It takes a lot of listening. Good art isn’t obvious
October 18, 2014 9:39 AM   Subscribe

Getting Out of the Woods: A Primer on Not Being a Music Hater
posted by josher71 (142 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
I get that you should be open minded and consider the possibility that something you don't "like" has some musical value, that you should avoid reflexive hating. But this article sounds kinda patronizing. It's okay to have strong tastes and be opinionated. It doesn't necessarily mean you're a close minded musical bigot. For instance, that new Taylor Swift song has terrible production. It's one of those brickwalled pop songs that just sounds like shit unless you're drunk at a club.
posted by ChuckRamone at 9:54 AM on October 18, 2014 [12 favorites]


I'm kinda conflicted. I mean, yes, you shouldn't dismiss things out of hand without ever listening to them. You should be conscious of the ways that you talk about artists, and you should endeavor to avoid critiques that are rooted in things other than music. I think a lot of the dismissal of Swift, for example, has some basis in sexism. But you also don't have to justify why you dislike something. It's ok to just not like a band or a type of music, or any piece of art, really. I don't like the XX. I've listened to some of their music, but I'm not going to sit down and spend a day or two doing a deep listen to music that I hate just to confirm that, yep, I really don't like this.
posted by protocoach at 9:55 AM on October 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


Nobody wants to read music reviews that say 'this track is really good if you like this kind of thing.'
posted by colie at 9:57 AM on October 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


The definitive work on this is LET’S TALK ABOUT LOVE: A JOURNEY TO THE END OF TASTE by Carl Wilson. Review here.
posted by Artw at 10:12 AM on October 18, 2014 [7 favorites]


Nobody wants to read music reviews that say 'this track is really good if you like this kind of thing.'

I do. Anyone who has reviews of really good things that I would like if I knew about them can send them to me.
posted by effbot at 10:13 AM on October 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


Nobody wants to read music reviews that say 'this track is really good if you like this kind of thing.'

I think I've bought at least a hundred albums based on something like that alone. I think that's the criteria that allmusic tries to go for - instead of trying to determine how something ranks against all music ever, they try to rate how well the artist accomplished what they set out to do, so their ratings are more 5 stars if the work is fully realized, 1 star if there were numerous places where things just didn't work or production issues, etc.
posted by LionIndex at 10:14 AM on October 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


I hate music. It's got too many notes.
posted by jonmc at 10:15 AM on October 18, 2014 [14 favorites]


Objective game reviews consisting of BPM, instruments used, sound quality as measured by oscilloscope and a brief statement by the record company, and a rating out of 10 no less than 7.
posted by Artw at 10:16 AM on October 18, 2014 [18 favorites]


If you want reviews that hook you up with more of what you already like, I think there are apps and digital services that have you covered. It's not critical analysis (or even journalism) though.
posted by colie at 10:19 AM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


I've grown to think that there is maybe nothing less interesting than reading people's thoughts about music they don't like.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:20 AM on October 18, 2014 [28 favorites]


It's okay to have strong tastes and be opinionated

Strong personal sense of what you like? Fine. Nobody has to justify that. Enjoy what you enjoy. Avoiding what you haven't come to enjoy is a reasonable way to live.

But "opinionated"? That word often seems to be associated with strong statements made by people without much introspection about the potential limits of their own assessments (and merits in different assessments). The world would probably be a better place if any identification with the term was rueful if not shameful.

This article is doing two things for a good chunk of the world that really hasn't taken in the idea that their tastes might say as much about their own personal understanding/limits as they do about the music: it might give them a little pause about speaking in terms of objective evaluation of quality without learning more, and it might even be a key they can turn someday to enjoy more of what the world has to offer.

Nobody wants to read music reviews that say 'this track is really good if you like this kind of thing.'

If a reviewer can describe the kind of thing in question well enough that I'll know what they're talking about, that is exactly the kind of review I want to read.
posted by weston at 10:24 AM on October 18, 2014 [7 favorites]


Really? I find people's thoughts on music that they do like are actually more boring.

It's like reading a restaurant review. So much more entertaining when the soup is cold and the service is appalling.
posted by colie at 10:24 AM on October 18, 2014 [12 favorites]


If one really takes seriously the idea that authorial intent (in this case the band's intent) is irrelevant to the interpretation of the work, why then should one need to understand what a song is "trying" to do, in order to opinionate about it?
posted by LogicalDash at 10:26 AM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


"Out Of The Woods" uses the mighty I-V-vi-IV change, I notice
posted by thelonius at 10:26 AM on October 18, 2014


I tend to prefer classical music (KMFA is playing in the background) but I also spent a quarter of a century working in bars, many with live venues. The first night I worked in a large country & western dancehall I heard more twangy two-step and waltz music than I had up to that point in my life. But, over time, began to enjoy some of it. My wife and I (we both worked there) will still occasionally seek out a dark beer dive with a jukebox loaded with Patsy Cline, George Jones, et al. I guess taste or at least appreciation can be simply a matter of exposure over time...
posted by jim in austin at 10:32 AM on October 18, 2014 [6 favorites]


"Out Of The Woods" uses the mighty I-V-vi-IV change, I notice

Taylor works with a very limited harmonic palette and also has a narrow vocal range compared to, say, Adele or Ariana Grande or so many female singers, but it's part of her charm that she manages to squeeze so much out of them.

