We are (not) all equal here: The element of sanctimony in Indie/alternative culture

This was supposed to be an article reviewing the Yo La Tengo show at the Fairfield Theater Company I attended last night. Instead, because of scenes I’ve witnessed just a little too frequently as of late, I decided to address a topic that many of us have encountered, but nobody talks about.

In the Indie, punk and alternative music cultures, it isn’t uncommon for some of us , even most of us, to congratulate ourselves on our extraordinary taste in music. We tend to consider our musical choices slightly superior to those of the masses. We must be cool, after all, to have found such different and amazing music. This isn’t top 40 stuff you hear every day, for God’s sake.. We had to search to find this stuff.  Being slightly smug in our discussions about music is something the majority of us have done, if we are being completely honest. And just for today, let’s be completely honest.

I consider alternative music fans to be real lovers of music, in general. We really listen to music. We seek out new bands, different sounds, new ways to express our appreciation of the out of the box music that feeds our passion. And since we are being so completely honest today, many of us jumped head first into alternative music because there was something about us that was different from the mainstream. As a whole, we weren’t the kinds of people who were in the most popular cliques. Friendless?  Not at all!  But also unique and different in one way or another.

Alternative is called alternative because it is. It attracts those of us who were slighty or even radically different. Outsiders, misfits, loners or just people whose views of the world are different from the large portion of people around us. Because of the fact that we are different, you would think that these music cultures, as a whole, would be more accepting. Throughout my life, I have found this to be true for the most part. But what surprises me, has always surprised me, is that among us, steeped in our oh-so-slight smugness about our music, lies a self-superiority that sometimes rears its very ugly head to attack people in our very own music communities.

As kids in our teens and early 20’s, this was evident in the fact that cool kids just didn’t smile at a show by, let’s say, Black Flag. It didn’t matter if they played your favorite song or if inside, you were jumping out of your skin seeing Henry Rollins play live. Cool meant not smiling. Certainly not dancing, for heaven’s sake.

As we have gotten older, it’s evident in the fact that we tend to believe that people who don’t know who Dinosaur Jr. are can’t possibly be as cool as we are. It is deeply ingrained in us, as human beings in our culture to be the best, the coolest, the most in-the-know. That’s human nature. In the United States we witness it in everything from politics to sports to cutthroat headgames in our work environments. It isn’t always pretty and it isn’t always nice. But music is supposed to be different. A soft place to fall when you need to escape all of the madness involved in daily living. Music should be easy. While sitting there at a show, listening to songs about fairness and love and heartbreak, shouldn’t we be able to use that as a common uniting force that draws us together?

Last night, at the Yo La Tengo show at the Fairfield Theater Company, I witnessed ugliness that made my head spin. The crowd at this show was not young, for the most part. Yo La Tengo has been around since 1984, so their fans tend to be in their 40’s and 50’s. At this stage in life you would think that the mean-girl mentality so many of us suffered through in our youths would be long gone. But I am saddened to say this is most certainly not the case.

I have given up on trying to impress anyone at a show a long time ago. I hope it has come from life experience and maturity. I smile. I dance. I sing. I am at a show to make myself happy and to do something that brings me real joy. Because of this, when I look around an audience and see people who are palpably elated at a show, it makes me happy. I get real pleasure out of watching people enjoying music. I love to see them dancing and singing and experiencing a visceral happiness that we don’t get to have  in our everyday lives very often. Who cares if their singing is awful? What does it matter if they get the words wrong? Or if they dance in a way that wouldn’t win any contests?  When people aren’t perfect it makes it more real and true. It makes me smile even harder. We all try so hard in this life to put on a good show. To be cool instead of happy. Letting yourself go takes courage.

Last night, I stood towards the back of the room. In front of me were two women who were there together. They had obviously imbibed in a few cocktails and were quite loud and animated in their conversation. Dressed very well, hair done perfectly, and looking really cool but still age appropriate, they seemed to have it all together. Apparently, they thought so as well. I am a keen observer of those around me. I tend to notice emotions in others that many would miss. I also tend to pick up on meanness and mean people really easily. I watched a woman walk by. I’d guess she was in her early 50’s and judging by her outfit, she really tried that night. Her clothing was on-trend and so were her accessories. But somehow, she wasn’t put together quite right. I liked her immediately for trying. I felt how much looking cool that night must have meant to her. And she looked happy. That is until the women in front of me cut her down. Made fun of her outfit and commented on her gray roots. They were loud and they meant themselves to be heard. And they were. It wasn’t much, just a quick clenching of the jaw and a sadness in her eye, but I knew this woman heard them. And I knew the pride and happiness she was feeling was now gone. I wished I had the nerve to say something to these women, but kept my mouth shut. I’m not confrontational by nature. Maybe they were just drunk and didn’t know how loud they were being. I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. The band started to play and as people began to feel the music, many began to dance and sing. There was a man a about 30 feet in front of us that had absolutely no rhythm. But he danced like a maniac. He was happy! It was wonderful. These women began to laugh. And they pointed him out and began to imitate him. They tried to get others in the crowd around us to laugh, too. Some did easily. Others laughed reluctantly, still in the “please the mean-girl” mode they must have learned in order to spare themselves. This man noticed, and God bless him, he kept right on dancing. When these women saw they had no power to harm, they moved on to their next victims. They were a couple in their early 30’s. Somewhat overweight and dressed in clothes that were simple and not fashion forward, they were not there to impress anyone. They began dancing and singing and having a wonderful time. Until the mean girls began making fun of their clothes, their weight and their dancing. I watched this adorable and happy woman as she heard them. She looked at the floor and stopped dancing. She felt ashamed for being happy.

In the many shows I’ve seen since starting this blog, I am sad to say that this is not uncommon. I see it at just about every show in one way or another. People judging. People being intentionally cruel. People not accepting others rights to be there because they don’t fit the ‘cool’ profile others try to impose. I see cliques that refuse to let people in. Like the photographers with photo passes that put me down at a recent show because I was new, and quite obviously not a photographer. Or the man who threw beer on a guy that banged into him accidentally while trying to dance. Or the man who quite literally threw my friend out of the way to get to the stage with no regard to the fact that he probably hurt her.

Last night I had a choice to make. Remain silent or speak up. It took me a long time to decide, but I finally chose the latter. I walked up to these women and told them I wrote a music blog. Their ears perked up, just as I knew they would. They were hoping to be interviewed. I then told them that I was congratulating them. In all the time I’ve been going to shows, they were the “coolest” women ever. So cool, in fact, that they had no problem at all tearing down everyone around them and how proud they should be for being so much cooler than all of the rest of us. I watched what I said register. And I turned and walked away. I vaguely heard some obscene language being hurled my way, but my job was done. I walked away with the hope that when these women woke up today what they did would sink in. I hoped that they would feel a little of the shame they imposed on others. And more than anything, I hoped that they’d never do it again.

In this amazing and inclusive scene I’ve been a part of in one way or another since I was 13 years old, I’ve witnessed so much good. So many of us rooting for the underdog and cheering success. I’ve watched kindness and thoughtfulness and inclusion. But I’ve also seen the dark side. When we judge others for not fitting the mold. When we look down at a Bon Jovi fan for not being as cool as we are. When we don’t allow others to exude utter happiness at a show without judgement.And it’s time that we start remembering that we are all just people. That being cool is not in appearance, but in character. And, since for today, we are being so honest, making certain we recognize it when we fail this way and try really hard to never do it again.