Elitism and Gatekeeping

This article is written with the assumption that the reader knows what a musical genre means. If not, the writer, Josh, urges the readers to stop being posers and to either educate themselves on the topic or to stop listening to music altogether. There’s no other way around. Seriously, Josh is madly in anger. And what is Josh trying to say by writing about himself in the 3rd person as an obnoxious and uptight stuck up, barring people from listening to music? Josh knows. Elitism may come to mean many different things, depending on the context we are talking about. In a general sense, the Oxford English Dictionary defines elitism as “the attitude or behaviour of a person or a group who regard themselves as belonging to an elite, with elite meaning “a group of people considered to be the best in a particular society or category, especially because of their power, talent, or wealth”. For our purposes here, we’re going to be looking at music elitism.

Elitism in music is the idea that certain ‘types’ of music are better than others when measured with an abstract, arbitrary scale, which mostly considers the content, complexity, motive, subjective likings, and the overall feel in a piece of music. Basically, establishing a piece of music as better than others through comparison of their content and personal preferences. Each one of us has probably taken part and encountered some mild form of elitism at one point or another. In conversation, you’ve probably heard your raunchy, nasal, southern uncle say, “Back in my day, son, the music wasn’t as bad as today’s trash pop” or anyone else spinning a similar version of this story, sharing the same sentiments.

While you may agree with the above statement or not, what this uncle of yours did was compare two vastly different types of music and establish one to be better over the other. That’s elitism. And while it may seem harmless, we ultimately realize that although it is an appeal to emotion to hold dearly to the music of one’s younger days, it is harmless. What? Never mind. I thought I was making a point, but I wasn’t. Gasp. But this is an example of elitism that we interface with quite commonly. Maybe you like a certain genre, artist, or a band. Aha! More conveniently, maybe you like Metallica, so you set out to take an album like ‘Master of Puppets’ and put it up against the newly released ’72 Seasons’ to settle which is the better album. Maybe, like most people, you’ll reach the conclusion that Metallica somehow ‘sold out’ after the ‘Black Album’. What criteria did you use to establish that? That is not my concern, but what does interest me is the observation that you went through the same process your raunchy uncle went through: you made a comparison, weighed one album against the other and by whatever metric, reached the verdict that one is better than the other. Neat.

One might stop to think that the process is extremely judgemental. However, the act of judging, at least in the case of art, is, in and of itself, not inherently harmful. Judging is quite useful and actually necessary to establish which music you like and separate that from the ones you don’t. Afterall, it is human life. No one can like everything and besides, we have limited time to spare so we better choose what we waste our time listening to wisely. But elitism goes a step further. Elitism not only tries to establish one piece or type of music as better than others, but elitism slanders music that stands in contrast to an elitist’s preferred choice of music. Your uncle isn’t just saying the music back then was good. He’s also slandering all modern music. You’re not just saying Metallica’s thrash days were better, you are also slandering all the music that Metallica made after the Black Album and dismissing them by saying they sold out. Very well, but still, one might argue, it’s a harmless idea, although a bit self-righteous. I mean, humans often feel the need to put down their fellow apes to feel good about themselves. It is just a reflection of that feeling. Right? RIGHT? Well, the simple existence of any idea has the potential to yield significantly harmful results: radicalism and extremity. And elitism manifests itself in one of its most extreme forms, a phenomenon we call ‘Gatekeeping’. The term being more popular in internet circles than in the real world, gatekeeping occurs, at least in most cases, when a group of people listening to a particular genre of music get radicalized in their ways and start viewing anyone who listens to anything other than what they like as being inferior. Gatekeepers often lurk around in social media comment sections where they call people out for having a music taste different than theirs. While this childish activity may seem harmless as we assume such bogus activities to have been committed by people living in their mom’s basements, such actions may have dire consequences in giving the genre they hold so dearly to themselves a bad rep. I’ll ask the next question on your behalf, “How does that happen, Mr. Josh? One important aspect of gatekeeping is the fact that the gatekeepers literally act like gatekeepers. What do I mean by that? A gatekeeper bullies and trolls anyone who tries to get into their beloved genre as being posers, simply because of the fact that they have been listening to other music, will likely keep continuing to listen to that music and assume that the only reason they’re listening to said genre is because they are trying to act cool. These holier-than-thou crusaders gatekeep what they refer to as ‘posers’ and ‘normies’ from listening to their genre of preference by means of name calling and cyber bullying.

The repercussions? Genres and types of music which tend to have more gatekeepers on average tend to have a seriously bad rep, hindering anyone else to actually get their feet wet and explore the vast ocean that lies before them. Because of this, the genre or type of music dwindles in popularity and slides to the mists of obscurity, only for such gatekeepers to complain that no one is listening to ‘good music’.

While one may claim that gatekeeping to a certain extent may be necessary for their beloved music to not be hijacked by the average listener, I as the writer am withholding from taking a stand on the issue and rather reporting on the bad effects which accompanies such extreme elitism. You may think that a certain level of gatekeeping is desirable. There is an argument to be made, that is certain. But reporting solely on extremes, gatekeeping does more harm than good not only to the genre a gatekeeper is gatekeeping but to themselves and the public on the whole. While the genre loses potential listeners and the people outside of the culture missing out on great art and forms of expression being made, the gatekeeper, in his knighted holy righteousness, suffers the most. Being stuck in an echo chamber of meaningless elitism, they become hollow, missing out on the other oceans of art being made elsewhere but also, though subtly, becoming prone to adoption of absurd ideas. Though not as obvious, it clearly is the case when looked at a more fundamental level. After all, if one can be led to believe that listening to a certain genre or type of music entitles them to slander people on unsolicited music crusades, it should come as no surprise for such a person to be led to believe in weird conspiracies. As Voltaire put it, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”. Very well indeed.

Gatekeeping does not only happen in whole genres, but in cases of individual bands within subcultures too. It should come as no surprise for metalheads. They are used to either committing such crimes or being on the receiving end. Brings to mind fresh memories. Sweet internet memories. 40 years ago, Metallica firing Dave Mustaine, kicking off the longest war fought in metal history. Or the ‘Nu metal sucks’ argument. Or the ‘Hair metal is for posers’ view. Or woah, I almost got carried away! I mean, I’m not Euronymous, I’m not a poser, I know what I am talking about!

Now, there is an argument to be made about the legitimacy of such claims. One may want to look at elitism when not taken to its extremes. That is indeed an interesting insight. Maybe some music is better than others, definitively. But this article sought to highlight only the negatives of extreme elitism. And I hope this gave you, the reader, a brief overview. I’ll go deeper into more specific issues in the coming weeks. This will involve a better view into this whole line of elitist thought.

There may after all be some objectivity in our measurement scales to judge music.

For all that can be imagined, there is a possibility.

We will explore that in the next article.

Until then

Keep rocking!

Written by Josh Mastiff

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