It's a musical affectation that forms a perfect fit with the 'what, little old me?' persona that she projects.
posted by colie at 10:39 AM on October 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


But you also don't have to justify why you dislike something. It's ok to just not like a band or a type of music,

on one level, you can't help but like what you like, not like what you don't like. On another, particularly if you're dealing with an entire genre of music ("I hate country*, I hate disco*, I hate rap, I hate metal, I hate EDM"), I think you need to be very careful. Because how much of that is just xenophobia, or that perpetual inner eight year old who JUST DOESN'T LIKE CHEESE.

Sometimes I do think you need to make an effort, not because it's the "correct" thing to do, but because holy shit, man (or woman), you're denying yourself so much pleasure and fun and human connection.

* full reveal: I hated pretty much ALL disco and country until I was in my early twenties. I was wrong, wrong, wrong.
posted by philip-random at 10:39 AM on October 18, 2014 [17 favorites]


Many of our musical hates are borne out of entirely pathetic reasons. It isn't that we dislike the music but rather that we dislike the person that likes it, or we dislike the hype around it. Years ago a friend sat me down with a couple and albums with the words "Look forget all about the hype and the fans, just stick these cans on your head and listen." The singer I was dismissing was Bowie. We allow other extraneous shit to influence us. If I go back to the bands that I didn't listen to in the 70s there is nothing wrong with the music its just that my group of friends didn't listen to them much.
posted by lilburne at 10:45 AM on October 18, 2014 [11 favorites]


Taylor works with a very limited harmonic palette

That's true of the vast majority of pop and rock music.
posted by jpe at 10:49 AM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


True, but as thelonius notes Taylor really does lean on four or five chords for nearly all her songs, and she doesn't mess about with phrase length or metre like her main rival Adele.

If we're talking about rock/pop in general, there are acts like Radiohead who are still looking for new sound gestures both on the surface and the structural levels of their music.
posted by colie at 10:55 AM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


I don't have anything against I-V-vi-IV except I'm tired of screwing around on the guitar and saying "hey, that's not bad" and discovering that I've just re-written "Don't Stop Believing" again
posted by thelonius at 10:59 AM on October 18, 2014 [22 favorites]


I've made peace with the fact that all of the music I like is good, and all of the music I don't like is bad.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:00 AM on October 18, 2014 [20 favorites]


If you like everything, you'll never have the time to listen to everything you like.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:01 AM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


If you want reviews that hook you up with more of what you already like, I think there are apps and digital services that have you covered.

That's why I mentioned that I bought "albums", as a subtle clue that this all happened in the dark ages.
posted by LionIndex at 11:02 AM on October 18, 2014


I-V-vi-IV

Keep going and you will get there. 'Someone Like You' and 'Let it Go' are minor variations on this progression, and they did pretty well.
posted by colie at 11:05 AM on October 18, 2014


This article really is pretty patronizing.

There are reasonable grounds for learning to get past the sort of adolescent hatred of music that utterly rejects whole genres and denigrates musicians as human beings. For me, those grounds started with actually becoming a working musician, playing music with other different musicians of a lot of different sizes and shapes. And I came to recognize that this is a matter of respect: there are many musicians who I really don't think are talented - even musicians who I don't believe I'll get much out of playing with - but they're still just human beings trying to play music, and that is a thing I can respect, no matter why they're doing it. On that level, I can recognize them as people and treat them with the basic level of human decency. That sounds obvious, but somehow it seems to be easy to forget.

However: the other side of the coin of respect is honesty. And that means that, when I believe music is bad, I probably am going to make that known, in a respectful way. Music has a moral worth, and taking that seriously means taking seriously the impact it has.

So I am going to say these things. I'm going to say that the music of Kenny G and his ilk represent a fundamental betrayal of what Jazz is about, even if he's a perfectly nice person. I'm going to say that I think the music of Spoon is pablum, catchy riffs and nothing more, the worst of what indie music has to offer. I'm going to say that I oppose pretention and hatred and violence in music - and that violence in music is not the same thing as high volume or anger.

Saying these things is the only way to really respect music and the musicians who care about it. Covering over everything with cheery gusto, as this article seems to try to do, is not a solution.
posted by koeselitz at 11:08 AM on October 18, 2014 [9 favorites]


I agree that you have to spend time and invest effort to appreciate art that initially makes you impatient or vexed. But to say that everything (this applies equally to other areas: books, movies, TV shows, etc.) is not "bad" but instead "not compelling enough to listen/watch/read more closely" is dumb. "Tom Waits uses traditional song structure, but experiments with instruments, voice, and narrative to move his listeners in different ways" says virtually nothing to me about Tom Waits or why I should listen to him, and in fact sounds like what Tom Waits (or any musician) might consider a backhanded compliment -- a way of casting about to find anything nice to say about him, like he's a piece of moldy Limburger cheese that you're being forced to compliment at gunpoint. And if that's what you think he is, great! I appreciate a review telling me why I should listen to music if the reviewer thinks it's good, but I'd rather read your well-written opinions about why something sucks than your shittily-written opinions about why it doesn't suck. So Taylor Swift "speaks to modern youth experience" and has an "ability to distill complex emotional experiences into broadly-appealing music and lyrics." What does that tell me about why her music matters that I didn't already know?
posted by blucevalo at 11:09 AM on October 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


Fuck this ludicrous notion that negativity is the only thing that makes a person feel like shit, or that positivity is the only important indicator of a person's opinions and desires.

I know of few things more miserable than being forced to suffer through conversations with people who are busy talking about a musician that I have less than zero interest in. Conversely, I have had some incredibly liberating conversations with people who hated the same things I fucking despised.

