Why are uni students culture snobs?

January 15, 2014
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I’ve always loved what many would label as ‘low-brow’, throwaway culture. From the early promise of Vanessa Amorosi; my tastes have remained largely rooted in the mainstream. I love a key change. I love a dance break. I love a Sophie Ellis-Bextor camera wink. I love a last minute profession of love at the airport terminal, as non-diegetic music swells and Hugh Grant fumbles his way through another awkward monologue.

It’s therefore probably no surprise that my stereo is most often tuned to a commercial FM station. I’ll tolerate a bit of triple j, and even dabble in ABC 702, but I find it difficult to pass up the prospect of Rihanna, every hour on the hour, as seems to be the staunch policy of the Nova and Today networks.

My listening habits – established before iPods and streaming services offered easy alternatives to traditional radio – have remained pretty consistent since my childhood. My affiliation with commercial playlists has caused me to become more familiar with Kyle, Jackie O, Sophie Monk, Fitzy and Wippa, than many would care to know or admit in the public domain.

When two of Australia’s most infamous commercial DJs announced their departure from the Today network late last year, I found the news bittersweet. I’d grown up with, and grown to (mostly) love Jackie’s terrible attempts at karaoke, and, err, some aspects of Kyle’s on-air persona. (Mostly Jackie, really.) Of course, the pair’s antics at times challenged my affections for their top-rating show, but logic was repeatedly trumped by a desire for more Rihanna, please.

This sentiment was certainly not rife among my university peers.

The vitriol that I saw online in the wake of Kyle and Jackie O’s departure felt like it was directed at the listeners of the show as much as its hosts. This made me realise something: I sometimes feel the openness with which I share my preference for pop culture lowers me in the estimations of others. This penchant is especially tough at university, when many seem to assume that being an adult requires leaving behind the frivolities of youth in favour of a more ‘high-brow’, alternative cultural sphere.

I’m not the only person that feels this way about my more upper-crusted peers. According to Adem Ali, who runs pop music blog Schizophonic, “there is a period in high school when [this process of discarding commercial tastes] begins”. He says we begin to see ourselves as “a little too old for that now”, and seek more ‘refined’ culture to reflect our altered self-image. This is about living up to our notions of how well-educated sophisticates should think and behave.

In an academic context, this pressure can cause students to focus their essays around canonical writings and celebrated, award-winning films – even if they don’t particularly enjoy them. But tackling less well-renowned texts can also be rewarding. Adem “basically wrote five thousand word essays on all of Madonna’s flop films” as part of his Media & Communication studies at Griffith University, and believes this unconventional choice was profitable. “It was very different to what everyone else was pumping out, but I was still getting the good marks,” he says.

Ali says many of us feel a “sense of shame” towards once-loved music, publications and television shows, which results in us shunning them. It’s quite possible that we’re actually reacting with embarrassment against previous versions of ourselves, he says. In an attempt to evolve past the emo fringes or jelly bracelets of teenagedom, sometimes we feel the need to also do away with our previous patterns of cultural consumption.

A prominent part of this change is vocal criticism. As individuals come to embrace new forms of film, they might start sledging Hollywood productions for being ‘generic’, ‘tired’, or ‘lacking in depth’. Similarly, the sunny pop music that defines almost every childhood is dismissed; a starlet is seen as a mindless poppet being spoon-fed a melody or metaphor by a mastermind producer.

Never mind the fact that the likes of Katy Perry and Ke$ha – two artists that many would dismiss as airheaded and talentless – not only write or co-write their own material, but have also contributed songs to the catalogues of others artists. It appears those liner notes, which attest to these women’s song writing abilities, are just annoyances that shouldn’t get in the way of a good stereotype.

Of course, even the hardest critic can’t always be a culture snob, especially when there’s alcohol involved. Aside from inebriation, claims of nostalgia and irony are many people’s best bets for justifying a sneaky S Club 7 binge on YouTube with their mates. This brief indulgence is usually dubbed a ‘guilty pleasure’. Ali says this is his “least favourite phrase in all of the world”. His verdict? “If you like it, you like it – don’t make excuses.”

Unfortunately, excuses can seem necessary, especially if social norms dictate that the alternative is held in higher regard than the mainstream. Especially in an educational context, we have to be careful not to conflate brains with cultural tastes. Adem recalls a friend of his that “didn’t understand how someone of my intelligence could be a pop music fan”. That attitude, he says, “summarised what so many people feel, in one sentence”.

Luckily, there’s hope for the culture snobs.

Fully-fledged adulthood, so the theory goes, comes with a confidence that allows us to defy conventional notions of what’s good and bad. This means we pay much less heed to the opinions of others. In simple words: “as you get older, you just stop giving a shit,” says Adem. “You’re not listening to music in irony, or because it’s a guilty pleasure. You’re just listening to it because it’s fucking good, and you remembered that it was.” (And, of course, because J. Lo always delivers when it comes to those choreographed dance breaks.)

John Rowley

John Rowley is a Bachelor of Arts (Media & Communications) student at the University of Sydney and an unashamed fan of Katy Perry, Ke$ha, and occasionally Kyle Sandilands. He tweets at @JohnLRowley.

Photo: Genevieve French, The University of Sydney