A Snob By Any Other Name

The first time I suspected there might really be something between me and the woman […]

David Zahl / 10.22.14


The first time I suspected there might really be something between me and the woman who would become my wife was when she made an off-hand reference to one of my favorite movies. It was a relatively obscure film, and not one that usually came up in conversation. Huh, I thought, that’s interesting. My confidence was shaken a few days later when she mentioned having recently attended a certain music festival, which will remain nameless. Let’s just say my appreciation for The Grateful Dead and their ilk had yet to blossom.

I’m embarrassed to admit this. Not just that I had the (absurdly unfounded) arrogance to ‘test’ such an amazing and wide-ranging person, but that I was using something as arbitrary as taste in pop culture as my barometer. I mean, if we are who we enjoy, what happens when a band we like jumps the shark? And how do we know when they’ve done so? Oy vey. I’m pretty sure this is what it means to be a snob. And the slide into snobbery is seldom linear.

Qualitative differences exist in art, and far be it for me to deny them. I’m not suggesting that we flatten our aesthetic criteria or ignore distinctions which are clearly there. There’s a lot of good in something like taste, maybe even truth. Before my affinities calcified into a means of self-justification and judgment, they served as points of connection, sympathy, and yes, even love. For as long as I can remember, most of my primary bonds with others have involved shared taste in music. Going to concerts and record stores, trading mixes, waiting in line for a midnight release—these were friendship-making events, and they account for some of the most precious relationships of my life.

Unfortunately, as with most identity markers, what starts out as a genuine interest or affection can, in an overcrowded and/or threatening context, close in on itself and fuel over-differentiation and genuine exclusion. A mode of connection turns into a tool for winnowing the population down into (dehumanizing) categories that grant us a sense of superiority and security, until we become “a church of one”. I’m not proud.

Writing in the NY Times Magazine (ostensibly) about the digitization of music, Dan Brooks nailed this dynamic with stunning accuracy. I don’t think I’ve felt this described–uncomfortably so–in quite some time, at least since The Onion did its take:

The film in question. Watch it!

The film in question. Watch it!

Now that nearly every piece of recorded sound is as easy to find as any other, everyone can finally listen to what we snobs wanted them to hear all along… The bad news is that we have lost what was once a robust system for identifying kindred spirits. Now that we all share the same record collection, music snobs have no means to recognize one another. We cannot flip through a binder of CDs and see a new friend, a potential date. By making it perfectly easy to find new music, we’ve made it a little more difficult to find new people.

Before Spotify solved the problem with music forever, esoteric taste was a measure of commitment. When every band was more or less difficult to hear by virtue of its distance from a major label, what you liked was a rough indicator of the resources you had invested in music. If you liked the New York City squat-punk band Choking Victim, it was a sign you had flipped through enough records and endured enough party conversations to hear about Choking Victim. The bands you listened to conveyed not just the particular elements of culture you liked but also how much you cared about culture itself.

Like blasted pecs or a little rhinestone flag pin, esoteric taste in music is an indicator of values. To care about obscure bands was to reject the perceived conformity of popular culture, to demand a more nuanced reading of the human experience than Amy Grant’s “Baby Baby” and therefore to assert a certain kind of life. That assertion was central to my identity as a young adult, and I found that people who shared it were more likely to agree with me on seemingly unrelated issues. Like all aesthetics, taste in music is a worldview…

When nerds figured out how to play music over the Internet, it rendered indie culture inert. The shift away from physical albums destroyed that mechanism of consumer individuation. When getting into a band became as easy as typing its name into a search box, particular musical tastes lost their function as signifiers of commitment. What you listened to ceased to be a measure of how much you cared and became a mere list of what you liked.

Worse, this list was no more ethically righteous than anyone else’s. You didn’t have to support local businesses or hang with freaky beatniks to hear Choking Victim anymore, so liking them became no better (or worse) than liking Pearl Jam.

As Brooks points out, the Internet has made the pursuit of indie righteousness a whole lot less challenging and, therefore, reliable (or fun/exciting). But that doesn’t mean the underlying drives have diminished. Testing is still an integral part of how we relate to both ourselves and the world around us. It’s a big part of what makes life so exhausting. Instead of liking the right music, perhaps we demand that those we associate with have the right perspective on the stuff they used to take so seriously. Or that they have the right theology. Or that they don’t test us, etc. People are constantly taking our measure this way, and we them, despite the fact that such tests are genuinely reductive and seldom tell us anything useful about the person themselves (thank God).

Cue this past Sunday’s lectionary reading in which Jesus responds to a ‘question’ about to whom taxes should be paid by saying, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” (Matthew 22:15-22). Like so many questions we ask and are asked, theirs is not actually a question. It is a test. And tests like this aren’t made to be passed–truth is almost never heard in such a context. The Law is being used to entrap, to condemn, to vilify. Christ calls them hypocrites because they do not pass the tests they put to others. No one does. Well, that’s not entirely true.

I’m reminded of the story Steve Brown tells about trying to get his daughter Robin out of a difficult English class. On her first day of class, Robin sits there thinking,, “If I don’t transfer out of this class, I’m going to fail. The other people in this class are much smarter than me. I can’t do this.” She comes home and with tears in her eyes and begs her dad to help her get into an easier section. So the next day Steve takes her down to the school and goes to the head of the English department:

When he got to the school, the teacher looked up and saw me standing there. She could tell that Robin was about to cry. There were some students standing around and, because the teacher didn’t want Robin to be embarrassed, she dismissed the students saying, “I want to talk to these people alone.” As soon as the students left and the door was closed, Robin began to cry. I said, “I’m here to get my daughter out of that English class. It’s too difficult for her. The problem with my daughter is that she’s too conscientious. Can you put her into a regular English class?”

The teacher said, “Mr. Brown, I understand.” Then she looked at Robin and said, “Can I talk to Robin for a minute?” I said, “Sure.” She said, “Robin, I know how you feel. What if I promised you an A no matter what you did in the class? If I gave you an A before you even started, would you be willing to take the class?” My daughter is not dumb! She started sniffling and said, “Well, I think I could do that.” The teacher said, “I’m going to give you an A in the class. You already have an A, so you can go to class.

Later the teacher explained to Steve that she had taken away the threat of a bad grade so that Robin could learn English. Come to find out–surprise, surprise!–Robin ended up making straight A’s on her own in that class. Yes, it may sound a bit like Chicken Soup of the Soul, and yes, the analogy breaks down if you push it too far. What I like, however, is that the teacher does not deny the reality of the test, or the need for a grade. Because while many of the tests we deal with on a daily basis are arbitrary and cruel, others are not. Others are real. There are flesh-and-blood consequences to failing them.

Needless to say, the tests do not vanish in marriage any more than they do in other areas of life. If anything, they become more serpentine. How else to explain how a question like “Have you seen my shoes?” can be heard (and, let’s face it, meant) as an indictment?

I suppose this is why most experts talk about forgiveness being the cornerstone of any lasting relationship. That’s certainly the case when it comes to God. Our hope is not found in the passing of tests but in the forgiveness of failure (and snobbery and hypocrisy and relentless testing of our loved ones…), the fact that, by the sheer grace of God, the test-to-end-all-tests has already been taken. 10/10.