by Nick Ward

In some form or another, we’ve all been exposed to musical taste shaming.

If you’re a fan of The Eagles, Drake, Rush, or perish the thought, you are passionate about the music of Nickelback, you have probably received more than your share of barbs aimed in your direction.

As a populace who has endured the ‘age of hipsterism,’ most of us have been exposed to the smug judgment of those who perceive their own musical tastes as superior to the preferences of the rest of us rubes.


Of course, hipsterism is just another term for yet another ‘age’ that mimics the same social and cultural elitist behaviours that have been occurring for centuries. Pomposity is perennial, and generally speaking, it is a personality trait of those lacking a degree of social awareness. Surely we can agree that it is narrow-minded to judge someone’s essence based solely on their musical preferences!

Although taste shaming is nothing new, shaming in today’s digital reality can have more profound consequences than ever before. Our social media accounts prompt us to express ourselves through superficial ‘must-complete’ field templates, and for most of these platforms, they ask us to list our favourite shows, movies and of course, music. This accessible personal information provides bullies with a public venue to judge and lampoon us based on our cultural palates, making us more susceptible than ever to negative judgment; social assessments which can have a genuine impact on our sense of self and subsequent life quality.

Taste Shaming in a Digital World

To better understand this prevalent issue, Music Professor in the School for Studies in Art and Culture, James Deaville has been researching the cultivation and social dynamics of musical taste shaming and how it wields power in our lives.

When discussing the matter, Deaville, a Musicologist whose background work includes research on composers, musical practices and institutions of the 19th and 20th centuries, Franz Liszt, music criticism, movie trailer sound, television news music, Nordic composers during the Third Reich (and lots more), uses one of the most predominant figures in modern day taste shaming as his central case study.

“Billy Joel is a great example of what many people consider ‘schlock’ artistry,” said Deaville. “Joel is tremendously popular. He’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and nearly anyone can sing a bar or two of at least one of his songs.”

“But, based on the mainstream sensibilities of Joel’s discography, many people see his work as lacking a certain credibility.”

Billy Joe Pop art

Listen to Professor Deaville talks Taste Shaming on CBC’s Ottawa Morning

Deaville employs the Piano Man composer as an example of a talented and decorated musician whose fans are reluctant to publicly affiliate themselves with.  Joel is an objectively gifted musician, so why do his followers prefer not admitting to being fans of his work? Deaville reveals that Joel is viewed as lacking the elusive and fleeting perception of artistic authenticity. Merge this perceived lack of artistry with Joel’s industrial songwriting and financial success, and you have an artist who personifies schlock. “The Urban Dictionary defines schlock it as ‘corporate radio friendly music of low quality, often intended for adolescent males,’ while proclaims ‘schlock, at its finest, is where bad taste becomes great art. Schlock is music that drowns all other values in brute emotional impact. It aims to overwhelm while lacking sophistication, subtlety, wit, irony, originality and experimentation,’” relayed Professor Deaville.


50 Shades of Grey Book Cover, example of Schlock“Confessing that you are a diehard fan of Billy Joel or Kenny G, or the Fifty Shades of Grey book series opens you up to criticism. All of these are examples of ‘bad’ or ‘rubbish’ art. The social ramifications of divulging your taste are real. It can lead to public or social media ridicule and even a type of ostracism,” said Deaville.

Sadly, this prompts many to hide their fandom, viewing their enthusiasm for certain artists as a guilty pleasure or secret passion. “In certain fan communities public shaming may serve the purpose of boundary policing, for the fan of schlock, shaming arises from the compulsion to silence the geek in others, to exercise normalizing power over that person’s deviant identities,” explained Deaville. Thus, it is easier to remain silent than to endure taste shaming by colleagues, classmates, friends, and family.

Paradoxically, although the publicness of the internet exposes fans to criticism, it also offers users hidden communal nooks like fan message boards to ambiguously and unabashedly express their enthusiasm. These online communities of like-minded people can function as fan-identity validation. In best-case scenarios, it can also produce a momentum in translating their hidden online personas to expressing their fandom openly in their everyday lives without the mask of a username or avatar.

In a recent paper he presented at Colorado College for a conference titled It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me: The Music and Lyrics of Billy Joel, Deaville drew upon contemporary research on the performance and performativity in fandom.

“People should feel free to like what comes naturally to them. There is no right or wrong when it comes to taste.”

“My work intends to explore the psychic and physical pressures experienced by schlock fans,” said Deaville. “Some researchers believe that the burden for relief rests with the fan, who should relinquish the shame, while others have effectively argued for the personal loss and pain that practices of abjection like shaming bring to bear.”

“People should feel free to like what comes naturally to them,” contended Deaville. “There is no right or wrong when it comes to taste.”

Deaville believes that part of his function as a public musicologist is “to help create an environment that recognizes the validity of the broadest range of tastes and perspectives.”

For all of the taste-shaming victims out there, let’s hope the work of Deaville and his academic peers are significant steps towards helping you finally feeling all right enough to wear your River of Dreams Tour ’93 t-shirts with the level of pride your fandom has always warranted. It is about time that we should all feel comfortable expressing ourselves just the way we are.

Post Image Credit: Kenny G on sax, Micah Sittig, Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0 License).
50 Shades of Grey, Wikipedia, Fair Use

Friday, October 7, 2016 in , ,
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