Chris Milam’s piece to that effect at PopMatters is well-written, and I do find the argument that certain genres of popular music have gotten a little self-absorbed fairly convincing, but man is it problematic on a number of levels. First, I refuse to acknowledge that Zach Braff has nearly enough influence on popular culture to set us all off track. Second, I think Milam may be overinterpreting the scene from Garden State in which “Natalie Portman popped headphones onto Zach Braff’s head and said flatly, ‘This song will change your life.'” Portman’s character in the movie may have picked the wrong song to have her life changed by. But I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with having your life lit up by music. And I don’t know that a desire for music to transform you actually leads to the predominance of bland music. If anything, it ought to set the bar for music much higher. It should take a lot to blow your head off.
But it was actually the last paragraph of the piece that bothered me the most. Milam writes:
While these questions and a million others go unanswered on the radio waves and split-screens and message boards and blogs and Top 40 countdowns of this Bored New World, I’m still in the back of a smokeless room, waiting for someone, anyone with a kick drum and an amp, a vein in their neck and a thorn in their side, hungry and desperate and raw, to step up and sing something with a heartbeat from the Other America, where there’s something to prove and nothing to lose.
It’s more than slightly weird to me that Milam seems to think that the quality of music a person makes is determined by the class that they’re a part of. And while he doesn’t say it, his argument seems to be entirely determined by his analysis of rock. It seems fairly abundantly obvious to me that growing up basically middle-class didn’t stop Kanye West from pushing hip-hop forward, and it didn’t deny Beyonce her voice. And there’s something seriously problematic with declaring that the rock that comes out of poorer communities is somehow more authentic, inherently better, than rock that comes from anywhere else. Fetishizing other people’s disadvantage in the name of your own enjoyment of art doesn’t mean you’re empowering them. You’re putting them on a pedestal, and demanding that they not be allowed to get down.