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The Music We Hate: Belle and Sebastian

"Belle and Sebastian might have caught me at the wrong time, but I still can’t stand down."

This is an online supplement to Maisonneuve's print-only "The Music We Hate" feature (Issue 36, Summer 2010). To read Carl Wilson on Radiohead, Sean Michaels on Sufjan Stevens and more, buy the print edition in stores or contact us to order it.

I hate Belle and Sebastian. I hate them the same way I hate raw tomatoes and canned tuna—with a hatred that has no justification beyond the fact that I can barely remember a time when I did not hate them. You can tell me that I need to eat a tomato in season, or with a leaf of basil and some balsamic, but nothing will get me beyond the association I developed as a child between the vegetable that is really a fruit and the sensation of chewing on eyeballs.
Now that I see it written out, it makes sense that immaturity would be the root of all this rage. I do recall the day my feelings toward the Scottish twee-pop outfit turned from distaste to full-on, card-carrying abhorrence. It was early on in my first serious relationship, soon after I arrived at university. My girlfriend and I were still in that emotional phase of any teenaged romance where one's reactions to the other's likes and dislikes matter more than they ought to. In short, we were young and our egos were still pink and wet behind the ears.
The scene was a coffee shop in Burlington, Vermont, where she lived, two long hours from Montreal, where I lived. As Burlington cafes go, it was (to use a word that would spark the ensuing argument) typical; it used woodsy tones, flea-market armchairs and vegan baked goods to cater to the budding hipster student population.
To add some musical context, this was late 2004, with Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire leading the Canadian Invasion south of the border. Perhaps more importantly, the obnoxious Garden State soundtrack was everywhere. Now-forgotten artists like Zero 7, the Shins and the Postal Service (by way of Iron & Wine) appropriated the term "pop" from Britney Spears and applied it to independent rock. A Saturday Night Live sketch would later call the album a "Pitchfork Media mix CD." A whole generation wore “indie” as a badge.
I didn't buy any of it. To me, it was a flock movement and therefore something to be avoided. I couldn't see it for was it was: the appreciation of genuinely good music. I saw it as an affectation of identity. And I was an asshole about it.
So I was sitting with my now-ex-girlfriend in this nebula of all things hip, and Belle and Sebastian's "Piazza, New York Catcher" came over the sound system, and I said: "Ugh. Typical." When she asked what I meant, we launched into our first big fight. Superficially, it was about the culture of consumerism versus the value of taking things as they are, but deeper down it was an escalating argument about judgment. How I could judge a coffee shop and its patrons over a song; how she could judge my own judgment. We never resolved the issue.
At that point I could no longer merely dislike the song. I had to hate the band. Belle and Sebastian—whose song "Step into My Office, Baby" I did and still do genuinely enjoy—became a terrible band merely for the sake of my argument’s consistency. For me, the stigma remains.
Ira Glass, the host of Chicago Public Radio's This American Life, has commented about belief systems in relationships: "When you fall in love with someone, it's like they have an open path to your heart. And without you even realizing it, other things can just ride in on that path. Favorite bands, pet peeves.... And where those things are concerned you basically become the person you love. You're like their proxy."
In general, Glass is correct. You want to like something because the person you love likes it. But if Glass is talking about relationships in which there are disputes—which is to say all of them—this is horseshit. Everyone wants to win the fight. My girlfriend and I were both strong-willed individuals and, as teenagers, did not understand the value of compromise. The casualties: I became the asshole, and Belle and Sebastian became the worst band ever.
I recognize the irony here of criticizing a culture from which I now find it hard to separate myself. Maybe that’s what the fight was about. But just as old habits die hard, so do false impressions. Belle and Sebastian might have caught me at the wrong time, but I still can’t stand down. Hating a band is easier than admitting you were wrong.

Joseph Watts is a writer and beer brewer currently at large in the United States. He and his ex-girlfriend remain on good terms.

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