Music tastes, “fervent eclecticism,” and cultural omnivores

A review of the new TV series High Fidelity suggests musical snobbery has changed:

So how are we to think about the key motto—“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like”—referenced in all three versions of High Fidelity? Hornby’s aphorism might sound outdated in the era of identity politics, when Twitter’s brawls over art can make independent aesthetic judgments seem secondary to proudly lining up with one’s tribe. Hulu’s High Fidelity does, refreshingly, correct the exclusionary spirit that went with the original’s lack of diversity. Yet crucially, the series retains the assurance that music preferences reflect something individual, ineffable, soul-deep, and in need of sharing. Kravitz’s Robin—a brooding biracial and bisexual space cadet enamored of the Beastie Boys, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, and the folk singer Nick Drake—eludes any image neatly tied to race, gender, or sexuality. In one hilarious subplot that highlights taste as an idiosyncratic proxy for identity, Cherise posts a flyer looking for bandmates in sync with her ideal sound: “Think Brian Eno producing Beyoncé fronting Soul Coughing but with Daniel Ash on guitar.”

Such fervent eclecticism is countercultural in any era, because by definition it flouts paradigms. Here it represents another way in which the new High Fidelity audiophiles feel they have, as Cherise puts it at one point, “opted out” of their own algorithm-obedient generation. But they’re not quite the oddballs they think they are. Genre boundaries have been melting in popular music lately, and the quest for self-definition through sound is no niche practice. As I write this, my social feeds are full of people sharing their personalized Spotify report on their most-listened-to songs of the year. Some users are LOLing at the quirkiness of their habits (one friend’s top five artists of 2019 included ultra-glossy contemporary country, hard-edged underground rap, and the Barenaked Ladies). Others cheekily revel in the stereotypes it turns out they’ve fallen into (“so gay,” texts someone whose No. 1 was Carly Rae Jepsen). I’m not seeing a lot of mockery; I am seeing a lot of curiosity, amusement, and discussion. The tools of High Fidelity’s rankers and curators have been democratized, and of course not everyone is going to use them for esoteric adventures. If you’ve got a problem with that, you might be a snob.

This reminds me of sociological research on “cultural omnivores”:

The term cultural omnivorousness was first introduced to the cultural consumption literature by Richard Peterson, in 1992, to refer to a particular cultural appreciation profile. According to his definition, this profile emerged in the late 20th century, in accordance with macro changes experienced in the socioeconomic and political spheres. Omnivorous consumers have an increased breadth of cultural taste and a willingness to cross established hierarchical cultural genre boundaries. In other words, the concept refers to a taste profile that includes both highbrow and lowbrow genres…The omnivore thesis is extremely important for contemporary cultural theory because it pushes researchers to scrutinize the current status of the relationship between culture and power. The contributors to this debate have provided competing answers to the following crucial questions: What is the strength and direction of the association between socioeconomic status and cultural taste? Are we witnessing the decomposition of cultural-class boundaries and snobbishness? How far does cultural omnivorousness bring tolerance and cultural inclusion? These questions, asked within the debate, demonstrate the concept’s significance for our understanding of sociocultural change. Many case studies have shown that eclectic repertoires are more likely to be embodied by the educated middle classes. Peterson himself argued that the employment market has begun to seek this kind of wide-range awareness and cultural inclusiveness. It seems that being a true omnivore requires certain skills, investment, and prior cultural knowledge, which can be translated into advantages in other social fields. Moreover, empirical research is now sufficient enough to show that omnivores are selective and they show little tolerance for the genres associated with lower social/cultural status. Therefore, this repertoire may very well be considered a new form of distinction—a strategy the economically and culturally advantaged use to “make” their identity and distinguish themselves from others.

In short, research shows that tastes in music and other realms is connected to social class. A way to differentiate your tastes from someone else is to have a wider repertoire, particularly for those with resources. Extending this review a bit, then perhaps cultural omnivorousness has spread from those with educational and financial capital to broader segments of society. Could being a cultural omnivore be something more people now aspire to or admire?

Becoming a cultural omnivore and expressing this in daily life is another avenue worth exploring. In High Fidelity, this took place within a record shop where selling music provided the backdrop for ongoing conversations about music. In daily life today, cultural omnivores or those who want to be might have different experiences. Is it easier to be an omnivore with all the streaming music services that allow access to different artists, genres, and songs? While the music supply has expanded, where do conversations about music or extended interactions regarding music now take place?

Finally, fitting these kinds of tastes in music and other cultural products with broader senses of identity (race, gender, class, etc.) could be fascinating. Is being a cultural omnivore still elitist or tied to particular kinds of people? Or, are there multiple ways to be a cultural omnivore that draw on different identities?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s