I don't broadly despise genres. I do, however, have very specific tastes, and they are not ignorant or deluded or uncaring, they are just personal, borne of my deep love for other things and my awareness that other things just seem like a waste to me. Ryan Gantz's heart is in the right place, but I think his outlook here is as useless and misguided as, say, the collected works of "fun.".
posted by rorgy at 11:17 AM on October 18, 2014 [8 favorites]


Music has a moral worth, and taking that seriously means taking seriously the impact it has.

I get what you're saying, and I like it, but I can't agree because of Germany: it managed to be the nation with the best music and the worst behaviour. If music is such a moral influence how could that be? We could say that there were more powerful factors at play: well, all right, but in that case music doesn't have much influence, or at least not enough that we must take it 'seriously'. That's not even to start on the troubled relationship between music, musicians, and Nazism.

Finally, one of my favourite quotations, Noël Coward: "Strange how potent cheap music is" You can't help what you like, and what speaks to you.
posted by alasdair at 11:32 AM on October 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


If you like everything, you'll never have the time to listen to everything you like.

Already a problem, and there's a considerable amount of stuff I don't care for.
posted by weston at 11:48 AM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


i don't care for it - rotten mix and it's way too much like savage garden's i want you
posted by pyramid termite at 11:53 AM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


jeez, i thought this was going to be about appreciation for wacky experimental genres and challenging stuff outside the pop umbrella.

Many of the artists he lists make me go 'blech', not because i haven't tried them (seriously, ask 15 year old me about weezer, beck, and tool), but because i've been introduced to SO MUCH BETTER SHIT than that by not just relying on the big names of the moment.

kraftwerk and to a lesser extent aphex twin and tom waits are getting there in that they might not be immediately accessible to modern pop fans, but it's still only scratching the surface in my opinion. they're also the artists on the list that when i checked them out as a teenager, what i found very deeply branched off into other genres and collabs and covers and technology and etc etc etc.

on the other hand, i totally could see myself having written something like this in high school, thinking "oh man wow look at all the different music i like! I can't believe not everyone likes all these various things too! i'm so versatile in my listening preferences!" while listing a bunch of pretty darn popular stuff. i mean, eminem and kanye as your token rap artists? i *really* don't think eminem and kanye are underappreciated in any way. they are absurdly popular.

This article reminds me of how I found out about new artists in my suburban Connecticut high school: I tried stuff I saw on people's band t-shirts. turns out that's how you get a list of the most popular bands, not the most interesting, challenging or diverse music.
posted by ghostbikes at 12:00 PM on October 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


Your favorite band sucks is okay I guess, but I don't want to waste my time listening to it when I like other stuff a lot more.
posted by Foosnark at 12:13 PM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


I think music journalism is often more of an exercise in creative writing for entertainment than it is an attempt to provide a useful service to the reader. And of course there are so many more fun ways to say that something is crap than there is to say that you enjoyed it. Similarly, a negative review is generally more fun to read, just as an insult is more exciting than a compliment. I play a game sometimes when I read reviews of music I've never heard, in a genre I don't know well; I read the review and try to imagine what the music might sound like. Then I listen to the music. It's always amusing how different the two things turn out to be. Sometimes I can spot some of the things the writer was lambasting, but more often I can't.

A friend of mine, to whom I owe an incredible amount - because he's introduced me to so much amazing music that I otherwise would have missed - has always maintained that, as far as he's concerned, there is no 'bad' music. I think it took me about ten years to really understand where he was going when he said that. He has the largest music collection I know of, and he seems to exist in a permanent state of listening-to-something (anything), and yet I've never heard him say a harsh thing about any artist or their songs. It's all just there as a great big spectrum, as far as he's concerned.

Now, twenty-five-odd years after I really started listening to music, trying to broaden my tastes where I can, and generally thinking about music a lot more, I've noticed that for most people, music isn't something that's objectively bad or good - it's just something that you're either into, at a particular moment in your life, or you're not. I can think of all sorts of stuff I was listening to on repeat for months last year that, right now, I wouldn't be remotely interested in hearing. Which is not to say that the music was brilliant then, or that it's crap now. It just filled a particular music-shaped niche that's now a different shape.

I can see how some people (particularly musicians) dislike music where the playing or singing isn't incredibly polished. And yet there was punk, and it was good, and it meant an incredible amount to people at the time. For some people it's all about technical merit, for others it's the literary qualities of the lyrics. Some seem to get hung up on whether the artists themselves are 'credible' in terms of their lives or their politics. Personally, I think these are traps that will confine you to a very small subset of what's out there.

I don't take music reviews seriously any more. I think they (maybe) had value when the only way to discover new music that wasn't being widely played was to pick up a copy of your favourite magazine/newspaper and read stuff written by someone lucky enough to be sent piles of records for free. Now, when there are software and services that will deliver all manner of new stuff to you at little to no cost, why would anyone care about a music review?
posted by pipeski at 12:13 PM on October 18, 2014 [7 favorites]


I don't have anything against I-V-vi-IV except I'm tired of screwing around on the guitar and saying "hey, that's not bad" and discovering that I've just re-written "Don't Stop Believing" again

It could be worse. You could have found out your song is based on Pachebel's Canon. But then again, they all are...
posted by happyroach at 12:15 PM on October 18, 2014


Apart from all the blues based ones, the modal ones, the drone ones, the folk ones, the EMD ones, etc....
posted by colie at 12:30 PM on October 18, 2014


I do, however, have very specific tastes, and they are not ignorant or deluded or uncaring, they are just personal, borne of my deep love for other things and my awareness that other things just seem like a waste to me.

