EXCERPT | Taken from Why You Like It: The Science and Culture of Musical Taste

by Nolan Gasser


Whatever term you prefer (“subculture,” “community,” “neo-tribe,” “scene,” “world,” etc.) the intraculture to which you belong provides an invaluable service to your musical taste, and to your lifestyle--one you’d miss out on otherwise. If you’re an Italian-American, for example, you can take proud ownership of the rich body of Neapolitan songs rendered by Perry Como, Tony Bennett, and Mario Lanza; as an activist in the feminist movement, you’ll be invited to sing loudly to anthems by No Doubt (“I’m Just a Girl,”) Katy Perry (“Roar”), Queen Latifah (“U.N.I.T.Y.”), and Aretha Franklin (“Respect”); as a junkie of urban “fitness culture,” you’ll be encouraged to embrace Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” Van Halen’s “Jump,” or Beyoncé’s “Get Me Bodied.” 

On a broader level, if you’re a committed subscriber to
the mainstream, you’ll get your musical ticket punched on a near daily basis via the dominant media- and financescapes
all around you. You’ll likewise find ritual validation through recurring events like the Grammy Awards, Super Bowl halftime shows, and stadium world tours of marquee artists. If, by contrast, you eschew the mainstream in favor of more esoteric or rarified intracultures, you may be less saturated with daily options, but you’ll be amply rewarded in other ways: hearing expert or “legit” performers rendering certified and fresh “gems” in lavish venues like symphony halls, opera houses, Broadway theaters, dimly lit jazz or dance clubs, and hidden bars—all while hobnobbing with similarly esoteric or rarified co- members. Of course, the actual benefits you receive will depend on the nuanced details of the intraculture in question—both in terms of their “audible entanglements” (in ethnomusicologist Jocelyne Guilbault’s clever phrase) and the lifestyle dimensions they support. 

Not long ago, for example, I enjoyed an evening in my capacity as a card-carrying, if hypercritical, member of the wider “classic rock” music intraculture. It was during a trip visiting my mom in La Mirada, when my immediate family ventured out for dinner on a Saturday night. As we drove down Beach Boulevard in nearby Buena Park, my wife, Lynn, spotted a colorful guitar- shaped sign up the road: Rock & Brews! A pathway lined with classic rock album discs—Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the MoonLed Zeppelin IV, etc.—gave way to the ambiance of an Aerosmith concert as we entered the rock-themed restaurant. The place was packed with middle-aged white folks and their kids, with
a contingent of black-leathered twenty-somethings playing
a version of Tinder Live at the adjacent bar. Strewn upon
the walls and ceilings was a canopy of rock flags and posters representing all the big icons: the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Rush, Queen, the Police, David Bowie, U2, the Grateful Dead, Kiss, Blondie, you name it. A half a dozen video screens and surround-sound speakers blared classic rock videos as diners like us scarfed down high-end pub food—artisan cheeseburgers with Angus beef, microbrew IPAs, and the like. 

Rock & Brews thus provided my fellow “classic rockers” and me with a musical and lifestyle experience expressly catered to our intraculture—aesthetically defined by this specific musical preference, and dominated by a handful of “structural” markers: white, affluent, twenty to sixty years old, family-friendly, etc. While no one likely enjoyed every song that played over the course of dinner we were all unified in our musical appreciation for the overall experience it offered: a culinary-based ritual of a classic rock collectivity. Those inspired to repeat the experience now have eighteen other Rock & Brews locations in the US and Mexico to choose from—not to mention hundreds of similarly themed Hard Rock Cafes around the world. My only slight chagrin came in learning that Rock & Brews was cofounded in 2010 by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley—the two frontmen of Kiss! Score one for Mitch. 

Intracultures, musical and otherwise, are by definition communal. They come into being, in theory at least, whenever two or more people hold an identity—heritage, faith, gender, cause, affinity, etc.—to which they collectively claim ownership. As such, intracultures offer members the perks and trappings of this mutual ownership, and the experiences and lifestyles they yield. 

