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Column: My Life Could Be Your Band

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One of the bravest men I ever met was a guy who wore a T-shirt declaring “Your Favorite Band Sucks.” This was at Built To Spill’s St. Louis show at the now-defunct and much-lamented Mississippi Nights nightclub, way back in those heady days of 2004. I don’t say he was brave because the crowd was particularly rough or violent that night; it’s not difficult to be the toughest person among an indie crowd, which tends to consist of frail people sporting hoodies, black-framed glasses and heavy doses of mascara. Some of the women also wear mascara.

No, I say this man was brave for the simple and seemingly unremarkable act of wearing this shirt. Why? Because, with some exceptions, we music fans tend to take any criticism of our favorite artists as deeply personal insults on par with the most biting Yo Mamma jokes or the most inflammatory political rhetoric. Such criticism can open the critic up to a host of various insults, threats and suggestions to do something to himself that is physically impossible, often via the anonymity and safety net the Internet provides. If politics and religion are the two traditional hot button topics guaranteed to result in bruised feelings and bloodied noses, music should probably be added to that list.

Anyone noble or foolish enough to voice such dissent across the Internet’s truly-disturbing global reach has probably felt such wrath. A couple years ago I wrote a facetious and, what I considered, utterly silly and entirely innocuous article that questioned why the Lynyrd Skynyrd standard-for-lousy-songs tune “Free Bird” tends to be eagerly requested by the more intoxicated or tone deaf elements of a concert crowd. Meant only to bring a chuckle or two to someone’s dreary day, it instead resulted in a pretty impressive barrage of hate email from those Skynyrd disciples who walk anonymously among us. In a perverse way, I’ve actually started looking forward to these mails, which are usually sent from a culprit with a Southern-centric handle like george_wallace_fan or robert_e_lee_luver and generally take an amazingly vulgar Confederacy vs. Yankees approach in explaining why I’m missing the point about Skynyrd’s brilliance.

I don’t bring this up as any type of woe-is-me lament or for blatant and unrepentantly shameless self-promotion. Even worse, I’m guilty of the same hypocrisy and must admit that I have occasionally counted myself among this parade of fools. Take a shot at Born Sandy Devotional and I’m liable to lock onto your leg like a rabid pit bull. My brother and I have almost identical musical tastes, yet our differing views about R.E.M.’s Monster have threatened to create a rift between us usually reserved for ugly squabbles involving inheritances. He likes it; I know it’s the aural equivalent of rotting Spam. When I tried to get my wife sufficiently prepped for an Elvis Costello concert, I requested that she listen to This Year’s Model and Get Happy!!, two indisputable classics. When she recoiled in horror and cruelly dismissed both as “circus music, minus the elephants,” I reacted as if I’d been smacked in the jewels with a ball peen hammer. Only our eventual mutual agreement about Okkervil River prevented an ugly, prolonged marital spat, though I still suspect she likes the drummer more than the band’s music.

Which brings me back to the central question of this rambling article: why do so many music fans get so bothered, and in many cases grossly offended, when their favorite artists are either criticized or outright dismissed by those who don’t worship at that particular altar? Certainly some music fans are off the reservation; these are the ones you see listening to their favorite musicians at the gym, on the bus, or at work with an awed expression of hero worship that clearly shows that in their minds there right up there on that stage with the band. These are the people who dress up like their favorite performers, think that every song was written as a coded message to them, and drive cross-country to attend concerts, work and family commitments be damned. Wait, I’ve done that; scratch that last one.

Clearly such die-hards are without any possibility of redemption and should thus be handled with kid gloves, patted gently on the top of the head and perhaps even relocated to a deserted island near the coast of Borneo for everyone’s safety. Yet I’ve seen many cases where otherwise rational people react like vultures around a carcass when confronted with particularly pointed or satiric music criticism about their musical tastes.

The reasons for this are several: first (and please excuse this brief foray into armchair psychology), whether rightly or not, as music fans we tend to define who we are by the type of music we listen to. And when self-identify jumps into bed with musical preferences for a romping tango, it’s not too surprising that fans sometimes react with such strong emotions in the face of these critiques. Essentially an individual’s musical tastes become an extension of that individual; thus, there’s a tendency to view such comments as personal attacks.

The other main reason is that music fans tend to identify music with particular milestones or important events in their lives (“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea helped me get through my unfortunate accident/divorce/third stint in rehab, so I’ll brain you if you insult it”). Think about one of your personal favorite songs or albums; there’s a good chance it will remind you of a very specific time and place in your life (you know, when you were young and naïve and didn’t yet know life was a cruel, unforgiving whelp of a whore who brings nothing but disappointment). Such memories make us unintentionally defensive about slights directed at the music we hold so near and dear. Music shapes how many of us remember our past; is it therefore any wonder that we bristle when the music that frames this past is belittled or questioned?

Certainly there are numerous other reasons – some music fans just like to argue and play the roll of trolls on various websites, some critiques border on cheap personal attacks and deserve to be challenged, among others – but this somewhat unhealthy self-identification seems to be a large reason fans can react emotionally to perceived attacks about their musical preferences. Of course there are plenty of musos who can brush off such comments with a shrug, without it impacting their psyche or pissing them off.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that music can often serve as a lightning rod for both reasoned debate and borderline psychotic, overly emotional arguments. Music defines who we are, how we perceive both ourselves and others, and shapes the memories we keep in our various addled brains.

Or maybe it’s just that, as someone recently said to me, “All you music freaks are batshit crazy.”

by Eric Whelchel

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