"If you own all the music ever recorded in the entire history of the world, then who are you?" asks Nick Hornby, in a short essay at Billboard from last month that is ostensibly about what would the sequel to High Fidelity be - but really about the stubborn resurgence / persistence of record shops and solid-form music commodities (including vinyl) and what that says about how people engage with music.
"One of the great benefits of digital consumption is that it is democratic: In cyberspace, there's nobody to judge you [i.e. no snobby sneery record store assistants a la High Fidelity] . And yet part of the point of culture is that it allows us to demonstrate our tastes publicly -- it helps us find our tribe... The arts are the most elaborate and most precise social network ever invented, but if it's going to work properly, you have to get out of the house sometimes and show who you are and what you love. You have to go to shows and galleries and bookstores, you have to ask for what you want out loud. And this expression of taste must involve an impulse that, at its heart, is anti-democratic: Somewhere you have to believe that what you like is better than what all those other losers like. So maybe we need those record-store guys; maybe the reason so many of them are still around is that, without them, the whole system grinds to a halt. If you own all the music ever recorded in the entire history of the world, then who are you?"
What Hornby is touching on here is the breakdown of the role music used to have in identity formation...
This could be individual / solipsistic, or it could be tribal (us versus them), but it was reliant on the either/or distinction - the good/bad, urgent/trivial distinction. It was divisive - creating a gulf between me / not-me, us / not-us
But with the glut of options, the overabundance of choices - with decisions carrying no weight financially or existentially - - first fanaticism goes, then any kind of intense cathexis. Ultimately you're processing things too fast to feel them.
As to the "anti-democratic" impulse in public displays of taste and allegiance... One of my never-attempted projects, during the tail-end of the Poptimism Wars, was to see if I could come up with a defence of the idea of cultural snobbery.
This mortal dread of being a snob, of making a critical utterance that could be deemed as snobbish, was leading, as far as I could see, to a paralysis of judgement altogether. People (I mean critics mainly, but some critic-minded civilians) got caught up in this bizarre competition to find things to not-dismiss, not-demean. It's still going on, a sort of frantic note of "what are we missing? what are we failing to cover?". It became a kind of inverted Bourdieu-an cultural capital, this ostentatious display of non-elitism. But there was an idealistic element, for sure, a "wanting to be good".
The energy behind this ever-more-inclusive overcompensation for the supposed slights of rockism seemed... nothing really to do with music - with taste or passsion, or how any real-world individual engages with music. It had a quality of impersonal conscientiousness, an aspiration to virtue that felt faintly bureaucratic, done on behalf of some Big Other. Like a policy that had been formulated by some public body for best practice.