The Rock Snob

An anatomy of a delicate breed.

Why o why, ye Rock Gods, do I cherish the Minutemen’s cover of the old Steely Dan song “Doctor Wu” as much as I do? Let’s take this one step at a time. The original “Doctor Wu” is classic middle-period Steely Dan. A snare drum snaps to attention, jazz-inflected chords spill off a piano, and just as the L.A. session men settle into this groovy little midtempo vamp, Donald Fagen’s adenoids kick in: Katy tried. I was halfwaaaay crucified. I was on other side of no tommorrr-oooooow-oh. Say what you will about Fagen’s singing—I happen to love it—he is really selling this one, and to the far corners of the house. You walked in, and my life beee-gan again, Just when I spent the last piaster I could borrrrrr-ooooow. Fagen has said “Doctor Wu” is “about a love-dope triangle,” and the song exudes a strangely bewitching aura of dissipation, with its suggestion of exotic locales and middle-aged drug abuse. Like a lot of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s music, “Doctor Wu” feels designed for the self-consciously louche palate of a ‘60s kid with money. It would go well with a prissy stereo and some really expensive pot.

Where the Steely Dan original was the product of two Bard-educated sophisticates striving to sound worldly, the Minutemen cover is a half-assed throwaway by three guys who couldn’t be bothered to look up “piaster” in the dictionary. One voice speak-sings the lyrics laconically; another, buried deeper in the mix, bray-sings out the words slightly but consistently off-key, and the band wraps the whole thing up in a tidy 1 minute 45 seconds. In addition to absolutely rocking, the Minutemen rendition is a confession: Look, we’re troglodytes compared with those guys, what with their Steinways and their buttery sax solos and their 50,000 hours of studio time. But such is the shit storm known as the 1980s, and we’re going to make of it what we can. A vulgar snob—someone wearing Sergio Tachini and flashing his million-gig iPod—would prefer the Steely Dan version. A faux Rock Snob—someone ready in the instant to introduce you to what you don’t know—would reflexively prefer the Minutemen; but a true representative of the type Rock Snob would throw both versions on a mixed tape, along with Grenadine’s “Steely Daniel” and a boot of the Mountain Goats performing “Doctor Wu” live. Now, that, my friends, is a Rock Snob.

Snobbery is as woven into the human fabric as the sexual and aggressive impulses it seeks to refine. It’s no accident, then, that Rock Snobbery emerged just as young people started dressing in blue jeans and pretending that social class didn’t matter. Adolescents simply found novel ways—ways more acceptable to their newly egalitarian pretenses—to marginally differentiate themselves from one another. Musical taste was one such method, and for a small but increasingly demented subset of the population (interestingly, almost exclusively boys), having good taste in, and encyclopedic knowledge about, rock music became an almost Ahab-like obsession. During the heyday of rock and roll, when everyonewas aspiring to be at least a little rock snobby, this irritating geek-pedant wasn’t so easily dismissed. But the times they have a-changed. Young people (or the lucky among them) are learning to flaunt the blandishments of their elevated social class without embarrassment; rock music as a going concern is next to dead; the Rock Snob has ossified into a vaguely pitiful cultural type. He now stands, that Einstürzende Neubauten rerelease tucked under his arm, awaiting your abuse.

May it always take as genial a form as the new Rock Snob*s Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon of Rockological Knowledge by David Kamp and Steven Daly, a couple of writers at Vanity Fair. Like the Minutemen’s cover of “Doctor Wu,” their book is viciously funny without being entirely unloving. Kamp’s bio identifies him as a “lifelong music snob,” and though Daly’s doesn’t cop to it, only someone who had himself geeked out pretty good over the years could help compile this much left-of-your-dial arcana. The authors gather almost every conceivable rock-era name-drop—Countrypolitan, No Wave, Jobriath (Jobriath?)—but the prime targets for satire here are rock critics, and the maddeningly pretentious word pool from which they all apparently feel obliged to draw:

Jangle. Critic-beloved noun-adjective used to evoke sunny guitar pop. …[as in] Nick Heyward’s first solo record after leaving Haircut 100 is a masterpiece of jangle pop.
Side. Grating term for a single, usually used in a tone of contemptible knowingness. Though ignored at the time of its release, “The Porpoise Song” was one of the Monkees greatest sides.
Seminal. Catchall adjective employed by rock writers to describe any group or artist in on a trend too early to sell any records. The Germs were a seminal L.A. punk band, but guitarist Pat Smear didn’t realize any riches until he joined Nirvana.

In a (very funny) introduction, Daly and Kamp trace the history of the Rock Snob. He started out in the ‘50s, finically archiving his old 45s; in the ‘70s, he devoured the newly emergent rock press, with stacks of Creem, Melody Maker, and New Musical Express piling up under his unmade bed. “But it wasn’t until the eighties,” the authors write, “that Rock Snobbery truly gained traction as a phenomenon and a pathology. This was attributable to two developments: the advent of the ‘classic rock’ radio format, which saw rock aficionados retreat from their monomaniacal obsession with the new, and the rise of the CD format, which A) compelled fans to repurchase their entire music collections, and B) compelled the record labels to reissue their back catalogues with ‘bonus tracks’ and booklets and never-before-seen photographs and exhaustive liner notes.” Rock Snobbery, they argue, has now found a comfortable niche as a mini-mass phenomenon, what with Rhino reissues, the twee soundtracks of Wes Anderson films, and the likes of Jack White collaborating with the likes of Loretta Lynn.

The essence of Rock Snobbery is hoarding and lording, and once the word gets out, via a tastefully catered Starbucks compilation, say, the Snob is at a total loss. It’s even been argued recently that the advent of the iPod spells the death of the Rock Snob. True enough, thanks to the digital revolution, nonsnobs can now filch 20 years of compulsive squirreling with a single drag-and-drop. “Soon our collections,” Michael Crowley wrote in the New Republic, “will all be ones and zeroes stored deep in hard drives, instantly transferable and completely unsatisfying as possessions. And we Rock Snobs will have become as obsolete as CDs themselves.” An absence and a presence! A plenitude and an emptiness! As delightful as The Rock Snob*s Dictionary and Crowley’s essay are, I think such fears are overblown, myself. I’d love to say it’s because genuine pleasure—that enemy of both snobs and satire alike—will always take precedence over the need to condescend. But the reality, alas, is otherwise. At some point, drag-and-drop deposits will overwhelm even the most cavernous hard drive; a person will have to choose, and then their true colors will out: The Killers? Lenny Kravitz? Dave Matthews??? Because let’s face it, only one thing is more incorrigible than my snobbery, people, and that’s your indefensibly crappy taste in music.