What do we mean when we call music pretentious?

What do we mean when we call music pretentious?

In 2009, Brooklyn-based musician Hunter Hunt-Hendrix—leader of the band Liturgy (and now also Survival, whose debut album was released last week)—participated in a symposium called Hideous Gnosis. The topic was black metal, the shadow-shrouded subgenre of extreme metal that’s slowly seeped into mainstream consciousness over the past decade. The popular caricature of black metal is a vivid one: demonic-looking dudes in black-and-white face paint who burn down churches and play cruelly crude music that makes Slayer sound like Van Halen.

Hunt-Hendrix doesn’t resemble that caricature, and Liturgy’s music is a far cry from the traditional black metal of Venom and Mayhem. The band’s name alone conjures images of ritual devotion—just not to Satan. Blond-haired and baby-faced, Hunt-Hendrix looks downright angelic. Accordingly, the manifesto he delivered at Hideous Gnosis—titled “Transcendental Black Metal”—is filled with uplifting notions, up to and including “a new relationship between art, politics, ethics, and religion.” He even goes so far as to propose replacing extreme metal’s machine-gun-like blast beat with what he calls the “burst beat”—similar in sound, only ecstatic instead of destructive.

It isn’t just Hunt-Hendrix’s rejection of black-metal purity that has angered some. (After all, black metal has been successfully cross-pollinated, with everything from folk to classical, for years.) It’s the fact that Hunt-Hendrix has dared to challenge the genre’s fundamental ethic—in a word, negativity—in order to shoot for something, well, transcendental. Rather than worshipping annihilation, Hunt-Hendrix promotes “renihilation,” which “Transcendental Black Metal” defines as “the betrayal of Hyperborean Black Metal and an affirmation of Transcendental Black Metal. And it is at the same time the constitution of an apocalyptic humanism to be termed Aesthetics.”

This heresy is the main concern of those who are immersed in the world of black metal. Others have leveled a less esoteric complaint at Hunt-Hendrix, one that the lofty language and academic posturing of “Transcendental Black Metal” seems to justify: the crime of pretension. 

“Pretentious” gets thrown around a lot when discussing music. It’s a word that comes with connotations of stuffiness, condescension, willful obscurity, and needless intellectual complexity. It’s a quality that makes some people want to kick the perpetrator in the teeth, and Hunt-Hendrix seems to be a today's public enemy number one.

Or is he? Pretentious means “Attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.” (Or so says the O.E.D.) But what if Hunt-Hendrix isn’t affecting anything? What if he actually does possess the importance, talent, culture, etc., that he seems to be laying claim to? And if he doesn’t—if he truly is trying to impress people with ideas he can’t actually back up, regardless of the fact that his music does indeed embody those ideas—is that necessarily bad?

Last week, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield posted a video of his performance of David Bowie’s 1969 classic “Space Oddity”—which Hadfield filmed while aboard the International Space Station. It’s an amazing and even stirring homage to the song, but also to the way popular culture can inspire science. What’s interesting, though, is that by the dictionary definition of the word, you could argue that Hadfield’s version of “Space Oddity” is not pretentious—after all, like the song’s protagonist, Major Tom, Hadfield is an astronaut singing from space—but Bowie’s original is. At that early point in his career Bowie wasn’t even a star, let alone a starman. He was pretending—the very root of pretension. And it was only the first of many times he would do so. But in this case, Bowie is innocent. In “Space Oddity,” he’s not seriously trying to convince people that he’s an astronaut or anything else. He is, for all intents and purposes, an actor playing a role.



Here’s where things get tricky: Theatricality is often conflated with pretension, but the two words aren’t universally interchangeable. Bowie has been, and always will be, called pretentious by some. It isn’t his thespian tendencies, though, that make him so—it’s his cultivation of high-concept rock and an otherworldly aura. But in his case, his pretension was a self-fulfilling prophecy. He actually has become the mythic, iconic star he once only pretended to be. He may have once been just another extravagant songwriter with lordly gestures in the art-rock heyday of the ’70s, but it’s hard to justify that kind of criticism now that he has four decades of consistently mysterious music and bold, visionary statements under his belt.

