Music Snobs: gatekeeping assholes, or just as insecure as the rest of us?
WORDS | Petra Shotwell (she/they)
ILLUSTRATIONS | Yi Jong (she/they)
If you were to ask, I’d tell you my favourite band is Bon Iver. That’s not exactly a lie – they are one of my favourites, and I have pretty intense emotions associated with every delicate and soul-squeezing note in the album For Emma, Forever Ago. But realistically, I don’t think I have a favourite. I’m also stubborn and can’t help but think ‘I don’t have to pick just one, so I won’t.’ Picking a single favourite musician or band is near impossible for most of us, but even more than that, it’s actually a major source of stress and, for some, shame.
You see, when you ask me what my favourite band is, I automatically generate the same answer I’ve given since I was 14. Perhaps because I’m a little bit afraid of thinking too deeply about a real answer. Music is personal. Music helps us to tell our stories and conveys our greatest joys and deepest traumas. The music we each connect with is one of the most intimate things we have. With that perspective, I think that when you ask me about my favourite music, I’m subconsciously panicking, as though you’re on the verge of finding my diary from my dark and twisty high school days and are about to read all my dirty little secrets.
You might be thinking ‘but why would someone be ashamed of the music they like?’ Alas, you are quite right – there is absolutely no need for those dreaded shame spirals. But, because of those infamous music snobs (maybe you’re one of them, sorry), the shame is relentless. I admit: the depths of my Spotify ‘liked songs’ are filled with musical mortification. I still think Jordin Sparks slaps, and early, super country Taylor Swift was absolutely fire. Even so, I'm terrified of what the snobs would say if they scrolled across the 2010s pop hits hidden amongst the indie gems I usually listen to.
Whether you’re in a panic trying to answer who your favourite artist is, declining to request the next song at a party or plug your phone into the aux in a car full of people, or you’re making separate playlists that are either made for sharing with friends or absolutely not – you, too, may be a little bit protective over the music you love. It’s as sad and simple as describing a song you like as your ‘guilty pleasure.’ Pleasure should exist without strings attached, and honey, guilt is one of the longest strings there can be – cut it off! Crank up those Top 20 hits ’cause they’re in the top for a reason, and you’re allowed to love ’em. In fact, you and your music really aren’t the problem. The favourite song of a music snob isn’t even the problem – they can enjoy their screamo on their own time, that’s fine. The problem, my friends, is the music snobs themselves. They are the reason we feel guilty about particular songs or panic when handed the aux. Let’s unpack that a little bit.
A music snob is a person who believes they have a superior and more refined taste in music than others, and a high level of knowledge in the music field in general. Not necessarily someone who has studied music or who knows legitimate facts about music, but who simply thinks their music taste trumps all. They also tend to think that if someone else happens to like the same music as them, they couldn’t possibly love it as much as they do. Usually, a music snob can be found listening to a very specific and unique music type – typically something few others know about, and absolutely never anything that would be broadcast on popular radio stations. The Edge? You’re dreaming. They tend to have a passionate dislike for pop music. Already, I’m thinking: well, ‘pop’ stands for ‘popular’, right? Meaning... lots of people like it. So, why do they think their music is inherently better than something enjoyed by most people? That’s one way of looking at it, although, I won't pretend I believe popular always equals good. I do, however, believe that popularity is probably part of what turns the music snobs off. Here’s the thing though... it’s not just music snobs. We’re all subconsciously a little snobby about pop music. Don’t get me wrong, I love it. But there’s a pretty huge stigma attached to pop music: ‘it’s too catchy’, ‘it’s got bad lyrics’, ‘it’s not real music, it’s too mainstream’, ‘it’s girly’ - maybe you don’t even realise how often these thoughts pop up, but I’m sure they do. Even while I’m tapping my foot and reciting the lyrics, I’ll think ‘ugh, it’s a bit cringe’. Something is telling us we shouldn’t like it, even if we do. Hence the existence of guilty pleasure.
The majority of people I spoke to about this confirmed that they do have a guilty pleasure, usually in the pop genre. People are convinced that liking Harry Styles will make others think they are a ‘1D fangirl’. Now, while there may be be some stigma associated with that title, it’s also undeserving of ridicule. It seems that most people have something in common here, whether they enjoy it or not: pop music is in some way ‘less than’. Those who don’t like it judge others who do and those who do are embarrassed about it. One person I spoke to expressed their fear that enjoying mainstream pop made them ‘a fraud who gave in to advertising’. Others described pop as cringy, tacky, simple, easy, and even ‘less valuable’, even though they love it.
Every single person who confessed to having a ‘guilty pleasure’ song listed fear of judgement and ridicule as the reason they feel that guilt. Judgement from who? Why, the infamous music snobs of course! Most of these people also said they never volunteer to plug their playlists into the aux, stating anxiety as the main reason. Those who do, however, are also the ones who describe their own music taste as quite specific, obscure, or something that ‘most people don’t like’. Some of these people admitted to skipping songs occasionally, and maybe sometimes teasing their friends about what they listen to, but they also acknowledge how judgey this comes across, stating that music taste is subjective, and there isn’t just one correct good song or genre out there.
These people might come across as a little snobby and particular about music, but is this really the behaviour of a real music snob? In my own experience with the very worst of music snobs (the real assholes) they won’t even play you their favourite music. They don’t want you to, God forbid, actually enjoy it. It’s far too cool and quirky for normal music listeners. It’s all a bit weird and gatekeeper-y. Instead of showing off how good their music is, they hide it, because if you hear it, then they’ve suddenly lost their thing, you know? Suddenly, they are no longer the special fella with the niche taste. There’s a lot to unpack here – this type of person clearly has some built up feeeeelings. Even music snobs have their reasons for not sharing their favourite songs with the world – it's like your dark and twisty high school diary, remember?
Many people I spoke to shared thoughts similar to this: music snobs are merely expressing their own insecurities, just a bit more aggressively than the rest of us. Really, they might be just as afraid of judgement as we are. Their music taste is unique, quirky, alty – but I bet after a couple of cold ones they’d still jump up and down to Lady Gaga in the gay bar if they had the chance (and no judgement there). For some reason, they’re embarrassed by their potential ability to enjoy those mainstream tunes; however, we’re all living with the stigma, at least a little bit. The most common thought among people I spoke to is that music snobs and those who skip other people’s music are simply impatient, judgey, rude, and that it’s just cruel to express negative opinions about someone else's taste. However, one person I spoke to says she thinks music snobs behave the way they do because of their ‘fear of projecting the “wrong” image of themselves onto the world’; another said they’re simply ‘trying to be cool’, and one person even admitted that they ‘skip songs all the time, isn’t that normal?’ Almost everyone commented on how deeply and uniquely personal music is to each individual.
So that brings us to the most important question of all, and one I still don’t know how to answer: are music snobs really assholes, or are they just as insecure as the rest of us, trying to protect their own personal connection to music?
We’re all a bit protective over the music we love – whether that’s because we’re embarrassed, because it says too much about who we are, or because we don’t want other people to think they like it more than we do. Tell me, at the end of each year, do you share your Spotify wrapped results with everyone you know? Only on your ‘close friends’ story? Pretend you never read them? Why? What do you think your music says about you? Maybe there’s a snob inside and you don’t want anyone to steal the thing you love so much. The point is, we’re all a little anxious when it comes to music.
But I still think music snobs are kinda just assholes, sorry.