Loneliness, at one time or another, has played a central role in many people’s lives. Whether it is actual isolation or a fear of it, it plays into how people look at their social interactions, and at the value of their lives. How lucky we are that music exists! “Outsidership,” especially when considered through music, is strangely a very connecting experience at times, realizing you and others see the world in the same way. And there have been so many fantastic musicians (Nirvana, Radiohead, Velvet Underground) who express deeply their own personal experiences of outsidership. Much of rock, indie rock and grunge were founded around this feeling. The more specific you get, the more a general audience can relate.
My anger rises when these bands (so often white, straight and cis masculine) or their fans pervert the label of “outsider” and take it only for themselves. It most certainly has to do with the feeling of being wholly individual — but everyone is a whole individual. Pop music listeners are whole individuals too. Taking the label of “outsider” and keeping it for oneself is not what most of these bands were about. Ironically, being an outsider is a shared experience. It is widely shared by women, people of color and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. I have certainly stepped into many rooms in my life full of men and instantly felt an uncomfortable twinge as I had to reconsider how to relate to them in conversation, or if I should instead stay silent. And there are many fans of these bands, and some bands themselves, that don’t fall into any of these categories and refuse to acknowledge outsider identities besides their own. Although we might all at some point feel desperately alone, there are some who are born into that and can never escape from it. This creates certain bands and listeners that thrive off making people uncomfortable. In communicating their own emotional experiences, they use too much anger, not enough empathy.
In writing this, I am not trying to attack anyone’s social experiences. Some prefer to exist mostly or entirely alone. Some thrive that way and don’t need people in their everyday life to enjoy their existence. Some have become alone due to others not talking to them because they think they are different or odd, which in turn causes them to talk to fewer people, and then fewer and then barely any at all. These are not the people I am talking about, and nor would I ever want to criticize them. The ones I refer to are those who use their “outsider” mindset to suck the joy out of art for others.
I have met countless people, often men, with a superiority complex about the music they listen to. They look down on pop music, dismissing it as pap. At one point, I bought into this. Entrenched in the world of male-dominated punk before realizing how deeply problematic it is, I bought into a bitter outsider mindset that looked down on pop music, which I pronounced with special derision. Then, amid discovering the usage of swastikas and iron crosses by bands like the Ramones and the Dead Boys in the CBGBs punk scene in New York (documented by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain in “Please Kill Me”), or Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, I realized how messed up they had made this culture. The swastika, as they tried to explain it, served as a symbol to shock people. Obviously, that is absolutely no excuse. In their anger, they alienated those who had already undergone trauma and trial, who had literally been cast out of society and tortured and persecuted.
They claimed the outsider label as their own, making the punk scene a worse place to be for people with actual marginalized identities. As discussed in Todd Haynes’s new documentary “The Velvet Underground,” The Factory, run by Andy Warhol and producing acts such as The Velvet Underground, was a toxic place for women, a place where they were valued only for their looks. When you see a whole music scene full of white people, or full of men, it’s not because there were no marginalized identities that would have wanted to become part of the scene. It’s because there was a lot of racism or sexism or any other -ism involved. When listeners consist of a majority of men, it is worth asking oneself why.
Sometimes, the culture is formed by the band. But other times, it is misinterpreted by the fans. Especially with sensitive subjects, it matters less the intent that the artist created with, and more the way the general audience will most likely interpret the lyrics. For example, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was an avid feminist, and wrote “Polly” and “Rape Me” (both stories concerning sexual violence) as middle fingers to sexism. He believed that men should be educated not to rape, rather than women being asked to protect themselves. However, the lyrics to both of these songs are incredibly incendiary. While he meant them to be empowering stories of women defending themselves, that is certainly not their only or even their most obvious interpretation.
Bands in such positions of prominence have a lot of influence, and when they release something, it will surely be interpreted in a million different ways. The source also matters; on discussing with a friend, he remarked that these probably would have come off quite differently as Courtney Love songs, rather than Nirvana songs. Even though Cobain’s intentions were good, these songs can likely serve to fuel something terrible inside some listeners and do not take into account his responsibilities as an influential male artist.
Even if the mostly male, white bands that filled these genres aren’t at all bad people, not many of them considered their domination of these musical genres. It is due to this that a whole counter-movement formed (that of riot grrrl) and is still ongoing. When searching for indie rock bands in the ’90s, you have to pick through legions of white men at the forefront, before reaching people of identities that society has automatically deemed outsider. For example, Long Fin Killie, an indie rock band from the ’90s headed by Luke Sutherland, a gay Black man, has just 1,470 monthly listeners on Spotify. Although they made important strides toward inclusion in one of the whitest, most male-dominated genres of them all, his and the band’s names are virtually unknown. It is this form of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. that is the most prevalent: that of simply not considering how much space you take up, and whose voices are not being heard.
When I think “pop star,” I think first of a female pop star. This genre has influential women with strong voices, who are increasingly using these voices for good and refusing to bend to the industry. They celebrate love and a good time — things revered across genres, but dismissed when very feminine women sing about them with autotune and synthesizers. This is why, when men tell me how much they hate pop, a part of my brain wonders if that isn’t just internalized misogyny. After all, the Beatles were at one point dismissed as a “boy band” because their listenership was largely female.
Recently, on day two of a 23-hour road trip, my girlfriend and I got into a discussion about her love for pop music. “I love talking about art and sharing passions for that in conversations,” she said. “Pop music is just art that everyone knows and that a lot of people like! It just widens the scope for love, and for discussion of it,” she finished with a smile. It was one of those seemingly simple statements that left me thinking for a long time and made me want to write this piece. Art is a way to share feelings. Even though so much of art is based on an idea of “otherness,” most of the time, it is an invitation to experience the feelings together. The making of art is a very personal thing, yes, that can exist on an exclusively individual level. But the sharing of art can be one of the most basic forms of communication — in being understood, whether through song, movie, book or painting, you are no longer entirely alone.
Daily Arts Writer Fia Kaminski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.