Pretentiousness: Why it Matters, by Dan Fox. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Coffee House Press, April 2016. 144 pages. $15.95, paper.
In a recent think piece on the Vice-owned music site Noisey, music journalist Dan Ozzi asks “Is the Album Review Dead?” In it, music journalist Dan Ozzi argues that, as print media has declined in prominence and even taste-making websites like Pitchfork have lost their gatekeeper status, screaming “amateurs” on Twitter have replaced the professional critic to the detriment of bands, the industry, the cultural landscape, and (perhaps most of all) listeners who want to know whether the latest hyped-up indie band or mainstream sophomore effort warrants their attention. My friend Ryan Hickey, who reviews albums for the website Overblown, had posted the article on his Facebook wall, and several commenters dissented. The accessibility provided by Spotify, NPR premieres, and YouTube reviewers, these people offered, rightly renders the critic irrelevant; with virtually all recorded music at our fingertips, why would we waste our time listening to what someone else has to say? I compared this near-dystopian find-it-yourself evaluation system to MySpace in 2007, when bands began using the social-networking platform to promote themselves. Finding music via MySpace was like living in the Wild West. If anyone could upload an .mp3 file and plug some pictures into a template, you never knew if the page on which you’d landed belonged to a legitimate artist trying to break through the noise or some fifteen-year-old playing around with GarageBand in his parents’ basement. It was impossible to tell who would stick around, put out an album, and tour in your town and who might release one promising track and disappear.
Reviews used to tell us that. Reviews put artists in context. They built bands’ legacies or chronicled the development of new genres. Reviews performed a curatorial function, and those who wrote them were taxonomists who previewed, evaluated, and filed in the correct folder each cultural artifact that might one day populate our stereos, our movie theaters, or our bookshelves. But dissenters like those participating on my friend’s Facebook feed have always existed. As Ozzi notes in the aforementioned think piece, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs panned Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut album in 1970, and frontman Ozzy Osbourne never forgot it. In his 2010 memoir, Osbourne writes that, despite Bangs’s reputation as a great writer, in the band members’ eyes, “he was just another pretentious dickhead.” And there’s the word that no one trotted out in that Facebook thread, a word that most people avoid in their discussions of gatekeepers and curators from music reviewers to journal editors and book publishers: pretentious. Americans have grown suspicious of gatekeepers, of curators, of experts. Most of us don’t like pretension.
Dan Fox is not most people. Not only is he bold enough to title a book Pretentiousness: Why it Matters, but the writer, musician, editor, and filmmaker, a British transplant currently living in New York, is co-editor of the revered European art-and-culture magazine Frieze and a visiting lecturer at Oxford University. If I tried all day, I’m not sure I could come up with a more pretentious-sounding sentence. Words such as “Europe,” “Oxford,” “art,” “New York,” “culture,” “editor,” even “British” conjure in the collective imagination of a rabidly anti-intellectual populace that may well elect a former reality TV star as its next president images of haughty men in glasses and berets scolding them for their love of Taylor Swift (no offense to the pop star—I’m listening to her latest album as I write this). Fox, however, is less interested in avoiding such associations than he is in exploring what our deep aversion to the descriptor means. He traces the the word “pretentious” from its origins in theater to its contemporary usage as an insult (including by Internet trolls), stopping along the way to note the ways in which accusations of pretentiousness express cultural anxieties about power, democracy, identity, authenticity, and most of all, class and artistic ambition.
Perhaps because Fox hails from the more overtly class-conscious UK, his insights into the way in which tarring someone with the brush of pretension punishes the accused for having stepped outside the boundaries drawn around his or her class position provide some of the book’s sharpest moments. For example, “Used as an insult,” Fox writes, labeling someone pretentious works as “an informal tool of class surveillance, a stick with which to beat someone for putting on heirs and graces” and carries with it “the sting of class betrayal.” When we call someone pretentious, we say “they’re behaving in ways they’re not qualified for through experience or economic status.” In delineating snobbery from pretension, Fox provides a social history of identity policing from Victorian times to the present, drawing on such disparate sources as the English satire song “Burlington Betty” to Pulp’s “Common People” and the late Joe Strummer’s philosophizing on appearance and punk authenticity. Pretension, he advises readers, also draws lines around performances of sexual, racial, and gender identities; the accusation of pretentiousness, he argues, calls into question the “realness” of a person’s actions. But the finger can also point in the other direction. In his discussion of the documentary Paris Is Burning, Fox looks at the ways in which the film’s critical reception illuminates the power dynamics that shape our definitions of “real” identities. He asserts that “[t]o demand [a person] be ‘authentic’ to their social circumstances is a form of social control.” “Decry pretense,” he says, “and you not only deny the possibility of change, you remove a tool of social critique from the hands of communities that need them.” We all pretend in one way or another, but the label “pretentious,” in short, reinforces the status quo and keeps people in their socially-constructed places.
However, as an art critic, Fox is also interested in how pretentiousness operates for artists, from pop and rock musicians to painters, photographers, and filmmakers. Drawing on sources such as Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu; David Mamet and the members of Monty Python; David Bowie, Kate Bush, and Jay Z, Fox argues that pretentiousness matters because of what it tells us about and how identity, ambition, and cultural expectations inform the creative process. Pretentiousness, for Fox, is both a subjective claim and a necessary tool in any artist’s kit. When we accuse someone of pretentiousness, we accuse them of attempting something they shouldn’t, including wandering into artistic territories or toying with thematic concerns for which, as a culture, we’ve deemed their passport inadequate. As Fox states, “The accuser of pretension always presumes bad intentions. Truth is, more often than not pretension is simply someone trying to make the world more interesting, responding to it the way they think appropriate.” The “pretentious” reaches for an artistic goalpost and perhaps misses it by a mile, but she reached nonetheless.
In short, pretentiousness is about risk. Pretentiousness is necessary to a vibrant artistic culture, whether that culture lives in a theater, between the pages of a book, or in the house across the street from yours. For Fox, pretension has less to do with the kind of gatekeeping we talk about as editors of literary journals or reviewers of albums. Without pretension—the willingness of some brave souls to move outside the boxes drawn around them by dominant discourses that shape their historical moments and individual identities—gatekeepers would have no great books to publish, no original paintings to hang, no innovative albums to review, no think pieces about which to argue on Facebook. Writing in a conversational voice that’s flexible enough to lead discussions of Greek theater and Victorian satire, as well as to reflect on his own middle-class upbringing, Fox’s encyclopedic knowledge of cultural offerings high and low allows him to ponder what the concept of pretentiousness tells us about the relationship between art and power and the spaces where they collide. And he’s not afraid to look a little pretentious while he does it.
Amy Long will earn her MFA from Virginia Tech’s Creative Writing program in May 2016. She holds a BA in English and Women’s Studies and a Master’s in Women’s Studies from the University of Florida. Prior to pursuing her MFA, Amy worked in communications for drug policy reform and free speech advocacy groups in Santa Cruz, CA; Washington, D.C.; and New York City. She currently serves as a contributing editor to the drug history blog Points. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Experimental Writing 2015, The Journal of Popular Culture, and Heavy Feather Review. She lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, with her cat Mattie. Find Amy on Twitter @amylorrainelong.