Pretense: 1. The act of pretending; a false appearance or action intended to decieve. 2. A false or studied show of something; an affectation.
Pretentious: 1. Claiming or demanding a position of distinction or merit, especially when unjustified. 2. Making an extravagant outer show; ostentatious.
-American Heritage Dictionary
Let's start with music. We won't end there, but let's start there.
I've always been bothered by the claim that progressive music is "pretentious"- as opposed to other more "natural" forms.
OK, let me see if I've got this straight. Making music with classical references is pretentious, but an Englishman making a career off of singing like a black man from Alabama isn't? Well no, I'm sorry, let's be fair- it could be anyone singing like a southerner. That's OK, 'cause that's "genuine". That's "rock and roll".
Now I'll be the first to tell you that an American badly attempting an English accent irritates me almost to the point of violence. And yes, it does seem pretentious. But....come on.
Rock and roll is pretension. There is no scene from any style or subgenre that isn't crawling with it.
Out of the cradle and back into its genes, rock and roll and its ancestors are steeped in pretention. Blues men singing about how they got the mojo, they're the 7th son of a 7th son, they can love you better than any other man, they're tougher than 10 wildcats and a grizzly bear- bragadaccio, plain and simple. Posturing for the bar crowd. Fun, and not usually to be taken seriously. Got that? The same goes for those adventerous country singers. Some of 'em truly lived their tales of woe, but woe to those that didn't have 'em to tell. Got that too?
And of course there is no pretention in the reality-based worlds of heavy metal, punk and rap. No one participating in these scenes is ever anything other than what they appear to be, and they were all born that way.
It's my contention that there are few people on earth who aren't poseurs in some way. It's a common thing for people to invent their personas rather than just react to the world. This takes place on levels most people never acknowledge or question. There is no choice of clothing, hair style, sentence structure or social interaction that isn't based on something, in order to conform or rebel or both.
I can hear the argument now- it's people who are falsely claiming erudition or pretending to be grand that are pretentious. That's the definition, isn't it? Well, not exactly. But there are times when this form of the label seems to be completely justified. However, is it? If there is no value to someone's efforts, if they're completely false, then perhaps so. But if we find intelligence in a place where it just looks wrong, is it? Or is the picture a bit larger than that?
What I suspect is really behind the "pretentious" tag is a backlash against intellectualism. Nobody likes to see someone trying to show how smart they are. For some it's also a "class" issue- if you bother to learn anything about the past, you are in bed with those it has made wealthy- whether or not you are yourself. (A class version of the "Uncle Tom" business.) Pol Pot would have agreed with all of this, and the offenders would have been taken out to the nearest rice paddy and shot.
I admit I wince when I see someone apparently shoving their learnedness down the public's throat. It's particularly annoying when I don't know what they're talking about. They're obviously just trying to show me how smart they are- smarter than the rest of us, more important than the rest of us, better than the rest of us. And by the rest of us, first and foremost I mean me. At that moment, they become pretentious. I have to let them know that I'm not impressed, but actually annoyed with them, by at very least looking elsewhere or at best having something cutting to say.
OK, seriously, I do get annoyed by this sometimes. The whole pseudo-intellectual thing, oh yes aren't we brilliant. But I know some people see me this way, which aside from being hilarious brings some perspective to the whole thing. For the most part, I hate intellectual snobs. But being intellectual doesn't make you a snob and it doesn't make you pretentious, not automatically. To some people though, it does. They know all about it.
Who's to blame here? The easy targets are the insecure label-slingers, to whom anything they might have to take 5 minutes to get into or think about or look up signifies pretension. But nobody gets that attitude without help, and the sad truth is, there are a lot of people who had other people's supposed superiority shoved down their throats and have lived to resent it. Which is a shame, and an offense to knowledge and humanity.
When I was in High School, one of the cool teachers, a Mr. Benson, had a sign hanging on the wall: "Learning is not something that is done to you." We discussed this in class one day, and its meaning, he said, was that you had to be responsible for your own learning. Others could help but ultimately it was up to you. For me it was a revealing statement. The interesting thing about this is that sign was done- voluntarily, as a gift- by a student, many years before.
