Just because it's mainstream doesn't mean it sucks

WHEN I was in high school, I went to see Weird Al Yankovic perform at the local county fair/asparagus festival. I thoroughly enjoyed the show. But what sticks in my mind is the spectacle of three young men, standing in a circle toward the back of the audience, performing line dances and lip-syncing to every song.

Yes, Weird Al sang perhaps 20 songs that night, and they knew the lyrics to every single one by heart.

At the time, I thought, "How weird are THOSE guys?" And I made no connection between my rather unkind judgment and the amusement that my math teacher showed, 10 minutes later, when he saw me leaving the fairgrounds clutching an 8-by-10 glossy of Weird Al impishly winking at the camera.

For some reason it's very easy for me to judge others by their musical tastes. When I was in high school, I didn't know anything about popular music and judged it as inferior commercial pabulum. Of course, this was because I was insecure about getting judged myself. Tell me if you've heard that one before.

I listened to classical music because I thought it would make me smarter (in a misunderstanding of the Baby Mozart effect), and I listened to NPR news instead of commercial radio when I got up in the morning for school. I was probably the only person at my high school who arranged to wake up early on Monday mornings to listen to Cokie Roberts' weekly five-minute politics update.

And I had some Weird Al tapes. True geekiness is knowing a melody from a Weird Al parody before hearing the original song. I can't count how many times that's happened to me. It's probably happened to someone you know, in fact. In polling my acquaintances, everyone can remember someone's little brother who was obsessed with Weird Al. Evidently I am that little brother. I lapped up the parody, as though by making fun of Top 40 songs, Weird Al was inviting me to laugh at the people who enjoyed those formulaic songs. I didn't realize that Weird Al had a formula, too.

Eventually I grew up a bit, moved to the Bay Area, discovered decent radio stations and record shops, and found modern music that I enjoyed. They Might Be Giants is generally the band every Weird Al-loving kid grows up to adore, and I'm no exception. My friends also turned me on to Jonathan Richman, Dar Williams, Ben Folds, Vienna Teng and other artists who say interesting things in aurally pleasing ways. And every once in awhile I just want to rock out with some Green Day.

But now I've stepped out of the consistent and therefore easily defensible "I hate mainstream music" box I'd placed myself in, so I have to articulate my own vague, precognitive tastes. I exhibit superstition when telling other people what I like, as though the act of mentioning a band makes it too mainstream for legitimacy.

A few months ago, I bought five albums from a little shop in the East Village of New York City. Two were by Belle & Sebastian, two by The Mountain Goats and one by Franz Ferdinand. As I got to the counter, one clerk said to another, "It's time for the music," and put on a song by Slayer.

I joked, "Is that the music you put on when someone buys five incredibly mainstream CDs?"

He laughed, "No, no, these aren't too mainstream ... except this one," as he held up the Franz Ferdinand. My fears were confirmed! At least I'd created cred earlier by asking the clerks whether they stocked the work of a musician whom they'd never heard of.

I don't mind telling people my preferences for books, movies or blogs — but when it comes to music, I preface every listing of favorite bands with "I'm such a mainstream loser that this is what I like." Maybe that's because music can get to me, can bypass my intellectual defenses and move me emotionally. I can't guard against the rockin'-ness of Ace of Base, even if all their songs have the exact same drumline and tempo!

But if I don't have an aesthetics to explain and distance myself from the pleasure I take in popular music, then I'm just an enthusiast, no more sophisticated than the guys dancing at the Weird Al concert. And that would be far too pat an ending for this column.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at sumana@crummy.com.