A short book puts a positive spin on a term of almost universal disparagement.
As British musician, editor, and filmmaker Fox notes, “pretentiousness” is rarely cast in a positive light, so he attempts to offer a corrective, claiming “it is the engine oil of culture; every creative motor needs it in order to keep running and not seize up and corrode with complacency.” Furthermore, he writes, “pretentiousness keeps life interesting.” Fox shows how the term is applied widely and vaguely to cover a multitude of sins, and wary readers will be careful about employing the word again. Yet the positivity in which he recasts the stigma requires a reframing of the argument. He pits pretentiousness against authenticity, which is sort of a straw man, since it’s easy to show how so much authenticity is actually a stylistic affectation, an illusory return to false innocence and simplicity. So if authenticity itself is so often inauthentic (think Ralph Lauren), how do we distinguish the offending qualities in pretentiousness? “Pretentiousness shares with sophistication a lingering sense of ‘unnaturalness’; something faked, pretending, tampered with,” writes the author. But it also suggests someone smug, elitist, and humorless, at least in America, where Fox now lives. (He recognizes that a British accent might sound pretentious to some Americans.) Thus, among the examples of pretentiousness Fox celebrates are the likes of David Bowie and Brian Eno, who have too much fun with ideas and identities to be truly pretentious. He comes at rock (and comes at it often) from a British art school context, which is different from the American rock that so profoundly influenced the Brits who sold it back to America. Much of what Fox ardently defends as pretentious doesn’t seem too pretentious at all, though it’s hard to dispute a central insight: “Pretentiousness is always someone else’s crime. It’s never a felony in the first person.”
Not as provocative as it might be, but never pretentious.