I've just been accused on an internet forum of being a "class war racist".
The accuser, who happens to be a very good musician with a fairly poor background, thinks that my outspoken preference for the music produced by working class/marginalised people is analogous to a form of racism, in that it is based on group prejudices. Anyway, if that analogy falters, it's probably equally true that I prefer music by marginalised ethnic groups, which by this account would be proper racism.
Does he have a point? I think maybe on some level he does. The bit he's most upset about, that I'd prejudge music based on its origins, is something I recognise as negative in myself and try to combat. Another aspect disturbs me more, though: am I a "class war racist" for believing that there's an audible difference in the music of different groups in the social hierarchy?
Because, with (theoretically uninteresting) exceptions both ways, I'd be perfectly ready to claim that there's a sonic difference between the music of the marginalised and the music of the privileged. Maybe it's a wrong, prejudice-creating belief, but I think I can argue for its existence in various ways.
I think it's not unreasonable to suggest that different social strata have substantially different tastes. Pierre Bourdieu famously does, and his idea is that taste in itself is a way of distancing one social class from others. By displaying different tastes the middle class represents itself as more refined, and the culture of the working class as being "tasteless", "disgusting" or indeed "nonsense". Whatever you think of that particular theory (which I generally find very convincing, especially in Lawler's evidence-laden version) I don't think it's a far stretch to think that people who associate with each other in groups share musical taste with each other; they'll have had shared experiences, not to mention shared records and files.
But I think even if we go beyond this sort of argument there might be things in the actual nature of the different groups that makes a difference. Is it ridiculous to suggest, like a sociologist would, that people from a class believe themselves likely to remain in the same class? (Their expectations are, statistically, most often right.) In other words, don't most young people from the middle class expect (rightly) that the path is open for them to career success, while most kids from the working class both expect and receive a continued life at the bottom of society?
I'd think if we accepted that, the stretch to the idea that this might manifest itself in music is not a large one. Almost all of the music we think of as pretentious has been produced by people with a privileged background, simply because they feel it's their right to succeed, to make that masterpiece. They expect quality and and feel entitled to quality, and thus lack the humility that would prevent them from excess. Meanwhile, working class people don't feel that they automatically are allowed to succeed, and thus tend to produce music which is more functional, less personal, more professional (link in Swedish).
Another way of thinking about it is that a lot of middle-class people automatically have access to publicity in a different way from the working class. They know journalists, hang in media circles, post to each others hip music blogs. Thus it is easier for the consciously "different" musicians from the middle class to be able to reach listeners, while the working class's own systems of transmission (clubs, small studios, pirate radio etc.) tends to encourage more distinct scenes and distinct, communal sounds. These, not the individual musicians' creativity, is often what eventually finds its way to the media if it does at all. You'd never see a Micachu grow up on a council estate, or if she did she'd never "make it".
Those are at least some the reasons I think that class matters in deciding how music is formed. Sometimes, though I know its unlikely, I think it would be nice if the middle-class could pop out of its prole-hating bubble, show some humility and take Blackout Crew's lead to put a donk on it. There's even a web site now to automatically help them.