And it's fine to have heartfelt personal tastes and preferences - we all do! Music appreciation is a lifelong journey, with ever-branching paths and unpredictable weather conditions. However, when I have felt like music that other people really enjoy just "seems like a waste to me," I've learned to interrogate my prejudices and really ask myself why it seems like a waste, and what about my particular approach and vantage point differs from others who are enjoying the music. Sometimes, like with fun., I try to do this and still don't like the band, but at least come away with something or other (their earlier work is very indebted to Queen and is somewhat ambitious pop in a way I can appreciate) Sometimes, like with Rihanna or Taylor Swift, I get to work through my prejudices and recognize that pop is still a force that can move my body, mind, and heart, and I sometimes have a failing where I think I'm "above it" and dismiss it as disposable, when it's really capable of everything I want out of music. Throughout a large part of my teens and twenties I was into a lot of serious music by serious men. That was a blinkered view of the music landscape and it's really, really important that I figured out how obnoxious I was being.

This article reminds me of how I found out about new artists in my suburban Connecticut high school: I tried stuff I saw on people's band t-shirts. turns out that's how you get a list of the most popular bands, not the most interesting, challenging or diverse music.

I think both myself and the writer are coming at it from another angle - in high school and college I was the "music explorer" delving deep into obscurities and weird, challenging, unusual, discordant stuff, and really was full of myself in thinking I was appreciating music on a Higher Aesthetic Level than all these top 40 pop rubes. It took things like reading the Carl Wilson book linked above and reading a bunch of stuff from Maura Johnston (she got a shoutout at the end of the FPP) to make me fully realize how fucked that was. I have plenty of friends in the experimental music community who are into creating new sounds and structures or championing artists that do, and I try to do that myself as well. Most of us get really excited about pop music. A few are hardcore Swiftians. When I encounter people who dismiss pop as not being challenging or experimental enough, I really do see a part of my tragic obnoxious old self - someone who has something to prove to the world, who has fused Seriousness and Curatorial Intent to their identity in a misguided and somewhat annoying way. I criticize because I recognize it in myself. No one really likes that guy. Dance to music your body and mind want to move to. Take pleasure in things that provide easy pleasure. It's OK. No one's judging your lack of commitment to a serious aesthetic intent and/or formalist exploration.
posted by naju at 12:33 PM on October 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


Nobody wants to read music reviews that say 'this track is really good if you like this kind of thing.'

Lord that would be wonderfully refreshing. I would like nothing more than to have a knowledgable music critic shut the hell up and use his vast musical experience to just tell me what it sort of sounds like, rather than trying to combine vaguely related factoids and personal prejudice with a whole lot of dancing about architecture. I respect the art of the critic a great deal, but (or, perhaps, because of this) I don't think I've ever read a single meaningful word of album/song criticism in my life. Good writing, yes (especially on history or broader trends within music itself), but able to inform me as to what I might be hearing, to truly speak about a piece of music? No. I don't think English has the words. Maybe no language does.
posted by Palindromedary at 12:48 PM on October 18, 2014


The hate I have for certain genres (synth pop for instance) is not an intellectual one, but visceral, like biting into food and hating the taste so much you spit it out. Persuasion dosent stand a chance against that.
posted by jonmc at 12:50 PM on October 18, 2014


It's a musical affectation that forms a perfect fit with the 'what, little old me?' persona that she projects.

That and her snake eyed gaze.
posted by y2karl at 12:52 PM on October 18, 2014


A friend of mine, to whom I owe an incredible amount - because he's introduced me to so much amazing music that I otherwise would have missed - has always maintained that, as far as he's concerned, there is no 'bad' music. I think it took me about ten years to really understand where he was going when he said that. He has the largest music collection I know of, and he seems to exist in a permanent state of listening-to-something (anything), and yet I've never heard him say a harsh thing about any artist or their songs. It's all just there as a great big spectrum, as far as he's concerned.

This, exactly! It's all just a great big spectrum. More people should be like your friend.
posted by naju at 1:01 PM on October 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


Taylor has a squirrel eyed gaze.
posted by colie at 1:01 PM on October 18, 2014


When I encounter people who dismiss pop as not being challenging or experimental enough,

This article reads as though this guy hasn't dug much deeper than the pop realm though, so to be giving advice to people on appreciating new stuff rings kind of false. I respect checking out other stuff and then being able to come back to old standbys with a new appreciation for them, but this article reads like my hs livejournal, as in "wow i love all these things and everyone should love them too and hey have you actually LISTENED to aphex twin I mean really listened to it?!"
posted by ghostbikes at 1:07 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


the guy does have a good open eyed attitude though. none of that 'i like everything except country and rap' business
posted by ghostbikes at 1:12 PM on October 18, 2014


he seems to exist in a permanent state of listening-to-something (anything), and yet I've never heard him say a harsh thing about any artist or their songs. It's all just there as a great big spectrum, as far as he's concerned.

This, exactly! It's all just a great big spectrum. More people should be like your friend.


yeah ... but nah. I'm the first to admit I can be wrong, that I have been wrong, that I'll be wrong again. But there are certain artists (no point in naming them) whose stuff is so clearly NOT created with any end in mind but shifting units that I can't call it anything but bad. If I could just ignore it, I would, but I can't because it's so well promoted, publicized, payola-ed that it finds me anyway. So I at least reserve the right to call bullshit on it.

