Obscurity rules, or how I learned to stop worrying and love Jandek
Last week, our St. Louis sister-paper the Riverfront Times published a provocative piece by Ryan Wasoba titled "Obscurity Sucks." In the article, Wasoba makes the point that "taking pride in obscurity is one of the lowest forms of music appreciation" and that it is "much more satisfying to talk to somebody I have never met before about Kanye West than to tell them they should listen to (insert band here)."
And while he sums up how music fans often interact these days, and the lasting connections forged over enjoying the same band as someone else, I'm much more inclined to say the opposite -- that obscurity rules. All this talking about the same bands, who get the majority of the publicity and endless radio play while inevitably headlining all of the summer's music festivals, grows tiresome and boring, frankly.
On the other hand, I love hearing a passionate description of a band I've never heard, or introducing a friend to a band and seeing them eventually become a big fan of the group.
Wasoba argues discussions about obscure bands often become one-sided when the other person hasn't heard of the group. Sure, it's more challenging to find the right words, but the payoff is huge when you do express them properly -- and seeing that twinkle of recognition when someone hears what you hear in a song for the very first time. Instead of reaffirming an existing bond, a new one is created. Same thing can be said for good music writing.
The problem comes when the so-called music snob uses obscurity to create space between themselves and others and opens the doors for absurdness found on a "I listen to bands that don't even exist yet" T-shirt. When the only goal is to prove musical prowess and encyclopedic knowledge of all things "indie" -- while simultaneously putting down "mainstream" tastes -- the aforementioned obscurity becomes a detriment.
Wasoba notes that "the immature quest to find music that nobody else has heard closes off the potential for common ground with another person when discussing music." Well, sometimes. But when those types of discussions happen more honestly and passionately, it's not showing off, but simply sharing love of music with someone else.
This obscurity debate is highlighted by the recent announcement that the celebrated outsider folk musician Jandek will be playing his first ever Minnesota concert in Mankato on October 20. The myth and mystique surrounding the reclusive, relatively unknown performer often supersedes his music itself, and has created a cult following for Jandek's seemingly endless string of releases as well as his rare live performances.
Now, there are plenty of music fans who hear Jandek's story (or lack of one, really), and are intrigued by the legend -- but don't end up connecting with his music at all. Fair enough. But then there are those who fall under Jandek's spell, and are hooked for life. But can a true music fan listen to Jandek and nothing but Jandek? Or do they revel in the enigma that Jandek represents far more than even the music he makes.
Here are some people talking openly and descriptively about Jandek in a documentary:
If Jandek, or Can, or Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, or [any band you've vaguely heard of, but never actually heard] remains the only musician that a person can speak passionately about, then yes, they are setting themselves up for a lot of one-way conversations and blank stares. (That, or they'll proudly crack jokes about how they've never actually heard an Usher song.)
Obscure or not, music is far better when shared. It makes you feel less alone, less weird, and less lost. Besides, every band and musician out there -- even Kanye West and Radiohead -- were far more obscure at some point. Let this be a call to throw open the lines of musical discourse that we might all be more passionate and articulate about the music we love.
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