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9/4/08
White People and Classical Music
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Stuff White People Like Book CoverSince January, Christian Lander has been skewering a certain subsection of the population in his wildly popular blog, “Stuff White People Like.”  A few days ago, he posted Stuff White People Like #108, “Appearing to Enjoy Classical Music,” which naturally enough got my attention. He essentially writes that white people to go classical music concerts to impress others rather than to actually listen to the music.

If you’re like me and you work in the arts field specifically to hear Handel arias and Bach cantatas and five-hour operas like Les Troyens and Die Meistersinger as often as possible, the column is a big ouch—and also devastatingly funny. (One of my favorites lines is Lander’s description of symphony concerts where “white couples have paid upwards of $80 for the right to dress up and sit in a chair for hour reading every word in the program.” Yeah, we’ve all seen this countless times, and it’s one of my pet peeves.)

For Lander, 2008 has provided at least 15 minutes of fame. He wrote his first blog entry on January 18 (#1, Coffee), following up with things like non-profit organizations (#12), microbreweries (#23), the Sunday New York Times (#46), arts degrees (#47), and threatening to move to Canada (#75). Soon the site was logging millions of visitors, and he quickly got a Random House book deal, with Stuff White People Like in bookstores on July 1.

Last night I spent half an hour on the phone with Lander from his home in L.A. The next day he was about to hop on a plane to New York for a September 5 appearance on Late Night With Conan O’Brien.

Jennifer Melick: Your most recent blog post turned up on artsjournal.com as one of their news stories, so that’s got people talking in our little arts corner of the world. This entry “appearing to enjoy classical music”—how did you land on classical music as a topic? Appearing to enjoy it, that is?

Christian LanderChristian Lander: I was just … I mean, I don’t know, I sort of used the same process where I get all my other ideas, remembering various things … Last year my wife and I went to a performance of Tristan und Isolde at Disney Hall in Los Angeles. I’m not going to lie: I was bored through parts of it, to be honest. But I just looked around, and I was reminded by the looks of people I was seeing that people were going out of guilt as opposed to actual interest. And I think that if you are doing anything because of guilt, it definitely belongs on the list of stuff white people like.

Jennifer Melick: So guilt is a factor.

Christian Lander:  It’s a HUGE factor.

Jennifer Melick: Sometimes your blog feels a little bit like what Seinfeld did with his show, where he picked these tiny, specific topics; each of your posts is something that relates to a type of person, and people recognize themselves and their friends or their parents, and it just gets people engaged in this conversation. I find it hilarious that some people are taking it really quite seriously. In a 48-hour period, there are something like 175 people who responded on the classical music topic, some seriously, and others very lighthearted.

Christian Lander: That’s actually fairly small. There was a post written by my friend Miles, “Asian Girls,”  that has over 5,000 comments on it. That ignited a bit of a storm. I stopped reading the comments a long time ago, because a lot of the comments are negative toward me, and about how awful I am, and I didn’t need to be – everyone is free to write whatever they want there, but I just don’t want to have to read it, because it’s never good for my self-esteem. People say this is one of the better ones and has inspired some heated debates back and forth. I’m not doing it in any particularly hateful way.

Jennifer Melick: You’ve said that you had had an ex-girlfriend whose father was the director of the Royal Canadian Opera. Was that the experience that you came back to, when choosing “appearing to enjoy classical music” as “stuff white people like”? Was that where you first encountered classical music, or was that one of many places?

Christian Lander: One of many places. I grew up in the city of Toronto, and all through high school I did all my homework to classical music, and a lot of it was absorbed in, I suppose. One of things as I got older and went to university and graduate school is, I was ashamed about my overwhelming knowledge of popular music, and how little I knew about classical music. I listened to a lot, but I never paid attention to the biographies of composers, I recognized the songs, but I didn’t really have a passion for it. As someone who appears smart sometimes, it just petrified about being called out on this. That’s what really made me want to put it in there. I consider myself a pretty smart guy, but if I were put into a situation, say, at a dinner party, where the conversation turned to classical music and everyone was on my level, I would be fine, but if there was one person there who actually knew what they were talking about, I would probably be amazingly shamed and embarrassed and intimidated. So for that reason, I felt that it belonged on the site.

Jennifer Melick
: So the particular sort of white people you envision are people who like to know a lot.

Christian Lander: Mmmm..

Jennifer Melick: Who like to appear that they know a lot?

Christian Lander
: They like that more. It’s much more fun to be thought of as knowing a lot, rather than actually knowing a lot.

Jennifer Melick: Well, it takes time to know a lot—to learn it.

Christian Lander
: The benefits are very selfish—this is much better the other way, if other people know how smart you are, which is very important.

