Indie music and Red Wine

Jonah Lehrer wrote about scientists at Caltech who conducted an amazing study on unsuspecting wine connoisseurs.  In this study, the tasters were given “different” cabernet sauvignons.  Each bottle of wine came with its “price,” which ranged from $5-$90.  Yet, each bottle (shocker!) was actually the same.

The results?  Unsurprisingly, the more expensive bottles got consistently higher ratings.

But here is where the experiment gets cool:  “The experiment was even more unusual because it was conducted inside a scanner – the drinks were sipped via a network of plastic tubes – that allowed the scientists to see how the subjects’ brains responded to each wine. When subjects were told they were getting a more expensive wine, they observed more activity in a part of the brain known to be involved in our experience of pleasure.”

This study is all about the power of expectations.  When people think the good is going to be better, the brain literally makes the wine better.

“What they saw was the power of expectations. People expect expensive wines to taste better, and then their brains literally make it so. Wine lovers shouldn’t feel singled out: Antonio Rangel, the Caltech neuroeconomist who led the study, insists that he could have used a variety of items to get similar results, from bottled water to modern art.”

Other studies show that generic drugs can be less effective merely because they cost less.

Baba Shiv, a neuroeconomist at Stanford, gave the testers an “energy drink” with sugar and caffein.  Some participants paid the full price, and others were given a discount.  Then, they were asked to solve word puzzles.  The results were astonishing, those who drank the “cheaper” but identical energy drink consistently solved fewer puzzles.  “We ran the study again and again, not sure if what we got had happened by chance.  But every time we ran it we got the same.”

I think that this probably applies to cafeteria food as well–I’ll bet the same food at a fancy restaurant would taste a lot better.

But the importance of this study, for me, is its relation to Indie music, and to the Indie Culture in general.  I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but this experience was made vivid to me in a car ride back from Zion last weekend.

My friends Peter and Will made CDs with some of their favorite music.  Yet, with many of the songs, I was unable to appreciate the music to the same degree as them.  Additionally, when I played a CD I made with my favorite songs of all time, they didn’t receive anywhere near as much pleasure as I.  For me, each of the songs had their own story.  It mattered to me that Grizzly Bear and Feist did a collaboration.  It was important and unique, and sure to sound amazing.  But, my friends had no idea who Grizzly Bear or Feist was.  To them, the music wasn’t very special.

This is why these experiments are so important.  They explain why Indie kids have such weird taste in music.  Its not that Indie music is “better,” or that the taste for Indie music is more cultured.  There is no “required taste.”  Rather, Indie kids have enormous expectations for their favorite artists.

Every time I find a new Bon Iver song, I flip out in joy because each song is so important to me.  But, when I listen to Elliot Smith, I am unable to feel the same appreciation that many of my Indie superiors have.

I have always wondered why Indie kids spend so much time finding the most obscure bands imaginable.  Even if they sound weird (Animal Collective, Passion Pit, The Avalanches…) we still love them.  When pitchfork put Kid A as their #1, and The Avalanche’s at #8, I gave the albums the expectation of being a $90 bottle of wine.  My brain made the music sound better than it would have if I heard the music in a different context.

This scientific principal shows why the Indie music scene is so strong.  When at a school like Pomona, where most “cool” kids are hipsters, it is hard not to be peer pressured into liking Radiohead, Bon Iver, or Fleet Foxes.  When you respect your friends judgments, and they like this music, you begin to gain an appreciation for it.

I am not arguing that Indie music isn’t good music regardless of the status-game it comes with, but rather, that Indie music is significantly improved by the status-game it comes with.  All us Indie kids should feel blessed that there is such an elitist culture that we get to partake in, because it allows our brains to hear this music in a way that our parents never could.

The most important invention of the 21st century (in my opinion) has been Mojo.

It has granted us, the Indie kids, the ability to not only gain access to the music of all of our friends, but to create a new way to judge our friends.  The ones with the “coolest” libraries are reinforced as Indie alpha-dogs.  And while this isn’t good in and of itself, it is important because it serves as another way to make sure that we all constantly update our music, finding new amazing bands.

I love the Indie culture at Pomona.  It makes me happy, and gives me something to do with my enormous amounts of spare time.  But I also realize that it is silly.  Just like with wine connoisseurs, the Indie culture has a negative connotation to most.  Most Indie kids don’t even like being called Indie.

