Rigidly policed boundaries

Conversation A:
Me: I think Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphonic Dance is the best piece of music ever written for orchestra.
My interlocutor: I know, I hate the Meditation from Thais, too!

Conversation B:
Me: I think “Open Arms” is a really good song.
My Interlocutor: So you probably hate Van Halen, then.

Why is it that Conversation A never happens, but Conversation B is almost a certainty? (And you can invert them: “So you hate the Meditation?” “I know, I hate metal, too!”)

I know that classical music is supposed to be snobby and insular — and sometimes is — but in a lot of ways, the rock world is way worse. I think liking classical music sets you apart as a geek far enough that people just don’t quibble about it. Whether you like Vivaldi or Grieg doesn’t matter, as most people can’t tell them apart anyhow. Besides, we can’t be too restrictive about what kind of classical music one likes; after all, there’s around 800 years worth of this stuff. It’d start to go all “People’s Front of Judea vs. Judean People’s Front” by that point. Each person would comprise four unique tribes — with no further members! — in and of themselves.

But rock? Rock is a baby, and so it’s insecure in a way that classical music isn’t. Its geeks are desperate to prove that they are actually cool (they aren’t), whereas classical music fans can hardly avoid letting our geek flag fly pretty proudly. Any kind of classical music will instantly brand one as a nerd, so liking Stravinsky as well as Caccini won’t cause one’s social status at the coffeehouse to slide any more than it already has. But liking Michael Bolton’s voice (although I wish he’d choose more interesting music) as well as Nine Inch Nails will cause a lot of rock fans’ heads to explode in confusion.

Rock needs to unclench its sphincter and just grow up. Its fans need to start listening to the music for its own sake rather than worrying so much about whether they can afford to be seen publicly enjoying a certain form of it. After all, Rock Fan A’s ears are connected to Rock Fan A’s brain, not Rock Fan B’s. Music should be about what goes into that person’s brain.

In some ways, this is due to the fact that — for good and ill — classical music is less social. Not always — and not always for musicians. But for the most part, a traditional symphony audience is composed of around 5,000 people all sitting quietly and having individual experiences. Rock concerts are composed of people who go to them with a couple friends, again both for good and ill. Liking a certain type of rock music brands one more indelibly as a member of a certain tribe, and if you are not of that tribe, in many ways you are socially barred from going. And going to a rock concert by oneself is certainly considered a strange thing or even a bit risky for a youngster, which cuts a lot of people out of the live rock experience, unfortunately. Classical music is a bit more tolerant of different personality types. One can be an avowed extrovert, and one can also be a socially awkward Aspie who hates eye contact. I’ve gone to lots of classical music events by myself, but I would have serious reservations of going even to a TSO concert by myself.

“But you can meet people! Make new friends!” says the TSO fan.

What if I’m not looking for that? What if I’m more reserved? What if I just want to enjoy the music rather than become initiated into some tribal affiliation? What if I’m just not a “joiner?”

The only conclusion to reach is that I am not the kind of person who likes that music … which is an awful thing to say about any form of music, particularly the wonderful TSO. Yet the live music experience of that sort of music does indeed prejudice it to being delivered only to the “right sort” of person. Classical seems to welcome groups and individuals a bit more easily. It might also be an artifact of an older audience that has left its clique-forming years in the distant past.

Of course, there is also some difficulty in the fact that classical music doesn’t facilitate connections between audiences members, especially in its failure to monetize that sort of behavior. But the fact that classical music isn’t nearly as cliquish for the audience has its positive aspects. And I’m not talking about your academic music department and how the Second Viennese School fans won’t sit at the same lunch table as the Mozart specialists. I’m talking about normal people, here. All academics factionalize, not just music departments. You should hear the plasma physicists and the theoretical cosmologists have at one another.

Rock can stand to lose some of its baboon-troop tribalism. And while the classical music live experience does need to revitalize itself, we should at least think long and hard about what we will lose (NOTE THAT THAT WORD HAS ONLY ONE “o”!) if we invite that sort of behavior into our world.