To quote an old friend who worked in radio. "It's music for people who don't really like music. It just fills the background void while they're at work or stuck in traffic or whatever and doesn't challenge them in any way. It doesn't even challenge them to say, hey, I really like this. It's just there, noise, making everyday life a little more annoying. And it's the majority of what my bosses say I must play."
posted by philip-random at 1:17 PM on October 18, 2014 [6 favorites]


But the music is not objectively "bad", it mostly just conflicts with your principles: your criticism is not about the music, but the intent, the lack of perceived heart or artistic sincerity, the corporate distribution: "NOT created with any end in mind but shifting units", "so well promoted, publicized, payola-ed". In some ways, by your own admission, the music is engineered to please the most amount of people within its demographic as possible. It must have been successful at that, at least partially, or else even a well-publicized song will fall flat on its face. The chains of distribution wouldn't even let it get far in the process at all if it was objectively incompetent in everything it sets out to do. So, that being the case - that it sets out to please lots of people, and it manages to do that - why would it be objectively bad?

The quote from your friend in radio strikes me as pretty smug and condescending, by the way. As if the majority of people are just zombies who approach music as bland wallpaper. They don't experience music the way I do! All of you dumb tweens at the Miley Cyrus concert having the time of your lives - sheep!
posted by naju at 1:36 PM on October 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


(There's lots of stuff I don't care to listen to, by the way, I'm not trying to be hypocritical. Lana Del Rey, Magic!, Creed, whatever. But if I've given it a try and find it awful, I'm better off ignoring it and focusing on what does excite me. There's hundreds of thousands of records I still need to hear, there's no point in me hating on stuff other people are really fond of.)
posted by naju at 1:40 PM on October 18, 2014


Did he really compare Vampire Weekend's output to Graceland? Is he fucking serious? One of the greatest albums of the 80s, a turning point in Simon's career, a monumental influence on countless artists, a huge political statement with regard to the use of African musicians, the exposure of Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the wider world.. TO VAMPIRE WEEKEND? What the hell is he talking about? I know those arguments were supposed to be "counter" because he in fact likes all of this stuff apparently, but really, even as a fake criticism of Vampire Weekend, Graceland has absolutely not one single iota of anything in common with any of the whiny crap Vampire Weekend has shitted out.
posted by ReeMonster at 1:55 PM on October 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


The quote from your friend in radio strikes me as pretty smug and condescending, by the way. As if the majority of people are just zombies who approach music as bland wallpaper.

I firmly believe that most people do in fact approach music in this fashion: people uncomfortable with silence, but also uncomfortable with music that lies outside their comfort zone, which is usually whatever they listended to while in high school. Music isn't an activity for these folks, but a way of remaining in a certain zone of comfort.

It's possible to have a negative viewpoint (or a viewpoint that could be perceived as negative, in this case, since I've met people who happily admit that they approach music this way, and they certainly don't see it as negative) without it automatically being smug or condescending. Similarly, a potentially unpleasant truth isn't any less true.
posted by Palindromedary at 1:58 PM on October 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


But if I've given it a try and find it awful, I'm better off ignoring it and focusing on what does excite me.

But I can't ignore it. That's my point. Because it is "so well promoted, publicized, payola-ed"

As for my friend (call him Ralph), you can dismiss him all you want for being condescending (he'd probably shrug and agree with you), he nevertheless sat for a number of years right smack in the middle of the mechanism that delivers the crap into the system. I prefer to view him as something of a whistleblower.

As for ...

it sets out to please lots of people, and it manages to do that - why would it be objectively bad?

Would you say the same thing about something like Diet Coke or McDonald's anything or cigarettes or pretty much anything that comes with a warning to children and pregnant women, but which nevertheless pleases lots of people?
posted by philip-random at 1:59 PM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


One of the greatest albums of the 80s, a turning point in Simon's career, a monumental influence on countless artists, a huge political statement with regard to the use of African musicians, the exposure of Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the wider world.. TO VAMPIRE WEEKEND?

Yeah, I know, if I were Vampire Weekend I would be insulted too at being compared to that exploitative patronising boycott breaking heap of babyboomer nostalgia too.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:14 PM on October 18, 2014 [11 favorites]


I like difficult books.
I like easy listening music.
YMMV.
posted by chavenet at 2:28 PM on October 18, 2014


Taylor has a squirrel eyed gaze.

And the cool kids have already moved on to post squirrel eyed gaze music.
posted by Wolfdog at 2:31 PM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


I mean, Vampire Weekends first two records were explicit tributes to Graceland really. You can dislike them sure, but ..it's just objectively the case that they sound alike. This is exactly what the article is talking about lol.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:34 PM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Most of y'all smart music people on MF are too broad minded to dismiss something out of hand without even truly hearing it, so this article seems useless to you... thanks for providing an example of truly ignorant ears ReeMobster.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:37 PM on October 18, 2014


The biggest problem I have with all of this are the various assumptions of universality:
  • there is an objective and universal appeal to aspect x of music
  • music which utilizes x technique is universally superior
  • reason x that I like music is the fundamental reason music is good
  • without x, it's only sound, not music
the corollaries:
  • if you were smarter, you would like the music I do
  • if you were in touch with your feelings, you would like the music I do
  • you only pretend to like the music you seek out, nobody could possibly like it
from these corollary attitudes, we get bizarre behaviors:
  • guilty pleasures - I know it's "not good music" but I enjoy it
  • posturing - I do so pity these nincompoops who don't listen to the music I do
Perhaps it's more honest to ditch the music theory, the amateur philosophy and armchair psychoanalysis, and just say:
we are the people of the bear, because we sing the song of the bear; they are not the people of the bear because they do not know the song of the bear
and leave it at that.
posted by idiopath at 2:52 PM on October 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


Would you say the same thing about something like Diet Coke or McDonald's anything or cigarettes or pretty much anything that comes with a warning to children and pregnant women, but which nevertheless pleases lots of people?