I’ve always felt certain that I would still listen to the same music, even if it wasn’t Indie.  But after reading about these experiments, I am not so certain.  The Indie culture rewards obscurity, so it might be even cooler to listen to Bon Iver if no one has ever heard of him.

The last thing I want to talk about is the new Twilight Soundtrack.  Most of my Indie friends are very disappointed that such amazing bands (Grizzly Bear, Thom Yorke, Bon Iver, Saint Vincent, Death Cab for Cutie…) are going to be adored by 12 year old girls.  My reaction was very different.  The day when I first saw the pre-order form on iTunes was one of the greatest days of my life.  I had the hope that everyone could feel what I feel when I listen to Bon Iver.  I can’t imagine that 12 year old girls “appreciating” the soundtrack music will somehow change my appreciation for Thom Yorke.  On the contrary, it has helped me branch out and find new artists like Saint Vincent, who I previously had never heard of.  Who knows, maybe the movie will be amazing.  But if I go into it thinking it will be an atrocity, it will be.  I just wonder if I can keep an open mind towards it.

4 Responses to Indie music and Red Wine

  1. zuch50 says:

    Ive noticed the same phenomenon happening to me, however I was unable to pin it down so articulately. The main example for me is music as well, when you showed me many songs this summer i didnt enjoy them nearly as much as I have in the last few weeks when ive been going through the music on my own, finding songs here and there, like when i found bon iver the day before you pointed me in that direction.

    I had a similar reaction as “most of your indie friends”, although mine was much more to do with the actual appearance of the itunes page for the soundtrack, look at it and youll know why.

  2. David W says:

    The more I think about this post, another semi-related thought comes to mind.

    It seems to me that Indie culture is inherently self-destructive.

    I think of indie culture as a growing group of kids who listen to a similar style of music, often dressing similarly, and seem to approach hipster-dom, if they do not reach it. They are, as you say united by their search for obscure music, and in the process,

    If it really is a growing culture of similar kids seeking out obscure music, doesn’t its growth lead to the culture becoming too normal, too standard, and inevitably un-indie?

    If Radiohead was as popular in the US as it is in Britain, it wouldn’t be indie music. It seems to me indie music ceases to be indie once its popular (the best example I can think of is Modest Mouse), and the same would likely apply to the culture as a whole. It must be a counter-culture to exist because it is defined by its being a counter-culture.

    Am I off-base in thinking that Indie culture, at least as we see it, can’t survive unless it stops being cool?

  3. joeyglick says:

    David, you have no idea how true this is at Pomona. I would argue that somewhere between 50-75% of kids who are active at Pomona (ie, not Asian in studying habits and go out) are at least somewhat Indie. Almost everyone here likes Radiohead, almost everyone likes Bon Iver, and so on. So, in answer to your question, I would ultimately disagree that it is “self-defeating.” Rather, the standards to be Indie are raised. You need posters, and lots of them. Probably a vinyl player with these bands as well. Thick black glasses. Plaid shirts. Weird habits. Some obscure bands that only the Indie elite listen to on your top 25 played. Skinny Jeans. This list is based primarily on my own experience and preferences here, but I think you get the idea.

    So, what would happen if 80% of the kids got all of these things? I don’t know. It would probably become an unsustainable status game. There are also financial limitations, and you can only find so much time to search Indie blogs each day. Also, it is pretty Indie to specialize in some fringe art (photography, sculpting, painting…)

    I don’t see this going out of “style” for at least the rest of the decade, though. If you want to know where its going next, look at Urban Outfitters. Especially at the clothes there that you think are absurd. I’ll bet that they will be popular among Indie’s soon (if not already).

    I don’t know if the Indie culture is necessarily counter-culture, rather, it is a fascination with the fringe. And no matter how you try, I don’t think its possible to eliminate the fringe.

    • David W says:

      That’s a really interesting distinction.

      I guess the reason indie can’t disappear is because it’s a lot different than other similar culture examples (hippies, hipsters) in that it’s not defined by certain traits (long hair, herbal cigarettes/photography) but rather whatever is on the fringe.

      As long as you define yourself to simply be what others aren’t you can evolve and not self-eliminate.

      I think I agree that it’s not self-destructive, mostly because your definition is likely far more legitimate than mine and from that definition comes a totally different outcome.

      Although the distinction between hipster and indie culture does somewhat confuse me.

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