Jennifer Melick: You wrote “Under no circumstances should you ever list John Williams or Danny Elfman as your favorite composer.” There are people responding at your blog, who think you’ve erred by saying that to appear to enjoy classical music you should make sure to drop names like Philip Glass and Erik Satie and Dvorák—that those names ought to be John Adams and Steve Reich and others, and so forth. This level of debate would probably sound crazy to someone truly with no knowledge of the classical music scene.

Christian Lander
: It’s funny, because that debate happened when I was in a literature graduate program before I dropped out; the exact same debate goes on about books that have made their way to the Oprah book club. Somehow a book that was valid and well thought out and brilliant three months ago has had its value completely stripped by virtue of being recommended by Oprah. For example, for John Williams or Danny Elfman or whoever—music is music … I mean, part of what I talk about is in the book and the site is my own inability to let go of so many of these pretentious ridiculous beliefs I have. And I know they’re ridiculous. And I can’t stop myself. That’s what part of this is, I need to have something that I can care about  … what I mean is I want to let it go and say, because this person likes that, that doesn’t mean they’re an awful person, and I keep telling myself that over and over again. So part of it is me calling out the ridiculousness of all this.

Jennifer Melick: Tristan of course is extremely long and hard for some people to get through. Nevertheless, what music do you really like?

Christian Lander: Classical or other?

Jennifer Melick: At first I was thinking classical, but actually I’d be more interested to know what type of music in the broader sense.

Christian Lander: Indie music I just unabashedly adore, and am absolutely addicted to it. Belle and Sebastian, Richard Allen – mid-major indie bands, not super-underground, but whose music is just beautiful. As far as classical music goes, I mentioned Satie in the blog post because he’s my favorite. I’m sure a lot of people are angry, because he is their sort of “secret,” Gymnopedie and that sort of thing. But when I was in graduate school and had to read constantly, I would just stream classical music. Half the stuff I like, I don’t know who wrote it. Every female classical DJ sounds exactly the same! They always sound like they’re talking with a  smile on their face.

Jennifer Melick: Did you live in New York at any point? Because I did notice a number of things “white people like” like Manhattan and Brooklyn and the Sunday New York Times.

Christian Lander: Nope. I’m actually flying to New York tomorrow. I actually would have loved to have lived in New York at some point. I grew up in Toronto and I went to school in Montreal. So I grew up with a healthy obsession/inferiority complex with New York. I understand it as an outsider. The thing with Toronto as a city that’s interesting, is that it is really a world-class city, but it has this huge inferiority complex with New York, and no one in Toronto even entertains the notion of comparing their city with New York. Growing up, it was constantly “New York, New York.” I mean, in Toronto we are pretty amazing too, and all this cool stuff is going on, but it’s not New York.

Jennifer Melick: Is the blog a conversation that happens sort of in your head and then you share it with people, or does it result from the ideas you toss around at brunch with friends? It feels very conversational.

Christian Lander: Yeah, people send me e-mails all the time, but for the most part, everything runs through me. I don’t want to sound egotistical here, but I guess I have a pretty good ability for observation, for picking up these salient points that sort of resonate in a short little post. I don’t know where that comes from. Most of it is basically an entire exercise in me going after every pretentious thing in my body. And it’s been sort of amazing to realize how many people it resonates with. I still can’t … and I think that’s probably why it’s resonated. Though I think the blog is written from a sense of distance—it’s meant to look distant like a guide—it’s really me making fun of me, it’s really from the inside, and I think that’s what’s caught people.

Jennifer Melick: I certainly don’t sense that the blog comes from an angry place—it’s more a laughing at our own ridiculousness, and you’re a part of it.

Christian Lander: Someone told me something I thought was perfect: “I laughed at half of the blog, and I cringed at the other half.” Because they could see themselves in it. And that’s what I want. It’s not a pleasant experience a whole thing that makes you cringe and unhappy. But on the satire side, it is good to get a few things in here that sort of question why is this so important, does this really matter, what does it say about me kind of thing.

Jennifer Melick: Just before we spoke, I was watching the women’s tennis quarterfinal between Serena and Venus Williams—two nonwhite women playing a sport I consider to be extremely “white.” I was at the U.S. Open last week, and there was almost nobody there who wasn’t white. So perhaps tennis could be “stuff white people like.” But I don’t know if that’s what your point is—it’s not social commentary, to discuss white people’s preferences as a way to discuss places or situations where minorities are not represented.

