When Samuel Beam, better known by his stage name Iron & Wine, sidled his way onto the Peter J. Sharp stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the crowd of New Yorkers in the auditorium took in a collective breath and began to applaud. Long-limbed and guarded by the frame of his acoustic guitar, Beam had a beard reaching almost to his chest and a very slight stoop to his shoulders. “Hello,” he murmured into the microphone. “Anything you guys want to hear?”
I clutched my sister by the wrist. As Beam settled his capo on the strings of his guitar and launched into his first, ten-minute-long song, “The Trapeze Swinger,” I turned to her and whispered, “This must be how some people feel about Beyoncé.”
My sister, two years older and infinitely cooler, had introduced me to Iron & Wine when I was 13 and music for me was just Top 40. My musical tastes were Gwen Stefani and whatever Ryan Seacrest, straight from American Idol fame, had on the list for the weekend. In a sign of the times, my sister burned a series of CDs for me of Iron & Wine, Devendra Banhart, The Knife, Beirut, and Of Montreal. I took to all of them. The accordions of Beirut accompanied my walks to school, Of Montreal took me on runs, but I fell asleep listening to the soft guitars of Iron & Wine and Devendra Banhart.
They were the two kings of the Indie 2000’s. They were successful before Justin Vernon of Bon Iver ever whispered his way onto the scene. Picking up after the turbulent and tortured acoustic energy of Elliott Smith, Devendra and Samuel Beam represented his woodsy, more optimistic counterparts. They were hipster darlings, and with their respective freak folk and indie rock styles, they settled easily in the hearts of my generation of artists and musicians.
They were like nothing I’d ever heard. But a couple of years later my eyes were opened again when I fell into the California rockclimbing community and was introduced to a life of reggae, DJ Shadow, Deltron 3030, and the Wu-Tang Clan. The music of my stoner climbing friends was simultaneously triumphant and laid-back, and to this day reminds me of driving to crags with chalk dust in the air and ropes in the trunk of the car. My allegiance to pop music, never strong, waned and then morphed into disdain. I felt poised delicately between the indie rock that I had recently come to love and the trip-hop that oozed through my climbing gym.
Beneath this tight-rope walking between styles ran a distinctive and youthful impulse: a desire not to be boxed-in, to make my own way even if it meant never feeling exactly comfortable. I praised myself not only for the objectivity of my ear but also for the eclecticism of my tastes
Then, several months before the Brooklyn concert, I was introduced to Carl Wilson. Music critic and Elliott Smith fan, Carl Wilson was published as part of the 33 1/3 series, a set of pocket-sized books in which critics savor the ups and downs of their favorite albums (they sell them in Labyrinth, but his book is of course sold out). Instead of writing about Figure 8 or the Beatles’ Let It Be, Wilson went in another direction. His 2007 book is called “Let’s Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste,” and it’s about Celine Dion, possibly one of the most hated and overproduced pop singers of all time.
Wilson tackles everything from the pop music culture to Celine’s Canadian roots. Along the way he covers everything from Kant to Thom Yorke. The book is a masterpiece that’s not really about Celine. In his salient Chapter 8, glibly titled “Let’s Talk about Who’s Got Bad Taste” Wilson echoes French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, convincingly arguing that interests and tastes give people “cultural capital,” a form of social and intellectual power. Musical fans of a given group naturally fall along similar lines of class, race, and gender. Middle-aged white women past fifty enjoy the syrupy crooning of Celine Dion. New Yorkers who were hipsters in the mid-2000’s adore Samuel Beam.
But it’s not that simple — people also adopt the musical tastes of those with whom they want to socialize, to better fit in to a given social group. If I wanted to be friends with kids in high school who listened to death metal, a good strategy would be for me to start listening to death metal too, to accrue that particular type of cultural capital.
Wilson doesn’t stop there. In today’s culture, especially amid the upper-class of young, well-educated people, he argues that musical “omnivores” can cultivate even more cultural capital. These listeners want to spread their tastes widely, claiming to enjoy many genres of music (even the most mainstream pop, which can become so uncool that it’s cool again) and only disdaining those genres considered reserved for the lowest class: for example, country and gospel.
The book, and this chapter in particular, broke my heart. Wilson and his French sociologist guide, I felt, were describing me to a tee. I had hoped that my affinity for the electro-funk of Chromeo and the smooth beats of Nujabes balanced out my love for the Weepies and Iron & Wine. I praised myself for eclecticism, only to discover that I was a garden-variety artistic omnivore, greedy for cultural capital. The worst part was that I still didn’t know where my disparate tastes came from — was the music I liked even good? Or was it just an effect of sociology, my attempts to fit in with guys at the crag and the hipster-artist types my older sister hung out with? Did I love Sam Beam because his music carried me off to sleep at night, or did I love him because liking his music and talking about it gave me an “in” to a new culture? Or, looking to my inner hipster, did I love him in spite of that?
And now I was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, having just heard Devendra Banhart croon some of his strangest songs, followed by Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields fame, who wore a newsboy hat as he played the ukulele and sang, “I’ve taken a contract out on you/I’ve hired a hitman to do what they do.” I was surrounded by well-dressed New Yorkers in their mid-20s and early 30s. They didn’t look or act like me, and now I wasn’t sure if I could take pride in that difference. A year ago I would have been proud to be a poorly-dressed black sheep in this community of ex-hipsters, upping my personal irony of disappearing in a crowd of people trying to stand out. Now I felt that every attempt to gain an edge had been done before.
Samuel Beam’s voice reached to its upper registers and as he concluded “The Trapeze Swinger,” the song gently knitted together his reedy voice and guitar into an elegant loneliness. As the applause died away, he stood behind his mic, hands resting gently on the guitar’s frets. “What else do you guys want to hear?” he asked, reveling in the auditorium’s rapt attention. The crowd, en masse, began screaming at him our favorite titles from Our Endless Numbered Days and The Shepherd’s Dog. “Jezebel!” I shouted, but popular demand won out and he played “Sodom, South Georgia” instead.
I didn’t get to hear “Jezebel” until I was on NJ transit the next morning, heading back to Princeton. The song started in with soft guitar and Beam’s thin, almost frail-sounding voice. For a second, I let my feelings about what a socially-minded cultural-capital-seeker I was drop. The train was tunneling through the familiar New Jersey forest, and the song made me feel snuggled in a log cabin at the very center of it. I queued up a Devendra song, his most famous: “Hey Mama Wolf”. Subconsciously, maybe the whole time I had been trying to climb the social and cultural ladder. My tastes were founded in people: my sister, my high school friends, my rock climbing buddies. That didn’t make them any less real, or any less strong. Devendra began warming up in my headphones: “When I’m in the woods/I know what to call you now…” and I settled forward in my seat to look out the window at the passing, delicate trees.