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Rock Snobbery Explained

Read a selection of entries from the Rock Snob’s Dictionary

The Rock Snob is a confounding person in your life. On one hand, he brooks no ignorance of pop-music history, and will take violent umbrage at the fact that you’ve never heard of the noted rock arranger and soundtrack composer Jack Nitzsche, much less heard Nitzsche’s ambitious pop-classical album, St. Giles Cripplegate. On the other hand, he will not countenance the notion that you know more than he about a certain area of music. If, for example, you mention that Fun House is your favorite Stooges album, he will respond that it “lacks the visceral punch of ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ from a year earlier, but it’s got some superb howling from Iggy and coruscating riffage from Ron Asheton, though not on the level of James Williamson’s on Raw Power”—this indigestible clump of words acting as a cudgel with which the Rock Snob is trumping you and marking the turf as his.

The Rock Snob*s Dictionary (Broadway Books, 2005) was conceived, in part, to enable non-Snobs to hold their own in such distressing situations, with the added benefit of sparing them the trouble of actually listening to the music in question. However, the dictionary is equally useful as a primer for curious music fans who sincerely want to learn more about rock but are intimidated by unexplained, ultra-knowing references in the music press to “Stax-y horns,” “chiming, plangent Rickenbackers,” and “Eno.” The editors have painstakingly catalogued the fundaments of Rock Snobbery—e.g., Who is Nick Drake? Why should I care about the deceased rock critic Lester Bangs? What is this “Hammond B3” thing that they keep talking about?—and distilled years of arduous research into concise, alphabetized knowledge pellets. And though most of the Snob canon consists of music that’s actually quite listenable, the editors have not shied away from sounding a word of warning about the follies of certain revisionist Snobs, who, in their eagerness to claim a “discovery,” recklessly elevate the reputation of such flagrantly second-rate acts as Badfinger and Delaney & Bonnie

The editors caution that neither The Rock Snob*s Dictionary nor Snobsite.com is meant to serve as a comprehensive rock-music reference in the vein of The Rolling Stone Encylopedia of Rock & Roll. Just because a musician has enjoyed lasting success and critical acclaim doesn’t mean he warrants inclusion here. Only the persons and entities that are the psychic property of Rock Snobs make the cut. For example, there is no entry for David Crosby, because practically every person over 30 knows who he is and can hum a few bars of “Teach Your Children.” However, the late Gene Clark, Crosby’s colleague in the original lineup of the Byrds, warrants an entry because, while the average Joe hasn’t the faintest idea who he is, the Rock Snob has fetishized him for his poor-selling post-Byrds output of country rock and orchestral pop. Occasionally, there will be an entry that seems to buck this policy, that will seem familiar to lay readers—such as Dion, ubiquitous on oldies radio via “The Wanderer” and “A Teenager in Love,” or Dexys Midnight Runners, the ’80s British pop group of “Come On Eileen” repute—but appearances are deceptive. These artists warrant inclusion in The Rock Snob*s Dictionary and Snobsite.com because Snobs value them for utterly different reasons than non-Snobs do—in Dion’s case, for his post-drug-rehab forays into folk music and MOR pop in the late ’60s and early ’70s; in Dexys Midnight Runners’ case, for the alienating, absurdist post-“Eileen” work of the group’s key member, Kevin Rowland. For all intents and purposes, there are two Dions and two Dexyses, the Snob and non-Snob versions. The latter versions, being accessible and commercially successful and all, don’t warrant our consideration here.

A Brief History of Rock Snobbery

Since the dawn of rock, there have been individuals, usually young men of argumentative tendencies, who have lorded their encyclopedic musical knowledge over others. In the movie Diner, the filmmaker Barry Levinson adroitly depicts an early specimen of this type with the character Shrevie, played by Daniel Stern, who dresses down his wife for misfiling one of his 45s, and, in the same fit of pique, boasts of knowing the producer, year, label, and B-side title of every single he owns. By the 1970s, the legions of such pedants had grown considerably thanks to the emergence of a credible rock press. Via Rolling Stone and Creem in America and Melody Maker and the New Musical Express in Britain, one could easily track the latest developments in Captain Beefheart’s career and vicariously experience David Bowie’s gigs with the Spiders from Mars, even if one was underage or wary of actually commingling with sweaty, hirsute rock people in the flesh.

