You asked, kind of jokingly, if it’s okay for a grown-up man to like Harry Styles—hitting on the larger, perhaps more important question: if your love of Radiohead is about Radiohead or about gender.
I can say an enthusiastic “yes” to the first question. The second one is between you, Thom Yorke, and the sold out crowd at the Greek Theatre in Berkley last night.
You posed the question in a lighthearted way, but—I can’t seem to help myself!—it raises serious questions about gender, class, and misogyny. And you are not the only one asking this kind of question. Styles’ performance on Saturday Night Live may be a career-making one. (SNL gave Styles the same kind of love it often shows to that other former boyband star, Justin Timberlake.) His performance was excellent. The fact that we doubted that it would be is because we doubt girls—as young people but particularly as young women.
What constitutes “good taste”—which is definitely not boybands!—is defined by those with the most cultural capital, those who have not just the money but the education, leisure time, and access to difficult-to-access content. “Poor taste” isn’t just bad taste; it’s the taste of those with lower levels of cultural capital. This doesn’t align perfectly with economic class—Donald Trump eats his steaks well-done, with ketchup, proving that money can’t always buy good taste—but economic class opens up opportunities for cultural capital. Kids in poor schools don’t learn to order their food in French for a reason.
Above, $14 Tater Tots at Bar Boulud in NYC. You can order these without laughing if you’ve never had to rely on frozen potatoes as an actual source of nutrients.
Taste protects the powerful and commits symbolic violence upon the poor. We laugh at the leisure activities of the poor—demolition derbies, MMA, tractor pulls. Sometimes the artifacts of the lower classes get “re-classified,” but it’s with a wink and the assurance that even if you drink PBR or eat tater tots, if you do it ironically, your cultural capital is preserved, like Marie Antoinette playing in the little Peasantville she had built in Versailles.
Above, the video for Randy Travis’ 1991 “Better Class of Losers.” He sings: “I’m going back to a better class of loser/ This up-town living’s really got me down/ I need friends who don’t pay their bills on home computers/ And who buy their coffee beans already ground/ You think it’s disgraceful that they drink three-dollar wine/ But a better class of loser suits me fine.” I haven’t done Bourdieu-style analysis, but I’d put Randy Travis below Dwight Yoakam, on par with Alan Jackson, and many, many degrees above Travis Tritt and Garth Brooks.
This is the argument (minus the tater tots) of Pierre Bourdieu’s 1979 Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. The French sociologist makes his argument using survey research to quantify how “taste”—both tastes for and aversions to—is taught across classes. It’s a kind of sophisticated version of a Buzzfeed quiz: Buy Some Random Shit From Etsy And We’ll Tell You Your Moral Alignment. Only instead of helping you figure out if you are “lawful good” or “chaotic evil,” he can tell you your class.
Bourdieu focuses on class, but you raise the question of gender. Is pop music bad because it’s intrinsically bad? (I am generally on board with Bourdieu, but I think that a well-done steak with ketchup is an act of ingratitude toward God.) Or is it bad because we associate it with girls? And what does that tell us about ourselves and how we value girls?
The short version of it is that we don’t value girls, not much at all. As a culture, we are awful to children. At best, we see them as a problem to be solved. At worst, we abuse them and deny them the legal right to be protected from that abuse.
The other part of this—the Radiohead question—is that the symbolic violence of taste doesn’t just tell us what should disgust us (things girls like) but also what we should like.
And this is where I feel rather bad for American men, who are told, depending on their class, that they should like classic rock, heavy metal, commercial country, or the obnoxiousness that is Radiohead. (Full disclosure: As an adolescent, I seemed to give off a pheromone that attracted boys into prog rock. Or maybe it wasn’t a pheromone but an intermingling of my class, gender, race, and…I don’t know. Don’t tell me as I’d prefer not to face this truth about myself. So many young hearts broken over my distaste for King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and Rush!) And it tells you which automobiles are appropriate for you, which kind of beer you should drink, which kind of women you should feel attracted to, and a host of other details of life.
When Reddit (not my usual source of information) asked men what they would do if gender weren’t an issue, the answers are so sweet and sad: they would quilt and knit and sew. They would wear yoga pants and do home facials and “smell good.” They wouldn’t have stopped teaching preschool or sitting with their legs crossed one over the other. They would be the “little spoon.” You can’t help but think: They are missing so much.
Don’t miss Harry Styles.