April 02

The Localist: The Social Acquaintance

I have a non-musician acquaintance who unfriended me on Facebook a few years ago. In fact, I think it was for the best, because our interactions were becoming increasingly awkward and strained. Prominently featured amongst that awkwardness was their growing resentment that things were going well for me, socially speaking. Not that I’ve achieved anything nearing Top-40 success. But for many groups of young 20-30-something New York social elites, there’s a certain cultural cachet that comes with being mentioned in Gawker, for instance, or being retweeted by a celebrity. So, it becomes a kind of game that they play, tweeting at celebrities and bon vivants, in hopes of gaining some signifier of cultural status.

Having been mentioned and/or retweeted by various outlets or people, for my own creative output as a writer even, I was expecting to gain some greater acceptance amongst the elite, only to be greeted by some truly awkward reactions. Some outright asked me to give them my “connections” so that presumably they could obtain the same mentions and retweets. Others asked me about my record sales, and how much money I was making. Still others took on a sudden interest in being a critic, providing unasked-for feedback on my career. And then some offered praise, but only in hushed private conversations, never publicly acknowledging that anything was going on. It became awkward to the extent that I’ve generally reduced contact with a number of such people. This all to say that, given this general pattern of behavior, this non-musician acquaintance falling off my Facebook feed was rather expected.

Looking back, I think there’s a natural tension between being a musician and being friends with non-musicians. Especially if they take themselves to be particularly cultured individuals. You have probably had the following conversation with just such a friend:

You: I wrote a new song!
Them: Well, you know who writes a great song. Wilco.
You: Okay, that’s nice, but I also did a nice thing.
Them: Sure, but you’re no Wilco, who I am a great aficionado of. Are you saying you’re the equal of Wilco?

Of course, it requires a very limited conception of music to have this conversation in the first place. Wilco can be a great band, and you can also have done something good. But that confusion isn’t the source of the difficulty here. The issue is that people often use cultural objects as status markers that help them identify where they fit in society. We all contribute to status marking as a practice. That’s what merchandising is. As musicians, we think of it as advertising, but *they* don’t think of it as advertising. They think of it as status marking. It’s the reason I will scoff if I see someone wearing an R.E.M. t-shirt and they can’t name all of their studio albums. It’s the reason why men will bother a woman wearing a band t-shirt for a band they associate with their masculinity. Merchandise is a cultural status symbol, and we rely on such symbols in identifying our status in a cultural hierarchy. As a result, your being a musician and wanting to excel at it, will naturally exert a social tension against a number of popular social practices that connect concepts of culture and status. One of those being that many listeners think of their relationship to musicians as one between *fan* and musician. And for a friend to think of themselves as a fan of yours can be awkward. Especially if they are someone rare and cultured enough to appreciate the artistic genius of Wilco. Unthinkable.

What to do about this? I think part of the solution involves being clear about expectations. As a musician you don’t need friends to come to shows. You don’t need them to be fans. You just need them to be minimally supportive in the way that you are to them.

But I think a necessary part of the solution is, actually, to just make new friends. The fact of the matter is that social structures are very rigid, and upending those structures is not always a good use of your time. (In any case, it sounds like these people don’t like you very much). You will have friends, however, who have enough flexibility to appreciate what you’re doing. You will even have friends who have enough flexibility to be supportive even if they don’t personally appreciate what you’re doing. And, I submit, it sounds like these will be people who are better at being friends, because their interactions with you are less reliant on hangups they have about culture and social status. Which is to say, from a certain vantage point, being a musician is a good way to make better friends. Can that possibly be correct? I think maybe it is.


The Localist is a column focusing on issues relating to aspiring local musicians in New York City. In his free time, the author performs as St. Lenox. St. Lenox’s most recent record, “Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love” was placed on Best Albums lists at Pop Matters and AllMusic. AllMusic credits St. Lenox with “some of the most unique and unconventionally thrilling pop music in the late 2010s.”