One intriguing manifestation of this group identity is the phenomenon of the “superfan.” Examples abound, especially for the modern—day pop and rock intracultures: Grateful Dead’s “Deadheads,” Kiss’ “Kiss Army,” Jimmy Buffett’s “Parrotheads,” Aerosmith’s “Blue Army,” Barry Manilow’s “Fanilows,” Justin Bieber’s “True Beliebers,” Beyonce’s “Beyhive,” Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters,” Katy Perry’s “KatyCats,” Clay Aiken’s “Claymates,” and Taylor Swift’s “Swifties”—to name just a
few. These are the most passionate consumers and advocates
of individual bands and artists—those “fan armies” who are increasingly recognized as a prime source of revenue by the music industry: they attend more concerts, consume more music, and buy more merchandise than an average “fan,” as much as twelve times more. Their dedication (and dollars) gives them access to more immersive and intense experiences—such as prerelease gifts or events, exclusive social media access, etc. But It also gives them solidarity with like-minded souls who share an intense passion for the music as well as its surrounding “lifestyle.” 

Recently, my wife, Lynn, and I got to participate in a “superfan” intracultural experience, when we saw the Rolling Stones at the brand-new U Arena in Paris. Thanks to my friend Tim Ries, the band’s tenor saxophonist since 2003, we were able to enjoy a preconcert gathering in the “VIP Lounge” and then see the terrific three-hour concert from “the pit,” right next to the stage and adjoining catwalk. But perhaps even more memorable was the time we spent before, during, and after the concert with a small group of Rolling Stones “superfans” (I call them “Rollingistas,” but no official name exists). These were folks in their forties to sixties who had each seen dozens, if not hundreds of Stones concerts—including most others on this same tour. They knew where to stand, special song highlights, the set list, and—critically it turned out—when exactly to leave so as to avoid the mass crowd exodus. 

More profoundly, though, they shared something intangible: a collective affinity for the Rolling Stones and the ethos, aesthetic, and history the band has built up over its incredible fifty-six-year career. Our dozen mini-intraculture attendees that night hailed from six countries across three continents, from varying socioeconomic status, both genders, and undoubtedly a wide array of careers, education levels, and other affinities musical and otherwise. However, as they (and we) shared the concert, and then drinks afterwards until 3 a.m., they were one body: sharing insiders’ stories of Stones shows in ’67 or ’75 or a week earlier in Stockholm, as well as any number of personality traits and/or life perspectives that unified them in ways no one could articulate. This was their musical intraculture, and they were damn proud of it. 

And yet, as Lahire, Bennett, and others have underscored, critical to intracultures as well are the specific benefits and opportunities they grant to individuals—apart from their shared aesthetics and practices with other members. For membership also subsumes more personalinfluences: on behavior, growth, and identity—becoming a “scaffolding for self-construction,” as music sociologist Tia DeNora put it. Paradoxically, that is, despite its communal identity, a musical intraculture can enable quite profound opportunities for individuation. 

Most obvious are the external influences offered: dress, hairstyle, modes of speech, social behavior, etc. This is especially apparent with the more “extraordinary” of the music intracultures—heavy metal, punk, grunge, etc.—where fashion becomes a uniform. Active members of heavy-metal-based intracultures, for example, show up to concerts and festivals adhering to a strict dress code: black leather, combat boots, spikes, studded belts, jewelry, piercings, tattoos, spiked hair, garish makeup, etc.—appropriating “signs and commodities as a sort of semiotic guerrilla warfare,” in cultural sociologist Cotton Seiler’s words. In this way, the intraculture creates a status leveling among members, where distinctions of social class 

and education are obliterated in favor of fashion homogeny— an irony considering the generally rebellious stance of the intraculture. In other cases, as in hip hop, external influence
is more varied and ever changing—baggy pants giving way to tight-fitting jeans, gold jewelry giving way wooden beads—with influence stemming directly from intracultural leaders: top- selling rappers, singers, and producers. As “hip hop culture” gains in broader “capital,” moreover, fashion becomes an ever- finer delineator of power and stature (leaders versus followers) within the intraculture itself. 

Interestingly, individual behavior can also be influenced
by how a given music stands in opposition to the identity of an intraculture. Infamous examples include the use of rap (e.g., Eminem), heavy metal (e.g., AC/DC), or children’s songs (e.g., the Barney theme) on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay as part of the CIA’s “no-touch” torture program. Less inflammatory has been the “weaponizing” of classical music to deter teens from trespassing and committing crimes, as has been employed in commercial sites and public squares around the world. While the music of Mozart may act as a source of pride and edification for members of a fine arts intraculture, it can be anathema to intracultures aligned with the more aggressive forms of rock or urban music. As musicologist Lily Hirsch notes, “Classical music is successful not in elevating or rehabilitating hooligans, but in chasing them away.” This suggests how music can function not only positively to build solidarity among intraculture members, but also negatively to delimit their behavior and social space. 

