For anyone who has ever said “I listened to that band before they got big,” a personal tale of music snobbery and a reminder of the purpose of music.
I remember being wholly disappointed when Death Cab for Cutie’s fourth studio album Transatlanticism received very positive reviews from critics. I had been a Death Cab fan since their We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes days back in 2000 and loved the “coolness” of listening to a band whose four-word moniker was nonsense to outsiders. Jamming to a CD with a sentence long name by a Washington-based indie label signed band. What could get more hipster than that? (I was hipster even before being hipster was cool.) While my classmates argued the merits of Christina Aguilera vs. Britney Spears, I sat silently proudly thinking about the limited edition alternative rock EP I had been grooving to a day earlier. My music was a source of pride. “Oh you don’t know them,” I smugly answered whenever anyone asked me what I was listening to. When friends looked through my iPod, I was charmed by their reactions to the unrecognizable artist names. But then my worst fear had been realized: Death Cab for Cutie, my pride and joy, was beginning to garner attention from people who were not me.
Wait a second. People don’t review Death Cab for Cutie—let alone like it. I was appalled. What do you mean, “It charted?” That’s impossible. But yes, Transatlanticism made “Best Of” lists. Its songs began to be featured in advertisements. Fictional characters in television shows began to groove to my band. When I found out the male lead in the teen drama The O.C. liked Death Cab for Cutie, I nearly fainted.
And the worst part was that I liked Transatlanticism. Death Cab’s style had evolved from their third studio album, The Photo Album, into a richer, more mature sound. Lyrics were more poignant, melodies more complex. The album played on loop for weeks, and I was prouder than ever. “I love Transatlanticism!” I would spontaneously proclaim in a fit of joy despite the fact that I’m pretty sure that I had no idea what the word meant. It was my coolest-sounding secret, and that’s all I cared about.
When “The Sound of Settling,” the album’s second single, began receiving radio play and other mainstream exposure, I insisted that it was of lower quality than the other tracks on the album. Even worse, whenever a friend claimed he liked Death Cab for Cutie, I would proceed to quiz him. “Really? You do? What, ‘The Sound of Settling?’” I stopped listening to Transatlanticism; it was a betrayal as far as I was concerned. Death Cab for Cutie’s growing popularity was a personal insult. I stacked on every unfair judgment possible on my former favorite band. They were “sell-outs,” “mainstream,” and worst: “pop.” Their next album Plans also became commercially successful, further supporting my assumption that it was not worth listening to.
Why did I experience such an absurd reaction when Death Cab for Cutie got big? Am I a cultural snob? It is true that there are cases in which artists change in order to garner more commercial attention, but even this isn’t something deserving of being burned at the stake. Moreover, an increase in popularity does not automatically translate into lower quality art. Laying a claim to music before its emergence into the limelight undoubtedly gives a sense of ownership. An unknown band is a piece of property owned by a small number of people. This exclusivity makes it special. Anything popular is foolish and mindless, and any art that is mainstream is just “pandering to the masses.” Funnily enough, these sentiments themselves are popular and unreasonable. Artists create music for people’s enjoyment. The greatest appreciation a fan can express to his admired artist is the wish that the music he so loves may also affect other people in a similar way. A fan should crusade for the artist’s cause not against it for mere egotistical reasons.
I do not pretend that these suggestions are easily followed. I have been guilty of this type of musical snobbery on more occasions than I would like to admit, and I still wince when I hear gushing about Plans and Transatlanticism, but falling into the automatic “pop sucks” reaction is unfair to all art. Not all pop is worthy of acclaim, but backlash against any music simply because it is popular is irrational and wrongly discredits the success it nevertheless achieved. In 2008, Death Cab for Cutie released its biggest album to date, Narrow Stairs, which eventually reached the top of the Billboard 200. As much as it is difficult to swallow, I accept (and am glad) that my little quartet from Bellingham, Washington is now a nationally-recognized, Grammy-nominated, alternative rock band.
And that’s ok because “Cath…” is insanely catchy.