Christian Lander: No, it comes from a personal experience. I grew up in the city of Toronto. My dad was a high school teacher, and my mom was a nurse. And the neighborhood they bought into was a working-class neighborhood in the 1970s when they bought their house there. And the neighborhood was made up of Chinese immigrants and primarily middle-class white people. In the 1980s as property values went up and as more people came to the city as the city grew, what happened was all the working-class people were pushed out of the neighborhood and essentially out of Toronto. So all that was left behind were these – well, people like me. Upper middle class, educated white people. And they were all very much left wing. Toronto does not have a right-wing presence whatsoever. There hasn’t been a conservative MP of Toronto, I think, since 1958. And so everyone was pretty much exactly the same.

Obviously, if you grow up in that environment, you don’t realize how much the same everyone is—until you leave and see all the nuances. And then I got to the U.S. and saw some of the differences and changes. And I realized that all these white people belong to this class of people that desperately wanted to believe they were post-race. They were all part of a group that was competing with each other, but not in terms of wealth. It was in terms of authenticity and experience abroad and familiar with foreign cultures, and education. So money didn’t impress them—it was more about “I have more stamps in my passport.” And what was just amazing to me, though, was that this group who didn’t want to see race, was overwhelmingly dominated by white people. And everything that they like was branded white by society as a whole. So growing up in Toronto, what I would see is second-generation Asian and second-generation Chinese kids who ifi they liked anything that I mention on the list, would be accused of “acting white” by their peers. And so it was about saying that this group that desperately wants to believe they are a child of the earth and a child of the United Nations, is still overwhelmingly white, because there is a sense of white privilege that goes with it. Having—being somewhat post-wealth, in terms of a middle-class post-wealth, means that you don’t worry about paying rent at the end of the month or eating, those are usually covered by parents. But you don’t usually have trust funds or penthouse apartment type money, but you still don’t worry about it in any serious way. You don’t take unpaid internships, or low-paying nonprofit jobs, or low-paying magazine jobs, all of which are really coveted by the group I’m talking about. And so whites’ just sort of status level, it’s not quite … the key thing is, my book isn’t about WASPs or super-wealthy elites, it’s about sort of this aspiration, or a second-generation, or third or fourth or fifth, middle class that doesn’t seriously try to obtain an outrageous amount of wealth, but instead is going after these other things.

It’s an update of the whole yuppie concept. Yuppies were very much about material things and competing for wealth status. I’m try to make the point in the book and the blog—the zeal, the fundamental need for competition, whether it’s by European ancestry or whatever, is still there, but it’s just not over crass material wealth anymore. It’s about “I’m better than my neighbor.”

Jennifer Melick: So you’re about to fly to New York to tape an appearance on Conan O’Brien?

Christian Lander: Right, for Friday, September 5.

Jennifer Melick: Your main aspiration at this point is to be a comedy writer?

Christian Lander: That’s it.

Jennifer Melick: So presumably this—the blog, the book, media appearances—should all get you moving in that direction.

Christian Lander: If it doesn’t, then there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m not qualified to do it. At the very worst, I can walk away from it with my head held high, and say I got as close as I could possibly get, without actually having it happen—I did everything I could, I just didn’t have the talent to make it work. So, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll still be okay with it. This is an amazing run, it still surprises me every day.

Jennifer Melick: The blog has only been going on since January 2008. So it happened really fast for you.

Christian Lander: On January 18, I was just having the instant messenger conversation with my friend at work. On July 1 the book was out, and by July 15 it was on the New York Times bestseller list. Things can change pretty quick.

Photo © Jess Lander.

  • Tom Reingold

    We can never know for sure what percentage of concert goers are there to be seen or out of some sort of notion that they ought to be there. But it’s palpable anyway. I was a member of a well respected large chorus in New Jersey which performed three large concerts per year. The December concert was Handel’s Messiah on alternate years. One reason the music director chose that piece every two years was that she liked it, and rightly so. Another reason of hers is that it brings in more people than others. So clearly, people go because they’re familiar with it. That familiarity means for some, I’m sure, that they like it, which means, I suppose, that they like unfamiliar music less. Sad but true.

    So one year, we did the Messiah. OK, it’s a great piece, but there are other great pieces. Then the next year, instead of skipping the Messiah, the director announced we would do it again, for the financial reason stated above.

    Well, this was an amateur chorus, not a professional one. To me, that means I am doing it because I like to, not out of a sense of obligation. So I quit.

  • Kevin Gibbs

    Anyone who says Indie music is just as beautiful as Classical Music doesn’t know what they are talking about when it comes to music or beauty (btw I like Indie Music as well) and does not have true understanding of either like most of those said “White People”… Good blog though there are however two generics within in the white race the NASCAR, football, country, hip-hop and rock kind and this kind. Basically it is the mainstream conservative type kind and those who walk around in a “Hip, unique”, and mostly liberal mindset…

    Kevin

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