I was raised on bad music—or at least popular music. To this day I can sing along to virtually every Top 40 hit from the mid-to-late 1970s, often with a heartfelt nostalgia that makes others uncomfortable. To the confessions of friends that they survived early disappointments by listening to Fleetwood Mac, I say: I see your Rumours (now fashionable again, plus ça change) and I raise you Dr. Hook, Gerry Rafferty, the early LPs of Jefferson Starship—I will not be outembarrassed.
The point of making such a confession is that it is not in any real sense confessional; it is closer to the half-ashamed pleasure of being able to furnish the authorities with the proper identity papers. To admit to a fondness for, say, the Climax Blues Band is embarrassing in a more complicated way than it would at first seem. It is actually faux-embarrassment; it turns me into the musically omnivorous, knowing listener—not just educated, but at least somewhat up to date—who is secure enough in my cultural profile to be able to admit to liking the “bad” thing because I know it is bad, and because I can balance it with the Schoenberg or Xenakis that maturer years brought me. It displays my authenticity, even if that authenticity is rooted in 1970s suburbia and AM radio. It also betrays my age, possibly my racial and sociocultural makeup, and my general cultural facility. I have not heard everything, but I can “place” most things. Having performed all these semiotic games, I am left with the real embarrassment: at having so transparently played the social game with an art form in whose aesthetic autonomy I might otherwise believe. My iPod is not an index to a hidden self. It’s as socially legible as everyone else’s.
That is, I would venture, where we are with the aesthetic. Those of us in commodity-rich, artistically saturated, more or less urbanized Western countries, at the start of the 21st century, know all too well how these games are played. We know it instinctively, so well that the kind of confession of musical taste offered above has become a drearily familiar part of everyday life. We also know it because we know “Bourdieu,” whether we’ve read the man or not.