Music | STRANGE BOUTIQUE

Sympathy for the snob: Real DJs play vinyl

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

Up a backstreet in Shibuya’s Udagawacho neighborhood, tucked in behind the Milky Way, Chelsea Hotel and Star Lounge live-music venues — an area tight with record stores — I’m on my way to a party crammed with style-conscious young folk in sweaters and berets, DJing against the backdrop of Roman Polanski’s 1965 film “Repulsion.” That’s when I see the billboard.

“F— PC. Real DJs play vinyl.”

I take a quick snap of it with my phone and leave it on Facebook for my friends to mock, while I go upstairs and mingle with the berets, drink beer from hand-crafted wooden mugs, and listen to rare ’80s cuts from bands like The Au Pairs, Andreas Dorau and Girls At Our Best — all, naturally, on vinyl.

Now what you may call snobbery, I might just call standards, and what I call snobbery, you may call the intangible qualities of texture and warmth that give a recording character.

But just why does snobbery get such a bad rep, and is it really all that evil?

Snobs are annoying because not only do they care passionately about something we don’t, but they have the impertinence to consider that lack of interest a failure on our part. They aren’t content with simply liking what they like: They insist on equating those preferences with more broadly applicable values and “how things should be.”

And the values they hold often seem abstract and arbitrary — hard to quantify or distinguish unless you’ve spent a lot of time in their circle. There can be something Kafkaesque about the web of interlocking knowledge and hierarchies that must be navigated before you are qualified to judge as a true snob does.

However, perhaps we should be a little more sympathetic toward the music snobs.

Snobbery is essentially a defensive position. The complex barriers to entry it throws up, the insistence on the value of intangible qualities of taste over more easy-to-determine commercial values, act as protection from the commodification of the music they enjoy.

We’re so used to being pampered and pandered to, of being patted on the head by the media and told we’re terrific, that it comes as a shock to be told that, on the contrary, we are in fact uncultured and ignorant. It feels like a transgression — a violation of some sacred essence of the self, suddenly and powerfully embodied in our consumer choices. Music snobs are the critical super-ego fighting a desperate rearguard action to save the ego from the ravenous pop cultural id.

At this point, some of you are probably thinking, “Hey, no, wait: Music snobbery is just another sort of consumer lifestyle, driven by a narcissistic need to feel special and superior,” and maybe adding, “Also, ‘super-ego’ — are you serious?”

And yes, there’s a kernel of truth to this, too. For evidence, you just need to understand that the “Real DJs play vinyl” billboard is itself an advert for a DJ equipment store.

If it can be harnessed effectively, snobbery is a powerful tool in influencing consumer behavior. Fear of being thought gauche or uncool is something marketers have always sought to manipulate, and as markets move from targeting a broad, “mainstream” consensus to exploiting niches, a sense of exclusivity can be an extremely effective way of doing that. Look no further than otaku (obsessive fan) culture to see snobbery blown up into a multimillion-dollar industry.

Interestingly, the enemy this equipment store dismisses with such disdain on its billboard is most likely not a PC at all. The computer most laptop DJs will be using is a Mac — a brand that has marketed itself very effectively by selling a sense of smug, alternative superiority, even as it dominates the entire world electronics market.

So are snobbery and mainstream consumerism simply different facets of the same coin and just as bad as each other? It’s tempting to dismiss them both as such, but that would be too easy. I’m going to side with the snobs here.

Snobbery may be unpleasant and antisocial but within that lies a challenge: It tells us we don’t know enough, that we aren’t thinking enough, that we are too eager to conform. However obnoxious the mode of delivery, those are messages we would do well to bear in mind. So as we skip gaily through the minefields and crossfire of popular culture, maybe we should spare a little word of thanks for the snobs — the true heroes keeping our culture safe for the future.

Am I serious? Hey, if you need to ask, you’re never gonna know.