Compare this to the attitudes fostered by those we all know and hate: fine people are educated, low class aren't, and this is transmutative: educated people are fine, uneducated people are low class, crude, unworthy. On the surface, especially to anyone living in a lower income area, there seems to be some truth to this. But this is a reaction born of bad moods, bad experiences and bad thinking. I have known many smart, gifted people who I wouldn't choose to spend 5 minutes with, because they as individuals are venomous and shallow. And I have known basically uneducated people who are as fine as you could wish for, good, friendly, loyal, trustworthy people. And- this is important- very intelligent in their own way. Maybe they won't know all the references you might make, but they follow ideas quickly. I have known plenty of well-educated people who are so bound up in their references that the simplest points elude them, and have to be elaborated on at length before they are understood. The bottom line here is that there is crud and cream in every strata of society and you have to take people on an individual basis or you miss out. (This extends to racism also- but that's another essay.)
There is also a strong social current that runs in opposition to this but which delivers a similar result: don't be too smart or people won't like you. This runs deep and wide. It causes people to be ashamed of learning to the point where if they approach it at all, they will do it secretively, in embaressment, like they were accumulating porn. Oh, you're going to learn, are you? Like you think you're somebody?
There are a million variations between these two poles, and all of them end up discrediting knowledge.
People need to be encouraged to expand their lives by exploring the world's ideas. They need to find the joy in it, which they cannot do if the insecurities of those around them poison their minds. They do not need to be shamed into a perpetual state of low self-esteem and chosen ignorance by people similarly afflicted, or by those who taint knowledge with a vicious elitism.
Pretension dwells on any side of any fence you care to name.
A reviewer recently claimed that the Jugalbandi Improvisation Level Classification System was "a bit pretentious". Was this because we were staking a claim to something we invented? At what point is it OK to say what you're doing and take credit for it? Perhaps Hyam and I shouldn't have bothered with the system at all. After all, who do we think we are? The world doesn't need anything new, and if it does, it will have to come from someone who's a recognized expert in their field. Perhaps we should have called it "Harry's Improvisation Level Classification System". Who's Harry? We don't know. But at least it doesn't have our name on it. Wouldn't want anyone to think we were pretentious.
On a personal level, this kind of thing occasionaly comes up because for the most part I write one way and talk another, sort of a Jim Nabors situation with my vocabulary. I write like I read, but I usually talk like what I am: a lower-middle class guy from the San Fernando Valley with a father from the slums of Philadelphia. I knew lots of curse words and dirty songs in English and Yiddish long before I dived into literature. I'd seen drugs and sex and violence firsthand before I could read. And I'm not ashamed of any of it. I don't want to be something else because that's just a part of me, and that's fine. It's not the whole story, never was, never will be. But all the time I've spent immersing myself in art and music and literature and ideas is also quite legitimately part of my life. So I'm not going to be ashamed of the fact that I've tried to widen my range of knowledge or grow intellectually. Nobody made me do it and I could give a fuck less who I impress (unless of course they want to offer me lots of money). I just like ideas. They make my life more fun. Did I start off from that idealistic perspective? No, probably not. But eventually I learned it. And the seed of it was always there- intellectual curiosity starts when you're an infant, and is either stifled or killed by environment or experience, is left to grow on its own, or is somehow nurtured. Not everything is manipulation. Some things really are what they are. Even if they become that way over time, or even if it's by choice. Ultimately, they still are what they are.
Let's end with the case of Grendel. He was a relation through marriage. When I met him, he was a man in his early 50s with a crisp, cultivated English accent, extremely intelligent and dedicated to "the finer things". He was something of an intellectual snob but he was funny and warm in his own way. I learned a lot from him the few times I met him, and though I was in my teens he always took time to talk to me and share ideas. He thought passing them on was important, and he did so not just to me, but to anyone who would listen. I liked him very much. And for years, I thought he was a transplanted Brit.
Nope. Real name Larry Pibbs, from Texas. He disliked where he came from enough to recreate himself completely. Now if ever pretention had a poster child, he would seem to be it.
But did it devalue him as a person? No. He was invaluable and a positive influence on everyone that knew him. He just happened to define himself rather than let his environment dictate who he was. And the world is a better place for his decision.
I need to remember this the next time I laugh at a white Rapper.
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