In the most compelling section of his extended essay on pretentiousness, Dan Fox discusses how pop music has ‘joyfully complicated the terms of pretention’. Fox gives numerous examples of musicians who’ve integrated art, history, philosophy, literature and so on into music which entertains the masses. One in particular stands out – in part, due to his recent death and the outpouring of grief which followed – David Bowie.
David Bowie was pretentious. A working class boy interested in art, design, jazz and dance. Bowie wasn’t even his real name, it was Jones – you can’t get much more common a surname in the UK and he rejected it for one that people still can’t agree how to pronounce. As Fox points out, Bowie wasn’t simply pretentious, he knew it and he used it to his advantage:
‘In my early stuff, I made it through on sheer pretention…something that’s pretentious – that keeps you riveted.’
Fox builds his argument around two key ideas: one, that people accuse others of pretentiousness when they don’t understand their aim, it falls beyond their personal schema, and two, that this is linked to social class and is a way of keeping people in their place.
He demonstrates how ridiculous accusations of pretentiousness are via the etymology of the word: the Latin prae – ‘before’ – and tendre – ‘to stretch’ or ‘extend’, linking it to the masks Greek actors wore. He goes on to discuss pretending and the dichotomy current thinking places us in: high value is placed on authenticity while each of us plays a variety of parts every day.
We refer to ‘acting on behalf of’ a person or organisation, or ‘playing a part’ in a project. Your boss assesses your ‘performance’ in the job, a ‘role’ that might be rewarded with ‘performance-related pay’. ‘Dress for success,’ say the career gurus. ‘Dress for the job you want, not the one you have.’ ‘Look smart.’
He links this, particularly in the UK, to class. To the idea that being accused of pretentiousness is to be accused of a lack of qualification in terms of experience or economic background for the area the so-called pretentious person might be working or living in.
There’s a link here to code-switching, which Fox mentions briefly, and there’s a real delight in seeing Fox use it in his sentences:
“If being authentic is considered a virtue – what we should strive to be in society – then being pretentious is considered a cover-up, a face-palm to your background.
To break from the convention is to shun other people, flip the bird at the group consensus.”
Fox considers pretentiousness through the changing fashion in acting, power, class, ideas about authenticity, politics, cities, fashion, internet trolls, pop music, art, amateurs and professionals. The essay is packed with examples from all of these fields showing how pretentiousness is important for creative growth, both personally and as a society.
Any Cop?: Fox is preaching to the choir with this reviewer but I’d be interested to see someone argue against his compelling, thorough discussion.