Wait, why are we comparing things that have objective, researched harmful physiological effects with - music? I know it's unpleasant to hear in the grocery store, maybe it'll ruin your mood - but Is the music you don't like actively harmful to you? I'm not getting it.
posted by naju at 2:56 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


naju: “The quote from your friend in radio strikes me as pretty smug and condescending, by the way. As if the majority of people are just zombies”

As someone who went to high school, and later studied political science, I can tell you on the basis of these two experiences with a good deal of moral clarity and without any bitterness at all: most people are zombies, most people are wretched, and most people would be a hell of a lot happier if they listened to better music than they do.

There's a bit in the third book of Plato's Laws where the Athenian Stranger – apparently an exile – laments the current state of his home, saying that lawlessness alternating with slavery to the laws is the current Athenian existence. He claims that this originated in a kind of "lawlessness in music" founded on the idea that everyone is wise about music, and that the only standard by which music can be judged is the standard of the pleasure someone says it gives them. The Athenian Stranger says that this kind of irreverent arrogance leads away from a democracy of free souls and toward a slavish dependence on autocratic lawmakers. I am aware that Plato's characters quite often speak ironically, and I don't doubt that the Athenian Stranger is being playful here, but I think there's at least a kernel of truth in that.

To put it my own way: there are two options. The first is that the only standard on which music can be judged is the pleasure of the listener. If this is the case, then it is immediately clear that music does not communicate anything whatsoever; it only pleases certain people, and that pleasure is almost completely arbitrary. Some people like country, some people like metal; some people like Billy Joel, some people like Dexy's Midnight Runners. That's just how it is – nobody can explain it, and nobody should. In fact, if this true, then talking about music is utterly pointless, a painful and fruitless activity that ought to be avoided, since anything we say about music rests entirely on our faulty notion that any two people can have anything in common when it comes to music. The only thing anybody can share when it comes to music is the pleasure it gives them, and even then they can't explain it, so they should just shut up about it already.

Or – this is the second option – music is a fundamental communication of essential inner states, part of the fundamental communication of the soul that is art in general. It is a thing essentially intended to be shared, and more importantly to be a vessel of shared things that humans can take part in together. It is like all other arts in this way – like speaking, like writing, like painting, like crochet, like architecture. And all of these arts mix together, because we humans share things in interchangeable ways. We talk about music, we make songs about talking. And that's okay.

The second of these options has always seemed much more attractive to me. It is attractive to me because, as a friend of mine put it recently, it seems to me that "existence/order/life is miraculous, and art must strive to further it." The inner realities carried in the vessel of music are precious. However, the second option, which I choose, comes with a cost. If music is communication, then there is good and bad music – not because people must meet some external standard of musical skill, but simply for the same reason that there are good and bad speeches, or good and bad books: because it is possible to communicate bad things. And accepting the second option means we're gonna have to have conversations about that kind of thing. Because that's what people do, as long as they're allowed to speak: have conversations about the important things that they share.

idiopath: “Perhaps it's more honest to ditch the music theory, the amateur philosophy and armchair psychoanalysis, and just say:

‘we are the people of the bear, because we sing the song of the bear; they are not the people of the bear because they do not know the song of the bear"

and leave it at that.”


That's fine, until the people of the bear want to talk to people who are not of the bear. How will that happen? The only way to prevent them from speaking, I would warrant, is to forbid speech between them entirely.

And saying "to each his own" or "whatever gives you pleasure" may seem like a convenient and crafty way to prevent people who disagree about music from speaking to each other, but ultimately it won't work. We will share this conversation, and it is good that we do so.
posted by koeselitz at 3:01 PM on October 18, 2014 [6 favorites]


naju: “Wait, why are we comparing things that have objective, researched harmful physiological effects with - music? I know it's unpleasant to hear in the grocery store, maybe it'll ruin your mood - but Is the music you don't like actively harmful to you?”

Yes, music can be actively harmful to people.
posted by koeselitz at 3:04 PM on October 18, 2014


koeselitz: if the people of the bear want to talk, about music, with the people not of the bear, then someone has to be open minded and listen to music they don't like yet.

We put far too much weight on the question of whether one likes something or not, in order to grow one must have some category transition from disliked (or perhaps unknown) to liked.

I am not advocating for identity based barriers. I am asserting that most blathering about music is vaguely masked assertion of identity and definition of in-groups and out-groups, and to move forward to having an interesting conversation about music one needs to be honest about this and then stop doing it.
posted by idiopath at 3:15 PM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


If music is communication, then there is good and bad music – not because people must meet some external standard of musical skill, but simply for the same reason that there are good and bad speeches, or good and bad books: because it is possible to communicate bad things.

I'm with you that music is communication. Like any form of communication, there are things that resonate with me, that are of the frequency that I'm able to pick up, and that I'm fully prepared to receive. There are also things that don't resonate with me. The difference is that I'm unable to call these things that don't resonate with me "bad." It's like the Tower of Babel. There are hundreds of thousands of languages and dialects within music, and the ones you were raised on are the ones that you're prepared to receive most readily. The more familiar you get with other languages and dialects, the more you can appreciate them and pick up on their frequencies. As you get older, you learn the subtleties and nuances, figure out the tropes and rules. There are crazy outsiders coming up with their own languages, and this is exciting. Others are just echoing and regurgitating what they've been taught. No one person can understand all of the languages and judge whether the people who are communicating in each one are doing so in compelling ways, but it's worth striving to be a polyglot if you want to appreciate as much as possible. And again - you can say that "this particular speech in this language was compelling, says some new things, strikes me to my core... this particular speech did not do that for me, and here's why." But to assign "good" and "bad" to languages, to dialects, to expressions and utterances within languages, makes no sense to me.

