Early on in the film "High Fidelity," a middle-aged man in a suit walks into Championship Vinyl -- the used-record store owned by the film's hero, Rob Gordon (John Cusack) -- and announces that he wants a copy of the Stevie Wonder single "I Just Called to Say I Love You" for his daughter.
He asks surly shop clerk Barry if the store has a copy. Barry says yes, they do. The man then asks if he can have it. Barry tells him no. Snottily. In fact, Barry really lays into the guy, upbraiding him for wanting to spend money on such "sentimental, tacky" garbage. Barry even goes so far as to mock the unseen daughter, at which point the older guy storms out of the store.
Rob, vaguely appalled at his employee's rudeness, asks what the poor customer did to deserve such a show of scorn. To which Barry indignantly replies, "He offended me with his bad taste!"
I hate guys like that.
Not rude clerks, particularly. Music snobs. You know the type -- guys who will wax rhapsodic over some import-only German techno obscurity, then sneer disdainingly should you happen to mention that you like the new 'N Sync single. Folks who act as if musical taste were some sort of test, and it's always final-exam week.
In the Nick Hornby book on which "High Fidelity" is based, Rob is forever scrutinizing other people's record collections. He and his employees at the shop have a theory that you can't be considered a "serious person" if your music library numbers less than 500 titles. And if among those titles are works by such easily listenable, massively popular artists as Tina Turner or Billy Joel, well ...
By rights, I ought to be on their side. I am, after all, a professional music snob, someone who is paid to pass judgment on all manner of music. Moreover, I've composed some pretty withering put-downs of my own over the years. For example:
"Love Hurts" (Warner Bros.)
... but not this much.
Still, there's something that rubs me the wrong way about people who act as if the worst crime a musician could commit is to record a song that's tuneful and popular. Tuneful, popular and bad -- well, that's a different matter. But merely being the first two is no guarantee a record will also be the third.
Then there are those who act as if their musical authority were some sort of weapon to be wielded against those whose taste is insufficiently elevated or obscure. It's rude enough to see a friend or acquaintance pick up a Jewel album and ask, with horrified incredulity, "You're not actually going to buy that, are you?" But these self-appointed bastions of good taste will then go on to suggest that if you weren't so hopelessly thick, you'd be buying Ani DiFranco records instead of insipid tripe by Jewel.
Perhaps the worst, though, are the snobs who believe that an album's value is inversely proportionate to the number of people who like it. To their way of thinking, it's obvious that "Murmur" is a better R.E.M. album than "Automatic for the People," because "Automatic" was a multiplatinum smash while "Murmur" didn't even go gold. And of course teen groups like the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync are worthless -- how else could they sell tens of millions of CDs to dumb kids?
That sort of blather makes my blood boil. It may not be cool to admit it, but the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" is a great single, and, personally, I'd sooner play 'N Sync's ultra-popular "No Strings Attached" than Beck's hipster-endorsed "Midnight Vultures." Why? Because I get more pleasure from the 'N Sync songs than I do from that Beck album. Simple.
But the dirty secret about music snobs is that their attitude has less to do with enjoying music than with the satisfaction of feeling superior. Implicit in the question "How could you like that record?" is the suggestion that liking a tune they don't approve of makes you a loser, and that having superior taste makes them better.
Balderdash. Anyone who truly loves music knows that the goal isn't to demean what others like, but to get them to share your enthusiasm for the favorite recordings in your collection. And if, in the middle of your proselytizing, they ask to hear a song you don't particularly care for, common courtesy suggests you play it anyway -- if only to thank them for listening to the things you like.
Which brings me to my own "I Just Called to Say I Love You" story. Like Barry at Championship Vinyl, I agree that the song is "sentimental, tacky" garbage, a really irritating effort by an otherwise admirable talent. But when a friend visiting my house asked if I would play it, I didn't recoil in horror. I didn't even make snide remarks when she said, "Wasn't it by the Beatles?" I just went down into the basement, fished out my LP of "The Lady in Red" soundtrack, and played her the song.
Sure, I grimaced inwardly (especially during the bit where the synthesizer "sings" the chorus), but I smiled outwardly. Because unlike Barry, I refuse to be offended by other people's taste.