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Do you think it’s true that the more popular a band gets, the lousier their music gets? This has been weighing on my mind ever since The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons performed at the Grammys recently. I cringed through the whole performance — not because the music was bad (it was excellent), but because it would undoubtedly lead to more fame, more fans and generally suckier music. Am I right? Or am I just a music elitist?
You can be both right, and a music elitist. They are not mutually exclusive. If they were, the great Nick Hornby might not have a career, and the greatest music novel of all time, “High Fidelity,” would have never been written. But I’d suggest that what’s really eating at you is not that their music will start sucking, but rather that their fans will. The more people like them, the less exclusive the club. Next thing you know, you’re standing next to guys at concerts who acquired their musical taste from a Starbucks sampler and who are wearing pressed dad jeans. If that happens, you worry, what does it say about you?
To be sure, as your favored bands start coddling their new, expanding audience, there is the very real risk that they will start to suck, or even worse, become Train. Everyone likes to feel like they have a secret, and that their band is speaking solely to them. That’s certainly the way I felt in the mid-90s, when Hanson first hit the scene. It’s like they were singing MMMBop directly to me, before they amassed a large following, sold out and went all bougie, having “Hanson Day” declared in Tulsa by the governor, and even putting out a Christmas album. When your favorite band puts out a Christmas album, that usually means it’s time to find a new favorite band. The only surer sign of creative bankruptcy is if they make appearances with those twits from “Glee.”
Your faux snobbishness, of course, is less about the band than it is about you. (If you were a true snob, you’d like bands I’ve never heard of, not bands who are on regular rotation on XM’s The Loft). We sensitive singer-songwriter types prize the whole genre precisely because it rotates around faux-snobbery. The music is still accessible enough to actually like, instead of us having to pretend to like songs by bands like Tit Wrench, just because they’re obscure and their names make people wince. Yet we tell ourselves that our discoveries are too deep or not on-the-nose enough to succeed commercially. So when they do, it means we are no longer unique. We too are one of the mouth-breathing throngs. The kind of people who might buy a Lady Gaga CD at Wal-Mart, because they saw her hatch out of an egg or wear a meat suit on the TeeVee, or who think that Carrie Underwood is what country music is supposed to sound like.
Don’t fret over it though. The key to musical happiness is not to chase the new thing. Because these days, the new thing becomes the old thing before you’ve ever even heard of it. The beauty of leaving your twenties for your thirties and forties is that you no longer feel the pressure to stay caught up. At some point, you accept your taste as the calcified relic that it inevitably becomes (I like The Avett Brothers too, though I liked them better the first time around, as The Band). Occasionally, something new breaks into the rotation. But sit back, and listen to what you like, instead of what you think you should like. As Nick Hornby himself wrote, in his magnificent meditation on pop music, “Songbook”:
I’m prepared to forgive the bad stuff, because the best songs are simply beautiful, and beauty is a rare commodity, especially in pop music, so after a while, anything that stops you from embracing it comes to seem self-injurious. I can’t afford to be a pop snob anymore, and if there is a piece of music out there that has the ability to move me, then I want to hear it, no matter who’s made it. I used to have a reason not to like Little Feat (too polite, as far as I can recall, and maybe too musically precise) and Neil Young (overlong guitar solos) but no one can nurse those kinds of quirks in taste now. You’re either for music, or you’re against it, and being for it means embracing anyone who’s any good.
You might even enjoy conformity. And maybe after the Mumford & Sons concert, the sad man in the pressed dad jeans can take you out for a Starbucks Macchiato. If you’re honest with yourself, it probably beats going out for falafel with some anarchic poser in a keffiyeh after a Tit Wrench show.
Have you learned any new tactics for the river worth mentioning? Last year I started skating and waking flies in tailwater and from time to time had great success, and it’s fun to try something new when a drag-free drift just isn’t getting it done. Do you have anything special you’re busting out on the bass and catfish this winter? – Chad Eslin
Why yes, I do. It’s not new for me, but in winter, I throw a lot of small shad darts off my fly rod. Though the shad and catfish don’t make the scene much this time of year (the shad are anadromous, and the catfish sit on the bottom until it gets warmer), the bass will still come out and play if you fish the right conditions, and will hit darts without conscience when they’re not wintering. I experiment with different types, but my money pattern – and I’m not kidding – is Wal-Mart issue Leland darts with pink and white heads, and chartreuse tails. Which of course, aren’t flies at all, earning me a fair amount of ridicule from snobbier fishing mates. Many of whom, I’ve noticed, don’t fish during the winter, because they can’t catch much of anything. This is one of the many reasons why I prefer fishing solo. When I fish alone, I don’t have to argue fishing theory, I can just catch fish. Of course, the same mates will throw a dumbbell-eyed Clouser without thinking twice, which is often made from the same material – lead and bucktail. So I’m basically getting reprimanded on a technicality.
The truth is, both are essentially jigs, and a small dart often casts more smoothly than even a size 8 Clouser. In spots with limited casting room, it tends to get down fast without having to switch to sink-tip line. And because the hook eye sits atop the dart, rather than on the nose, such as on any traditional streamer, you can make it drop more sharply than a Clouser between strips on the retrieve (many bass like to hit on the drop). I also catch a fair amount of fish high-sticking it as though I’m nymphing. Even slow-blooded winter fish occasionally panic when they think they see a meal getting away by ascending upwards through the water column, and will hit out of insecurity. (Fish Psychology 101). I have overcome many a fruitless session on the water by switching out conventional flies, and throwing small darts. If you’re going to throw larger, heavier darts, you’re better off giving up the charade, and just breaking out your spinning rod or baitcaster, or else it will turn into a chuck’n’duck session, and you might end up wearing an unwanted earring.
You can call it cheating if you’d like. I call it “fishing.” All fishing is about deception, from the fish’s standpoint. So why be a snob about how you trick them? Artificials are artificials. It’s not like you’re live lining bluegill in front of them. While fly fishermen are truly some of my favorite people, they can also be the fussiest and most intolerant. (I am guilty of this myself, somewhat, since I refuse to pick up a spinning rod anymore, unless I’m fishing with my kids, and helping them). But the music answer above addressed whether you want to listen to good music, or to just feel pure about it. Ultimately, the same applies to fishing. At some point, you have to face facts about why you’re standing in arctic water, with icicles coming out of your nose. It’s not because you want to enforce some imaginary rulebook. It’s because you want to catch fish. That said, I will not throw bloodworms or Senkos off my fly rod. It’s fine to break the fishing commandments, on occasion. But you’re still going to have face your Maker one day.
Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” is now out in paperback from Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.