Maybe to some it seems like a subtle distinction between "this didn't resonate with me" and "this is bad", but it seems like a major difference in mindset and mentality from my perspective.
posted by naju at 3:18 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Wow what's with the hate towards Taylor Swift? It's creepy to see it even here on metafilter. I don't see it towards Calvin Harris, who I can't seem to escape this summer, or any other male artist. Heck, I don't even see it towards Lorde (Have they not been on the charts enough years yet?).

And why is her "rival" Adele? Are there only two female pop singers in the universe?
posted by small_ruminant at 3:19 PM on October 18, 2014 [5 favorites]


koeselitz: we were talking about the people of the bear not the unbearable people
posted by pyramid termite at 3:20 PM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


for the same reason that there are good and bad speeches

That's not a bad analogy for a number of reasons. There are good and bad speeches, but also- people to whom a speech is not directed often find that speech to be "bad." Listen to criticism by the white mainstream to so many of the speeches in the African American vernacular.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:22 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Wait, why are we comparing things that have objective, researched harmful physiological effects with - music? I know it's unpleasant to hear in the grocery store, maybe it'll ruin your mood - but Is the music you don't like actively harmful to you? I'm not getting it.

A. just because we don't know something yet (in the scientific sense) doesn't mean it isn't so. I wouldn't be remotely surprised if we eventually discovered that prolonged exposure to the wrong music is probably worse for us than cigarette smoke. So yeah, I do believe that some music is bad for us.

B. what koeselitz just said even if he's completely wrong about Daydream Nation.
posted by philip-random at 3:27 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


How does this no-objectively-good-music idea square up to, say, The Beatles? Can someone throws some Beatles hate at this thread and we can see if any one criticism stands?
posted by Taft at 3:33 PM on October 18, 2014


How does this no-objectively-good-music idea square up to, say, The Beatles? Can someone throws some Beatles hate at this thread and we can see if any one criticism stands?

I dig quite a few things the Beatles have done, especially The White Album, but - you mean the main band the Baby Boomers have shoved down the throats of every single person living today? This is actually a fine band to discuss what the meaning of objectivity is. No other band has been so forcefully asserted as "unfuckwithable canon" as this one. It has less to do with "objectively good" and more to do with a cultural stranglehold that we have yet to recover from. (See also: Dylan, the Stones, etc. - I feel like we're all trying to escape the dominant narrative of the Boomers to this day.)
posted by naju at 3:41 PM on October 18, 2014 [6 favorites]


When I first started using DirectConnect, where you could browse other people's music collections and choose what to download, my biggest disappointment was seeing that other people also listened to Robert Johnson and Ministry and All Saints, and that their tastes were as eclectic and broad ranging as mine, at least.
posted by signal at 4:09 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


It has less to do with "objectively good" and more to do with a cultural stranglehold that we have yet to recover from. (See also: Dylan, the Stones, etc. - I feel like we're all trying to escape the dominant narrative of the Boomers to this day.)

except my particular subculture through the early-mid 1989s (post-punk, pre-grunge whatever you want to call it) did a pretty effective job of outright rejecting all that classic rock ... for years. It was still heard, of course. It was impossible to avoid. But we weren't playing it, certainly not on our radio shows etc. Not out of any particular Stalinesque purge of the old -- it just didn't really work. It didn't feel right in the mix.

But then as the decade wore on, a lot of stuff started creeping back. Dylan was first in my particular case. Then the Stones as long as it wasn't the obvious stuff. Then stuff like Led Zeppelin, ACDC. The Beatles were pretty much the last to re-establish as what I'd call relevant. In fact, I can distinctly remember trying to sway one guy into admitting there was a single listenable Beatles song. Yer Blues is what turned him.

My point being, the so-called classics did have prove themselves again, had to pass some sort of unspecified test. And they did. Even those pesky Beatles, though I don't think we ever got as far as Obladee Obladuhhh.
posted by philip-random at 4:10 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


I feel like we're all trying to escape the dominant narrative of the Boomers to this day

In my experience, aging punk rock people are at least as devoted as Boomers to shoving music down people's throats, complete with their passionately held but increasingly dated idea that their era of music "mattered" more than any other.
posted by thelonius at 4:17 PM on October 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


The Beatles are too recent and too relevant to English speaking computer literate culture to be a fair test.

Why not ask for arguments about Beethoven, Bach, The canonical set of Raga? Perhaps the various Gamelan compositions that have survived through centuries and countless adaptations? Chinese Opera? Each of these is, in context a culturally defining classic, but one wouldn't have to look very far to find a hater of any of them in this particular forum.
posted by idiopath at 4:17 PM on October 18, 2014 [3 favorites]


The Beatles' canonization is also responsible for a lot of the "serious men creating serious music" stuff I was decrying upthread. They're the blueprint for the Art Album Headphone Masterpiece, aren't they? In some ways, Taylor Swift isn't being taken seriously by certain self-appointed cultural guardians directly because of the Beatles' influence.
posted by naju at 4:33 PM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


Wow what's with the hate towards Taylor Swift?

I can't speak for others, but her "reg'lar gal" persona is annoying as fuck. And "Shake It Off" is its apotheosis. Acting awkward or clumsy or like a li'l ol' gal from down the mall, who, I declare, somehow got into a video, tee hee. (I won't even get into her crotch-view tour of the predominantly African-American dancers.) The whole video is about her not doing things as well as anybody else in the video is doing them. But, as she's the star, it's a weird humblebrag move.