And then there are those who slip through the cracks between theatricality and pretension. Janelle Monáe's new single, “Q.U.E.E.N.,” references Philip K. Dick and sustains the sci-fi trappings that have united all her work since her 2007 EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). Actually, it’s not fair to call them trappings. Monáe is one of the most exciting singer-songwriters working in any genre today, one who proudly combines the tradition of Afrofuturism with 21st-century geek culture—not to mention a stunning mutation of pop, funk, and dance music. Her sci-fi concepts aren’t sprinkled on top of her music—they’re baked into the middle. For the past six years, Monáe’s songs have connected into a vast narrative that involves time travel, androids, clones, and a 28th-century dystopia that her character Cindi Mayweather is destined to shake to its core.

She doesn’t just sing about it, though: Monáe is a character in her own story. During a performance for the public-radio show Studio 360 in 2009, she was interviewed by host Kurt Anderson. Halfway through the chat, Monáe summarizes the mind-boggling plotline behind Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). Anderson then comments, “You say this with conviction, as through you’re telling me facts from the future.” Her answer: “Oh, yeah. Janelle Monáe actually, in 2719, worked in a superhero surplus store, and she was thrown back into 2007. But before they threw her back, the snatchers cloned her body, and Cindi Mayweather has her DNA.” Her response is the epitome of pretension, right down to the way she talks about herself in the third person. Rather than detracting from her art, though, it enhances it. Anyone can write a catchy song; here’s someone who wants to elevate pop to rarified heights, and who isn’t afraid to go far, far deeper than, say, Lady Gaga ever could.

Pretension is in the eye of the beholder—and it often has more to do with how an audience sees itself than how an artist sees her audience. Pop music has no problem deifying its makers, but it still expects them to behave like ordinary people. It’s a paradox that the giants of jazz or classical music were never expected to live up—or rather, down—to. In those genres, big ideas and their grandiose execution are virtues. Pop music arose, in part, as a reaction to that. But the illusions of egalitarianism went out the window right around the time Bowie released “Space Oddity,” when pop music was just starting to make room for artistic progressivism.

Progressive rock was called pretentious back then, and it’s called pretentious now. Even Rush, one of the greatest rock bands of all time, prog or otherwise, is all but ignored by the critical establishment today, in spite of a sold-out stadium tour, relative accessibility, and the recent release of one of their strongest albums, 2012’s Clockwork Angels. More than 40 years into its career, Rush remains cerebral, challenging, and complex. To some, that’s a negative thing.

Pretension will always be a dirty word, even if it isn’t always clear what exactly makes something pretentious—or if the accused is really guilty of that charge. To truly know if a singer is being pretentious, a listener has to get into their heads. All we have access to, though, is the music (or the manifestos) they choose to show us, and their interviews. A 2011 Q&A with Hunt-Hendrix in Time Out New York is as illuminating as Monáe’s Studio 360 interview. In it, he talks about his Ivy League past: 

I remember initially being uncomfortable about revealing certain facts about my life. As though there’s something scandalous that makes the music invalid. But at this point I’m so accustomed to negative reactions to what are simply my honest ideas and opinions that I don't feel like there’s much “damage” to be done. I went to Columbia and was a philosophy major. I also studied avant-garde composition there with Tristan Murail, one of the inventors of spectralism. For a while my plan was to either be a professional philosopher or a “serious music” composer. Even worse, I was there at the same time as and hung around with the members of Vampire Weekend. All that feels controversial somehow, though it’s hard to put my finger on what makes it feel that way. But, I mean, that’s what’s up and now I’m doing this black-metal band, so there it is.

This probably hurts Hunt-Hendrix’s case more than helps it. Then again, what is the guy supposed to do? Throw out all his knowledge of theory, roll up his sleeves, and act like Bruce Springsteen? That would be the pretentious thing to do. By all accounts, the brainy, overblown music made by Hunt-Hendrix is an expression of who he truly is—conservatory background and all. Call it calculating or precious or just plain lousy. But pretentious? It might be the polar opposite. In any case, a world where musicians were afraid to take huge, hubristic risks—including the risk of being called pretentious—would be a dull one indeed.

Filed Under: Music

More For Our Consideration