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Elitism in music extends past simply disliking certain tunes

History, culture and privilege define how one can view other forms of music outside of their preference

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"From left to right: Billie Eilish, Koko Taylor and Bob Marley. Some people disapprove of an artists entire catalogue or a whole genre, just because they are popular.” Illustration published on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020.


I have witnessed a strong disdain toward popular music and any artist that is adored by the masses. This elitism is different from a simple dislike or lack of connection with a specific song.

It is a blanket disapproval of entire genres simply because the music is popular. These music elitists only respect creations that are relevant to or cater to a narrow realm of thought built by privilege and culture.

The music industry and its community has long-documented problems of shutting people out for arbitrary reasons, whether it be their gender, culture or socioeconomic upbringing. 

Music elitism rooted in education 

Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, who teaches musicology at ASU, said elitism in music stems from multiple places, including people who are more educated in the field, those who play instruments or those who are heavily involved in music.

"For whatever reason, they have defined themselves as people who know what music is," Bhattacharjya said. "And there are some people who are actually going to believe them."

That issue is reflected in investment in art education. Many children who go to schools that have strained budgets don't receive adequate musical training because it is not prioritized. This leaves only private musical training, which is not affordable to everyone.

That isn’t taking into account the steep costs of simply acquiring an instrument if schools can’t provide them. Most classical brass and string instruments cost at least $80 at its absolute cheapest point. Most quality brass and string instruments usually cost upward of $200.

These two issues highlight the inequity within music, something that some have attributed to growing elitism within its many realms.

How music elitism seeps into culture

Growing elitism in music has worked its way into music culture. Many women have discussed mansplaining within music and how it has affected their ability to work in the industry and enjoy music in general. 

Sohini Bag, who recently graduated from St. Louis University with a master's degree in health administration, said mansplaining has affected her enjoyment of discussing music.

"I think they attach so much of their own self-worth to the kind of music they listen to that when their opinions on that music are not taken at their highest value, they get personally offended," she said.

Men have traditionally had greater control of the music industry and can therefore influence the idea of what is desirable in music. I often see pop artists who are women ridiculed simply because their music doesn't resonate with a male-majority audience. I have also seen many young girls being shamed for adoring these artists.

Elitist behavior is also present at a cultural level. David Hinds, an ASU associate professor of African and African American studies with a concentration on Caribbean and African Diaspora Studies, said disparaging other people’s views on certain music is also often culturally insensitive.

"Music is an integral part of cultural expression," he said. "There are cultural biases and prejudices which are part of human society. And so, the intolerance of certain genres of music arises out of them.”

He said respecting another culture's musical form comes from understanding the context of that musical expression and being sensitive to the history of that music.

Hinds looks to himself as an example of having a background of music being used and composed differently. He comes from the Caribbean, where music has deeper traditions past entertainment, according to Hinds.

"(Music is) a form of cultural expression of historical memory," Hinds said. "It's a form of affirmation of identity. It's a form of cultural and political protest."

He specifically pointed to a specific song by Peter Tosh, “Arise Black Man,” with its lyrics calling for Black people to unify and fight for equality. 


Perceiving musical authenticity in one’s own way

Elitists have often defined authenticity in a way that hampers the existence of creative diversity.

Among elitists, there is a notion that those who make mainstream music have "sold out," according to Bhattacharjya.

Jack Sheinbaum, professor of musicology at the University of Denver who specializes in music history, said in the 60s and 70s, "there was this idea of rock versus pop music which continues to this day."

He attributed the topic being debated due to rock being more "authentic" than pop, which he traced back to how rock artists were expected to write their own material while pop artists weren't.

When rock 'n' roll gave way, an expectation gradually grew that pop artists, no longer just performers, would write their own music and express their own inner feelings, he said.

"We expect Bob Dylan must be saying what he is really thinking, but Frank Sinatra is just being a character," Sheinbaum said.

It continues to this day in the form of denouncement of pop artists who don’t always write their own songs or musicians who create electronic music instead of using traditional instruments.

But different people define authenticity in different ways. Many listeners appreciate singers for their singing only, just like actors are appreciated for their acting skills, even if they have not written their own lines.

No matter one’s gender, culture or socioeconomic upbringing, it is possible to have personal preferences without disrespecting other people's tastes. 

Hinds said that "if one appreciates how important musical genres are to the formation of one's own culture, that in itself should drive them to appreciate other cultures' musical forms."

Bag echoed that sentiment, saying that some music listeners forget consuming the medium, like most art, “is about personal taste."

"I like music, but I don't have a particular preference," Bag said. "As long as it's pleasant and something I enjoy, I'll listen to it. I don't care what genre it is in. Then there are some people who just can't seem to wrap their head around that."

Clarification: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Jack Sheinbaum’s current position at the University of Denver. The article has been updated to reflect the change. 


Reach the reporter at abhilasha.mandal@asu.edu and follow @AbhilashaMandal on Twitter.

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