Saturday, May 14, 2011

Specialization, the Internet, and being a Music Nerd

I've been thinking a lot about how the internet affects how people relate to things, particularly their interests and obsessions. The spark for this thinking was two-fold as I find inspiration usually is. Striking at the moment where two unrelated things make you say, "That's interesting."

Thing 1: I was listening the Guardian's music blog, and the guest was a man who has started a record label to indulge his musical interests -- specifically he was into Kurdish wedding shredding (it does sound strangely Metallica-esque) and Kenyan Country music.

Thing 2: I was talking about American Psycho with my friend Lisa when she brought up the chapter in which Bateman attends a U2 concert.  In her effort to track down the chapter online she came upon the U2 pop culture encyclopedia whose maintainer had apparently typed up the whole chapter as part of his ongoing attempt to capture every reference to U2 in popular culture. This is as odd as it sounds, my personal favorite entry is the Northern Exposure one. Yes, a character in a single episode wears a possibly unofficial U2 shirt.

Here are two people with notably different musical taste, but who have found something to specialize in.  They are experts in things that to other people might seem completely meaningless. Where does this drive come from? and why does it feel like this level of obsession and specialization has only become prevalent in the age of the internet?

Here's my best way of understanding it:
From an evolutionary perspective I would imagine that specialization within groups of social animals like humans. Someone is the best tracker, someone the best cook, the most alert watchman, etc. If there were not a drive to differentiate the self, to be the best at something, one might end up in a group in which everyone wants to take care of the children and no one wants to hunt. This works particularly well for small groups.

Over time obviously the social environments which people were a part of expanded and with them the possibilities for specialization. Farmer, smith, priest, artist, general, etc. The world gets larger and the possibilities grow, but at the same time so does the threat of not feeling special. Lurking under our larger and more connected world is that terrifying idea that we are not special, we are not the funniest, or the strongest, or the smartest.

With the rise of mass media, recordings and film a lot of people who within their social circle had been the specialist-- in singing, in sport, or anything else were suddenly out of specialty -- who can compete with the experts? This is probably when the idea of being a fan really took off. I am not the best singer or baseball player, but I am the biggest fan, I know every song, every player, every story.

That's where the story starts to hit home. I'm a terrible musician -- I can't sing or play anything, but I enjoy listening to music. I became a music nerd -- eager to share my latest discoveries and mixes. I dare say I was almost at the level of a record store employee ("I've never been wrong, I used to work at a record store"). Close enough for my circle of friends anyway.

I then ran into the internet, where as a music nerd the moment that you step a toe into particularly the social aspect of it you find your sense of specialness dissolving. Your taste, which your friends admire and seek out is pedestrian and uneducated.  "You mean you haven't heard _________? Everything you like would be even more worthless and boring if they hadn't done it better and earlier." You are drowning in a sea of people who specialize in exactly what you do. You arrive at a music festival wearing a shirt for the most obscure band you know and then see 5 other people wearing it.

You are left with two options in terms of feeling special: choosing one band or style of music to become the "biggest fan" of, or listening to increasingly obscure and diverse selections of music. Those roads lead to on the one hand to maintaining the U2 pop culture encyclopedia, and on the other to obsessing over Kurdish wedding music and Kenyan Country.

The funny thing is that your new specialization which allows you to feel special online. Which lets you at least pretend to be a unique expert on the internet will make the friends who used to look forward to your creative mixes, sigh as you hand them your latest collection of obscure Prince b-sides and remixes, or your brilliant collection of obscure music from every sub-sub-sub genre and era unified only by their amazing ability to be utterly unenjoyable to listen to. When they invite you to a show you will stand arms crossed judging the music: too mainstream, too emotional, too simple, too likable.

The internet is rife with people struggling to feel special. Finding obscure and unimportant things to imbue with incredible meaning and depth. It is the worst of academia writ large-- people carving smaller and more obscure fields out of everything and squabbling endlessly over who should moderate the worlds most extensive  encyclopedia of "The Jeffersons".

I can't imagine it being good for one's real social life.

On another note:
This is a quote from Proust in which I have replaced woman with band and society/salon/etc with appropriate music related terms:
The thirst for novelty that leads men of the musical world who are more or less sincere in their eagerness to keep abreast of musical developments to frequent the circles in which they can follow them makes them prefer as a rule some band as yet undiscovered, who represents still in their first freshness the hopes of a superior music so faded and tarnished in the bands who for long years have wielded the musical sceptre and who, having no secrets from these men, no longer appeal to their imagination. And every period finds itself personified thus by new bands, in a new group of bands, who, closely identified with whatever may be the latest genre, seem, in their new attire, to be at that moment making their first appearance, like an unknown special born of the last deluge, irresistible beauties of the new style, each new movement. But very often the new bands are simply, like certain statesmen who may be in office for the first time but have for the last forty years been knocking at every door without seeing any open, bands who were not known in the scene but who nevertheless had been entertaining for years past, for want of anyone better, a few "chosen friends."

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