies and heady beats, exclusively designed for dancing.

It’s commonly said that classical music and jazz is highbrow, while pop and gangsta rap is lowbrow. Put simply, it is arrogant, ignorant and elitist to trash anything considered lowbrow because it’s classified as such. Conscious hip-hop and trap are allowed to exist at the same time and people are allowed to enjoy both. You probably won’t turn up at the club to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (although there are some amazing trance and techno remixes of classical compositions out there), and it’s unlikely you’re going to sit at home with your headphones on, studying Lil Jon‘s Bend Ova, but that fact doesn’t make one better than the other. They exist for different reasons, and neither one is trying to be equal or comparable to the other.

When I spoke to saxophonist Kamasi Washington last year, we discussed the notion that many palm off jazz as a whole, deeming it too stuffy, complicated or unenjoyable.

“It’s not a very wise statement to say that you don’t enjoy a whole genre of music,” he said. “Maybe Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s not your thing, but Nas is… You taste should be determined more by the musician than the genre. Just because you don’t like Bach, doesn’t mean you won’t like Stravinsky! Just because you share [a genre] doesn’t mean your music is interlocking or interchangeable.”

Sure, you can probably compare Future to 2 Chainz and Travis Scott. They employ similar vocal stylings, rhyming schemes, production techniques, beats and autotune, but to compare him to Rakim or A Tribe Called Quest is pointless and makes you a smug asshole.

For some artists, their style and sound can be drastically varied even in their own catalogue. Tupac released some of the most important hip-hop songs with a conscience and purpose of all time, like Keep Ya Head Up and Dear Mama, and he also released Gangsta Party and Thugz Mansion. Beyoncé asked you if her body was too bootylicious, and more recently lay atop a drowning police car and demanded that you get in formation. Kanye West spent an entire album addressing loss, death and depression, and more recently about having sex with a girl who had just had anal bleaching. Is one song more valid or important than the other? No. It’s perfectly fine for you to like one of them more than the other, just as it’s entirely understandable that you might dislike the thumping beats and intense synths of EDM, but that doesn’t make one more valid, more artistic or more worthy than the other...

By Lauren Ziegler

Read the full story at Howl and Echoes

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