From The New York Times:
My friend Lily and I met in 2004 at a showcase for a record label that bartered cassette tapes in exchange for things like drawings and telling jokes. I was there to perform some songs I had recorded on my dad’s four-track using chopsticks for drumsticks; Lily was there to support her boyfriend, who was playing in a band led by our mutual friend’s 13-year-old brother. We hit it off, and after that we often went together to see bands play in local out-of-the-way venues, like the dilapidated shack down an alleyway or the basement nightclub that was perpetually flooded with toilet water. The bands were often lousy, but that didn’t matter to us. What mattered to us was that no one else knew anything about them.
At the time, it was very cool to know about obscure music. We were a few scant years out of the boy band/Limp Bizkit era, and Pearl Jam clones were still proliferating, each one worse than the last (Stone Temple Pilots > Creed > Nickelback). Hyped-up bands like the Strokes were marketed to seem independent, while independent bands like Death From Above 1979 and the Shins were being sought by advertisers and filmmakers in search of an edge. When the movie “Garden State” came out, the Shins — whose song “New Slang,” according to Natalie Portman, was going to change Zach Braff’s life — were dead to us. To our minds, fake obscure was even worse than popular.
Obscure knowledge was once a kind of currency. To get it, you had to be in the loop. You had to know the right people to learn about the right bands. You had to know the right record stores to hear those bands. The right record stores, like the right comic and book and video stores, were manned by knowledge guardians who scared the bejeezus out of us, so the act of going in to these stores felt kind of intrepid.
Lily and I inherited an understanding, which we’d gleaned from Kurt Cobain, that corporate rock was the pits, and movies like “High Fidelity” taught us about the sacred tradition of knowledge passed from cool person to cool person to, eventually, us. When we got our own record-store jobs, we discovered that knowledge-guardian culture was pretty much exactly as depicted. We were as self-righteous and fraternal as cops, sustained by an ideology that dictated that the more obscure the band, the better.
The Internet existed then, but file-sharing was still new, or newish, and there were still tons of artists you would never find online. By the time we reached our sophomore year of college, though, file-sharing had gone bananas and was quickly making our music-store employers go broke. Music wasn’t just free; it was everywhere: you could find it on blogs, YouTube and streaming Web sites, and you could read about it on Pitchfork, Wikipedia and Allmusic, without ever having to humiliate yourself in front of anyone mean.
Worse, file-sharing had rendered us, the knowledge guardians, irrelevant. Within a few years, knowledge had ceased to confer any distinction, and hoarding it had become about as socially advantageous as stamp collecting. Thanks to the Internet, cultural knowledge was now a collective resource. Which meant that being cool was no longer about what you knew and what other people didn’t. It was about what you had to say about the things that everyone already knew about.
Two months ago, Lily sent me a YouTube link to the song “212,” by the Harlem-born rapper Azealia Banks. Along with the song — which, fair warning, is quite profane — Lily mentioned that everyone seemed to be posting “212” on Facebook. So I listened — and several bars in, an intern popped into my office to announce that she loved the song and, not to brag or anything, she had been an early adopter: viewer No. 225,000.
Once I got over the embarrassment of being viewer No. 3,000,000, I realized something: the song was really good. Just as good as it had been 2,999,999 viewers ago.
In other words, there is no longer any honor in musical obscurity. If you can be popular on your own terms — if you can be Arcade Fire or Bon Iver and still win a Grammy — there is really no such thing as “selling out” anymore, unless you happen to sign a distribution deal with the Koch brothers. “I like the idea of our fans being a wide spectrum,” the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney told Rolling Stone for a recent cover article. “Whenever anybody talks about being uncomfortable about being at a show because there’s a different type of person there, that’s just straight . . . ignorance. I wouldn’t want somebody like that to be a fan of us.”
Populism is the new model of cool; elitists, rather than teeny-boppers or bandwagon-jumpers, are the new squares. There are now artists who sell out concerts while rarely getting played on commercial radio (the Weeknd or Tori Amos, for instance), and there are commercial radio artists whom no one in most people’s hipper circles has ever heard of because they listen exclusively to the Internet (Lady Antebellum, Jake Owen — pretty much all of so-called new country).
A month ago, I was walking by the MuchMusic building (that’s the Canadian MTV, though there is an actual Canadian MTV — nevermind) past a line of tween girls coiled around three city blocks. They were waiting for a boy band called One Direction, which, judging from my quick on-the-spot polling, seems to be some sort of tween version of the original Mr. Snuffleupagus: no one over 14 knows who they are. (Their debut album later entered the pop chart at No. 1.)
Pitchfork, the music Web site that is our era’s Rolling Stone, made its name initially by writing obscurely about the obscure. Now it makes itself indispensable by doing the opposite: by interfacing between genres and across all levels of fame. As Richard Beck pointed out in an N+1 article, the site serves primarily as a reviews archive, delivering the party line on each release rather than sparking critical discourse about it (although the site’s voice often reads like a satire of critical discourse). Crucially, Pitchfork exists to make sense of hip-hop and Top 40 for people who grew up listening to indie rock.
A similar reading applies to sites like Gawker and The AV Club, which are as much about telling us what to think about things as they are about telling us that those things exist in the first place. Contributors make no claim to objectivity; they’re smart alecks whose job is to stamp the dough of information. Staying current is now a wild game of whack-a-mole. And knowing one thing about everything is much more important than knowing everything about one thing.
Continue reading the rest of the story at The New York Times.