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Kelly Clarkson performs on American Idol in 2002.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
If you've been watching things over at NPR Music, you know that they've just posted their list of The Decade's 50 Most Important Recordings. I recently referred to this feature elsewhere as "NPR Music Whacks The Beehive With A Broom Handle." Because nothing makes people angry quite like lists, and trying to pick 50 recordings over 10 years — five per year, for non-mathematicians — leads to unavoidable incompleteness and so forth and so on, and then everybody is mad.
But really, what's most interesting about the discussion they're having in the comments is the entire concept of "importance."
Here's how the piece explains importance: "These are the game-changers: records that signaled some sort of shift in the way music is made or sounds, or ones that were especially influential or historically significant." That's about the same way I would explain it.
Note that this description is value-neutral. It has nothing — nothing — to do with quality. If I made a recording of myself whanging away on a couple of tin cans with a meat thermometer, and somehow it turned out that this was an untapped market, and I sold five million copies, and lots and lots of other people followed with their own kitchen-implement records, my recording would be important. Influential, historically significant, and — let's face it — a game-changer.
It would not, however, be important to every individual person. If you later made a list of the records that were most important not to music, but to you, and you included my Linda Plays The Meat Thermometer on your list, people might quite rightly think less of you. But if you put it on a list of what's most important objectively, nobody could argue.
To put this in the context of the actual discussion going on over there, you need to think of American Idol as many people's equivalent of banging on tin cans with a meat thermometer, and you'll see a great example of the difference between culture as a freestanding, unpredictable product of the hive mind and culture as something that affects you personally.
Controversy swirls, after the jump.
"Music," as a thing, just like "television" as a thing and "cinema" as a thing (and theater and books and so forth), exists as a phenomenon in which what I like is no more important than what you like, and the fact that you've never heard of something — or don't listen to it — doesn't have anything to do with its importance. I don't personally listen to a lot of the big-hat country-pop that has made a billion, squillion, kajillion dollars over the last twenty years (since, let's say, the rise of Garth Brooks), but if I'm talking about Music The Phenomenon, that stuff is obviously important, in the sense that some of it has led to more of it, and more of it has led to even more of it.
Let's take books: If I were trying to pick important books to me, you won't see the sort of feel-good self-help material that's become dominant, but if I were trying to pick important books to the culture overall and I ignored The Secret, then I would be flat-out wrong.
And while it seems like it's a fight about Kelly Clarkson, I think part of what people are struggling with over there is the idea that the culture you live in doesn't necessarily care about you personally or seek your approval as an individual unique snowflake. Culture mercilessly goes on without you, and without me, and without lots of us, at times.
This is where, to me, healthy snobbery departs from unhealthy snobbery. To use an example from television (other than Idol), I personally couldn't care less about CSI. Not my thing, not my style, not important to me in the slightest. Building my own tastes and being completely unimpressed by the years-long popularity of CSI — and maybe even believing I have better taste in television than people who like CSI — is healthy snobbery.
But if I look you in the face and tell you that, in the world of television in the last ten years, CSI is not important, I am simply excising the parts of culture I dislike and pretending that nobody else likes them, either — that culture exists as I define it, through my own tastes alone, and that's less healthy.
Because networks have now spent ten years trying to duplicate the success of CSI, and CBS has essentially stayed on its feet for the last several seasons by cranking out endless crime procedurals for which the appetite seems to be limitless, and whether you think it's good or not, whether you think it's artistic or not or it advances art or not, the rise of those shows has been important to what television now looks like.
I feel the same way about "importance" and music. The argument against Britney Spears' importance can't be "Britney Spears is bad." That's a great argument against listening to Britney Spears. It's not a very good argument against acknowledging Britney Spears. Britney Spears simply is, in spite of, and because of, all of us.
I'll put it this way: Even if you think a building is an eyesore, I don't think you can leave it off the map.