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Music: The Great Divider?

In an era where you can stream music from a thrash-punk band from Zimbabwe or a reggae trio from Des Moines at the click of a button (via Pandora, Spotify or the drowning MySpace Music), everyone has discovered their own favorite bands. On top of that, there are thousands of radio stations (satellite and FM), music publications and music blog sites each pushing their slew of favorites. While there is some consensus found among the hipsters that read Pitchfork or those listening to Top 40 radio stations, one’s music library has become highly personalized, eliminating much of the unity that music brought in earlier times.

Partly due to this interconnected environment, niche musicians can survive easier due to the increasing number of people that can reach their music, and thus, indie music has come to the forefront. While this has led to the creation of tons of progressive, terrific art in the last decade, it has also created a couple divisive issues: the creation of thousands upon thousands of genres and sub-genres and the increasing and pervasive air of elitism.

One trip to Allmusic.com to look at its official genres proves my point rather well. It has 16 huge overarching genres (i.e. Rap, Rock/Pop, Electronic), but then within each genre, there are 1,550 various sub-genres that Allmusic considers official (Oi!, Tex-Mex and Psychobilly being among my favorite names). That includes hardcore, sadcore, slowcore, grindcore and even queercore. You also have dub, dub poetry, ambient dub, experimental dub and techno-dub. The site doesn’t even include the trending dubstep, which in turn has tons of sub-genres itself: hyperdub, vocal dubstep, deepstep, glitchstep, dubhop, tribal dubstep and even post-dubstep. Newly proclaimed indie sub-genres like yacht rock, chill-wave and glo-fi are also not included in this listing. While clearly all of these genres were not invented in the past 10 years (though I would argue there have been more genres invented in the past decade than in any other decade in history), it is as easy as ever to reach all of these different types of music in our flat society. Today’s music scene is madly diversified and people have a harder time than ever finding common ground.

When it comes to elitism, my thoughts are perhaps best encapsulated in the result of 2011’s Grammy Awards’ Album of the Year. Canadian indie rockers Arcade Fire won the award for their terrific concept album, The Suburbs. The result set off a Twitter outrage by people who thought the band did not deserve to win simply because they had never heard of them. The other crowd of people that did know and love Arcade Fire were mostly hipsters looking down on everyone who wanted the rather washed-up Eminem to win. Half of people think they like better music than everybody else, and the other half consequently despise the “elite” group for having that “better-than-thou” attitude. It’s created an inescapable “Us vs. Them” music mentality.

The public rifts of the music community have also bled into the Church. At a delicious brunch with family following Easter Sunday service, my family’s conversation wasn’t about the resurrection, the eloquent sermon about God bringing all things dead to life, or the awesome artistic portrayal that went alongside the sermon. Rather, our conversation surrounded my aunt’s dislike for the worship music at our church. “Worship music should be worshipful, not a rock concert,” my aunt protested. She went on to explain that she doesn’t come to service on Sunday to hear what she hears Monday through Friday on contemporary Christian radio. It’s clear our preference in music is affecting everything from how we worship to how distracted we get on Sunday.

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Surprisingly, the place where there is the most community in music is not in the church, but rather at music festivals. Whether it’s a Christian festival like Cornerstone or a gargantuan eclectic festival like Bonnaroo, music festivals better unite people and bring a general sense of community and goodwill than almost any other musical format. At Bonnaroo, for instance, people are brought together in the name of music for four days under the unforgiving Tennessee sun. With plenty of mud and minimal showers, they stay up till the wee hours of the night just to enjoy a buffet of the best bands out there. This magnetic sense of community in a divided society is one of the reasons why the music festival scene has seen such tremendous growth.

So maybe music is tearing us apart. What now? One of the biggest steps to improving our illness is as simple as learning to respect and understand our musical differences. My wife listens almost exclusively to a CCM radio station, Star 88.3, which contains “uplifting and encouraging” Christian music. I find it formulaic and at times intolerable. Over the past couple years, though, instead of treating her like a second-class citizen for listening to CCM and trying to constantly convert her to “good” music (though I have gotten her addicted to Janelle Monae and Fleet Foxes), I now have the understanding that Christian radio helps her get into a positive mindset daily and keeps her focus on Christ. Now, that’s something worth respecting.

If your best friend listens to nothing but country, maybe you should respect that your friend loves country for its honesty and appreciation of the simple blessings in life. If your cousin won’t shut up about Radiohead, maybe understand that your cousin likes music that pushes the envelope. Music as a whole is deeply personal and even life-inspiring, no matter how our silly arguments may trivialize it.

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