When I was in college, I made a CD-R mix for a girl I liked. (I know, what a cliche.)
At the time, I had spent some time listening to the Postal Service. They were a group I kinda fucked with, but found vaguely embarrassing at the same time. I mean, the dude's voice was so unapologetically earnest. It made me wince a little, and compared to the rap music I was listening to back then—this was when Lil Jon was taking over, for context—there was something kind of effete about Jimmy Tamborello's bleepy production, to say nothing of vocalist Ben Gibbard's unselfconscious sincerity.
But at this stage, I thought I would best communicate my own interest through vaguely lovesick vibes. In retrospect—embarrassing! At the time, this seemed like the shortest route from point A to point B with the girl I wanted to get with. (Guys are dumb.) So I put together a mix of subtle European house music and wistful pop. Hey, at least I knew better than to put something as on-the-nose hipster-romantic as the Postal Service on there.
A week or two later, her feedback was humbling: "I think you'd like the Postal Service. Have you heard of them?" I almost laughed in front of her, although it wasn't at her. It was at myself; for all my haughty, careful delineation, when it came down to it, Postal Service was the same basic aesthetic I had been going for. I just convinced myself that I was above it. At the end of the day, I was splitting hairs. The functional difference between the music I was into, and the music I rolled my eyes at, was nil.
"The only unifying element between these acts isn't musical—it's about a particular facet of the audience. One that considers itself, perhaps, a bit more cosmopolitan than your average Postal Service fan."
I still find Postal Service's music a little corny, particularly the lyrics ("I am thinking it's a sign/That the freckles In our eyes are mirror images and when/We kiss they're perfectly aligned"? C'mon, son). It's just not my cup of tea. But I was reminded of this story when reading this piece in Salon, about white fans of the Postal Service not really "getting" the music of opening New Orleans sissy bounce act Big Freedia. And it made me feel kind of defensive on behalf of those fans.
"White music fans are afraid of difference," argues the headline. Later on, writer Katie Ryder seems to be insinuating that there's something fundamentally wrong with Postal Service fans who don't understand why Freedia was on the bill.: "If we only welcome difference... when we imitate it, whiten it and straighten it, but don’t want it as a part of our regular space, we don’t really welcome it at all."
I've spent a large part of my life arguing that music mainstream America often considers "marginal" deserves to be taken seriously. I think the lines between "low" and "high" art are largely arbitrary, and that there's nothing "deeper" about Gibbard's lyrics than Freedia's. If I were a big fan of Freedia, and I saw some Postal Service fans dismissing Freedia's work as a joke, I'd be put off too. As the internet has taken over, I think more and more music fans agree: the walls are coming down, and different musical traditions deserve respect.
But here's the thing: If I was a Postal Service fan, and Big Freedia's crew hit the stage, I would think that was pretty damn bizarre. There is, currently, a fasination with "sissy bounce" by a certain outside audience. It's leading to more high-profile gigs for Freedia, which is cool, because it would be nice if African American musical traditions received the attention given to more "mainstream-friendly" (read: white) acts. The arbitrariness of the interest, though, is resulting in some strange musical clashes.
It isn't so much that Freedia doesn't deserve respect. It's that anyone putting together a show with the Postal Service, and hiring Big Freedia as an opening act, is making an exceedingly absurd programming decision. The only unifying element between these acts isn't musical—it's about a particular facet of the audience. One that considers itself, perhaps, a bit more cosmopolitan than your average Postal Service fan. The sad irony is that bounce as a whole genre doesn't get booked for many out-of-town shows—one token artist does, and is forced to stand in for the audience's self-congratulatory sense of tolerance.
As someone who considers himself a nominal fan of bounce music, and who thinks Keedy Black's "I Love Dat Boy" is one of the most underrated songs of the past few years, I would love to see more appreciation for bounce music out there. I also think many modern music listeners are perfectly capable of appreciating the heart-on-sleeve psuedo-poetry of the Postal Service and Freedia's more twerk-oriented music at the same damn time. But if you're going to see the Postal Service, there's a particular aesthetic sensibility that you're looking for in that moment.
Sure, popular music is art, and appreciating the true breadth of that art is admirable. But pop music also does things that many other kinds of art can't do. It lives with us, and it often plays a role in our lives, in our personal relationships, and in our relationships to society broadly. Whether you're constructing crush tapes, or taking your crush to a concert, or going to a night club, there's something to be said for the way music performs a function.
If you appreciate the wildly different aesthetic purposes of both bounce music and twee indie pop, more power to you; we are human, we contain multitudes. But just mashing together different genres isn't necessarily about justice or anything especially high-minded, as much as it is about patting ourselves on the back for our own open-mindedness.