While not as readily discernible as spiked hair or tattoos, our membership in intracultures can yield palpable effects on our internal life as well—on our thinking, attitudes, and self-perceptions. This was the case, for example, with the British working-class youth in the 1960s (mods, skinheads), who employed their intraculture to help offset feelings of socioeconomic alienation and marginalization. 

This technique no doubt continues today within contemporary rock-, EDM, and hip hop—based intracultures. One subtle example is the use of sampling in hip hop: according to ethnomusicologist Peter Manuel, rap artists can sample snippets of existing music or speech in part to “negate,” the oppressions of their social reality. For example, in the track “News Break,” rapper Redman sampled and manipulated news feeds of the 119 LA riots—not, in Manuel’s view, to trivialize the event, but “to comment on the artificiality of bourgeois media discourse and contrast it with the rage and desperation of black street culture.” Through this slice of hip hop intraculture, in other words, Redman and his fans could confront their internal frustrations and anxieties in an aesthetic manner not possible otherwise. 

Of course, the inner-life effects of membership extend well beyond class-based issues. In a 2016 study, for example, Emre Ulusoy extensively interviewed fifteen members of what he calls “Dionysian music subcultures”—based around “ecstatic” rock genres like heavy metal, hardcore, death metal, grunge, punk, post-punk, etc. His goal was to detail the experiences of active consumers within these intracultures in order to identify the key values that membership afforded them. The culminating experience, according to Ulusoy, is an opportunity to realize one’s “extraordinary self”: through Dionysian intracultures, members are able to (1) carry out social resistance without confrontation (through dress or dancing), (2) escape from feelings of isolation and alienation, and (3) feel safe despite violent physical contact (thrashing around a heavy metal “mosh pit,” for example) by virtue of well-defined codes of conduct. As one of Ulusoy’s interviewees put it, “moshing” is far better than mixing it up “with some complete stranger on a shooting spree.” 

To be sure, music is not the only impactful force within Dionysian intracultures., but it is clearly a catalytic one. Further, it is not only “ecstatic” music intracultures that yield inner-life effects on its members, but refined, traditional, and “mellow” ones as well. Among the many inner-life benefits one can imagine stemming from membership in musical intracultures include a heightened sense of purpose, greater connectedness to the world and to others, personal growth and edification, and increased self-confidence. Hopefully, future studies will grant
a more specific notion of how distinct intracultures become distinct “scaffolds for self-construction.” 

One final benefit of intracultural membership is here
worth noting: the ability to grant us as individuals a better understanding of our place within the broader superculture. Every intraculture forges some kind of relationship with the “mother” culture or mainstream. It may be complementary— supporting the subculture’s general flow and evolution; or its very essence may be one of opposition and rebellion to the mainstream. Indeed, Ulusoy’s very use of the term “Dionysisan” refers to the classic dichotomy of the Greek gods Dionysus and Apollo: Dionysus, the god of wine, theater, and religious ecstasy, representing passion, irrationality, unpredictability, and chaos stands in contrast to Apollo, the god of the sun, truth, music, representing order, reason, logic, and comfort. In most cases, of course, the intraculture-mainstream interrelationship is both complementary and oppositional at any given moment, not to mention over time. For one, most intracultures would be entirely unknown were they not to some degree acknowledged, if not feted, by the broader superculture. 

As members of intracultures, we thus weave in and out of our superculture like threads through a tapestry—matching colors here, contrasting them there. Between our lives at
home, work, play, and purpose, we move frequently from one intraculture to another, as between our intracultures and the mainstream and back again. The composite gives us a sense of our overall sociocultural identity, with clues to where we fit in, how well, with whom, and how we might maintain or improve our standing. Not uncommonly, the interrelation is complex and paradoxical—as when a huge mainstream star like Beyoncé presents an extravagant performance at the 2017 Grammy Awards that in fact was largely targeted at an intraculture centered on African-American women. The Grammy for 2017 Album of the Year did not go to Beyoncé’s highly successful album Lemonade (No. 1 on Billboard Top 200) but to Adele’s 25. As Myles Johnson wrote in a New York Times op-ed: “Perhaps [Beyoncé] knew the win was in the fact that when all eyes were on her; she didn’t decide to make herself more palatable to white viewers. Instead, she let her imagination ever her goals, her child and her community.”