But it wasn’t until the 1980s that Rock Snobbery truly gained traction as a phenomenon and pathology. This was attributable chiefly to two developments: the advent of the “classic rock” radio format, which saw rock aficionados retreat from their monomaniacal obsession with the new, and the rise of the CD format, which A) compelled fans to repurchase their entire music collections; and B) compelled the record labels to reissue their back catalogues with “bonus tracks” and booklets featuring never-before-seen photographs and exhaustive liner notes. Rock knowledge, even of the most arcane sort, was suddenly common currency and a saleable commodity, valuable and significant beyond one’s immediate circle of loser friends. Independent labels such as Rhino and Sundazed astutely took advantage of this situation, broadening the Snob mandate beyond the mere revisiting of one’s old favorites and trawling the archives for out-of-print records that could be digitalized, remastered, and packaged as “lost masterpieces” and “forgotten gems.” The attendant press coverage created a new roster of Snob heroes whose underappreciatedness was, in the Snob purview, a societal crime: Gram Parsons, Curt Boettcher, Fred Neil, Alex Chilton, Shuggie Otis. Which is not to say that the Rock Snob was some hidebound, patchouli-drenched anachronism who lived strictly in the past—he was, by definition, in touch, and thus, his fear of calcification ensured that he kept up with developments in hip-hop and electronica as surely as he collected Syd Barrett bootlegs.

By the dawn of the twenty-first century, Rock Snobbery had become so widespread that some old-line Snobs felt under siege, their carefully hoarded knowledge of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music no longer special in the wake of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? roots-music explosion, their rare mint vinyl copies of Shuggie Otis’s Inspiration Information rendered worthless by the album’s loving reissue on CD—an indignity exacerbated by the title track’s inclusion on a Starbucks compilation. But the fact is, Rock Snobbery, far from having been undermined, had reached epidemic proportions. While the fogy stereotype still occasionally rang true—the Snob as embodied by Nick Hornby’s aging hipster protagonist in High Fidelity, or by the indignant boomer who writes to Mojo magazine complaining that Radiohead is too young to appear on the cover—the Rock Snob phenomenon had grown to encompass both sexes and all ages: The twentysomething Jack White covered Dusty Springfield tunes and took it upon himself to produce Loretta Lynn’s comeback album; the Lindsay Lohan-portrayed teen heroine of Disney’s 2003 remake of Freaky Friday affectionately cradled “my dad’s Strat”; and such Snob lodestars as the Pixies, the Stooges, and the New York Dolls exhumed themselves for sold-out reunion shows that were attended not only by nostalgic graybeards but by kids who missed out on these bands the first time around.

The Snob fraternity has also benefitted from the very public advocacy of its celebrity membership, a roster whose number includes such musicians as Morrissey, Beck, Elvis Costello, and the Beastie Boys and such music-savvy film directors as Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and Cameron Crowe. These individuals, all of unimpeachably exquisite musical taste, play a sort of curatorial role for the masses, using their platforms to familiarize civilians with such Snobworthies as Jobriath, Serge Gainsbourg, David Ackles, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Nico, and Harry Nilsson. In some cases this role has been formalized, with the Luminary Snob actually mandated by an institution to propagate his Snobbery. Both Costello and the producer Hal Willner have served stints in UCLA’s Artist-in-Residence program, where they have been charged by the university with organizing conceptual concert series; Willner really pulled out all the stops with his two-day Harry Smith tribute in 2001, which featured Costello, Beck, Bill Frisell, Todd Rundgren, Marianne Faithfull, and Richard Thompson, among others. And, since 1993, London’s Royal Festival Hall has hosted a summertime concert series called Meltdown in which a guest Snob curator—past overseers include Morrissey, Laurie Anderson, Nick Cave, Scott Walker, and, inevitably, Costello—rounds up his favorite “seminal” acts for a de facto Snob Woodstock.

Though non-Snobs still far outnumber Snobs in the general population, the demographics of Snobbery are skewing ever younger. Taken in tandem with the aforementioned advances in Snob education, this trend augurs further gains in the Snob population and a future in which even preschoolers will be able to differentiate between the Louvin Brothers and the Stanley Brothers.

Finally, let us express our sincere hope that this reference performs a valuable public service, serving not only to edify musically inquisitive readers, but to bridge cultural gaps between Snobs and non-Snobs, many of whom sleep under the same roof but live lives fraught with unnecessary, vintage-vinyl-related tension.

Oh, and by the way, the cool Beatles song for Snobs to like is “Cry Baby Cry,” off Side 4 of the White Album.

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