Identity and Individualism in Music

“…music and identity are always, however uncomfortably for some, joined at the hip.”   – Jason King

Jason King, music journalist and associate professor at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, recently participated in Slate’s Music Club 2012 series with several other critics to discuss the past year in pop music. His last entry, which touched on music and identity, was the highlight of the 15 exchanges.

The connection between music and identity is nothing new, but I appreciate the definitiveness of King’s statement—they are forever joined. And I think this connection is one reason why we will never listen in a realm void of music snobbery and gatekeepers. (For the record, I try to reject music snobbery and gatekeepers/barriers as much as possible).

In the 1970s, author Tom Wolf criticized what he called the “Me Generation” for its culture of narcissism during a time when young Americans were seeking self-fulfillment, and both Gen X and Gen Y have continued that in their own way. This culture of narcissism aligns with the rise of individualism, which some claim dates back centuries in America and other western cultures. Students in middle school and high school want to be accepted and fit in, but an obsession with individuality seems just as prevalent and continues after high school. We use our online tools—“liking” posts, tacking fashion photos to Pinterest boards, uploading Instagram pictures, reblogging on tumblr—to show everyone not just who we are, but also how we are different. That we are unique. We construct these identities online and then broadcast them to everyone we know and everyone we don’t know.

Music ties into that. Even before Napster, people used music as a way to define themselves (as well as using it to find a group to belong to). It’s even easier now to use music as a means to broadcast your identity online. Facebook’s Spotify integration shows everyone what users listen to. Twitter puts your interactions with artists out in the open (even if a tweet declaring your love for some band or artist goes unanswered). And each time you visit YouTube or share a video is just another chance to broadcast your preferences. While a “guiltless pleasure” society is appealing, creating levels of taste and belonging to exclusive groups help maintain a sense of identity and individuality for many people.

Even though we may never reject music snobbery altogether, the relationship between music and identity welcomes certain benefits.

In today’s world, not only do we use music to show our individuality, we also use music to connect with each other. It’s another piece of our identity.

King writes, “…affordable living in urban metropolises can help create a dynamic and cross-class mix of people. Without that cross-pollination—the kind that informed the development of U.S. punk and hip-hop in the 1970s and early 1980s—a diverse creative imagination has a difficult time thriving.”

The full response from King (which should be read) is more involved and deals much more with music in the political scope. For the most part, I agree with his points. Especially his last point:

“More than ever before, pop music is confirming that we’re all hopelessly connected to each other, and that gives me a profound sense of hope.”


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