This is all apart from her voice, which to my taste, at least, is so characterless and limited as to leave no impression at all. She makes Carrie Underwood sound like Big Mama Thornton.

More generally, she may draw fire because she's very popular, I would guess, without a lot of "there" there. Which may further fuel resentment in some quarters about her making it big on her looks and getting to date all the cute boys (which might explain the self-deprecating incompetence of the video). Is she bigger than her male counterparts and, as such, a more likely target for snark? Maybe. But I don't know enough about the criticism leveled (or not) at other pop musicians, and whatever's aimed at her may be sexist, at least in part.
posted by the sobsister at 4:38 PM on October 18, 2014


I don't really see the disagreement here other than semantics. Naju and the article are saying, "Taste is subjective, so to be more in touch with the true experience of music you have to move beyond taste."

The only dispute with the Koeslitz crew is about whether, once one appreciates all music as music, one can objectively rate some pieces or artists or genres as "bad" or "unhealthy" or some other Platonic thing. Which is a tough question in the abstract but easy in the particular. Nobody, not even the damned, can defend Creed. It somehow combines the brutishness of hard rock with the inoffensiveness of pop. We all hate it and we can all agree it isn't good. QED.

So, like, normals: try a little free jazz and country. And Gen X grumpies: give Taylor another chance. Maybe you'll realize that complexity and catchiness are equally difficult jobs with different payoffs. And that both are better than Creed.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:39 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


It sounds like what this article is trying to say is that haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. But you could've been getting down to this sick beat!
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:50 PM on October 18, 2014 [11 favorites]


I can't speak for others, but her "reg'lar gal" persona is annoying as fuck.

Thanks for responding. I also find her annoying (though possibly less so than Justin Bieber, who mostly seems to get eyerolls 'round these parts). I mostly really dislike her music. But she's a POP STAR and the comments towards her seem particularly vituperative, especially by metafilter standards. Shit, she's not the Koch brothers.

I still love the You Belong With Me video, which I think is about the cutest ever. (I haven't seen the original one- this is the one with the cute gay guys.)
posted by small_ruminant at 4:56 PM on October 18, 2014


Well of course there is good music and bad music, just like there are good and bad versions of all the things human beings make--music is a craft as much as an art. Most of our arguments about these things are about the vast majority of music that is somewhere in the gray middle between 'obviously spectacularly poorly made' and 'clearly a phenomenally imagined and rendered thing'.

Most people, especially with something as ubiquitous, deeply personal and important to so many, confuse whether or not they like a given piece of music with whether or not it's good or bad. Where I agree with the essay in the post (though it's kind of a facile piece), is that most people's judgments about musical quality or worth or goodness and badness are driven by their tastes rather than objective knowledge and understanding of, e.g., musical craft, idiom, history, technique.

Substantial criticism of music is possible and would sound something like "the production is lacking because x, y, and z" or "the band's sense of form is unbalanced, with transitions occupying far too significant a portion of each track" or "this singer is out of tune to a degree that is distracting" or so forth. It is also possible to critically consider composition/production and performance separately.

I make this mistake often myself: I say 'this song is terrible' when what I should say is some version of 'this song is not to my taste,' because--even as a professional musician--most of the time when I'm talking about good/bad in music, I'm talking about my taste. Just like everyone else. And when I'm NOT talking about my taste, it sure would be nice to have a more specific vocabulary to use that signals informed criticism rather than opinion. (But most people don't want to hear that. They just want to bullshit about their opinions.)
posted by LooseFilter at 4:58 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Interesting to me is that a "we hated it" review does nothing more for me than warn me off something I might have done--if I always see a movie with so-and-so in it or buy the new album from some-other-person, a bad review will give me pause.

But a "this is good" review has the power to make me consider doing or buying things I might otherwise not, especially if it helps provide context to some other point I might be missing.

If I honestly appraise why I don't like one thing and do like another when to a disinterested person they probably seem equal, it's usually because of my perceptions about what the people who I presume are fans of the thing are like, and not the thing itself, necessarily, or what I perceive liking that implies about me. In other words, it's about me being comfortable with my stereotypes and not putting any effort in to challenge them.
posted by maxwelton at 5:00 PM on October 18, 2014


Where I agree with the essay in the post (though it's kind of a facile piece), is that most people's judgments about musical quality or worth or goodness and badness are driven by their tastes rather than objective knowledge and understanding of, e.g., musical craft, idiom, history, technique.

Substantial criticism of music is possible and would sound something like "the production is lacking because x, y, and z" or "the band's sense of form is unbalanced, with transitions occupying far too significant a portion of each track" or "this singer is out of tune to a degree that is distracting" or so forth. It is also possible to critically consider composition/production and performance separately.


These are ultimately subjective too! They have the patina of objectivity, because they come with established standards that are, like, taught in music theory classes. But the craft and ruleset of music is not always going to lead to stellar music that advances the conversation. In fact, the most mind-blowing, life-changing music (to me) is the stuff that actively or unintentionally flouts the rules and despite that, ends up with something sublime. I mean the most easy example is Dylan, re: "this singer is out of tune to a degree that is distracting". Other musicians play with drawing out transitions to a far longer degree than is traditionally done, or experiment with broken or lo-fi or ridiculous production techniques (some of which lead to entire new genres of music), etc. And indeed, the entire accepted "western music theory" foundations are just another form of subjectivity that we've grown up with, and the ruleset is so ingrained in us from such an early age that it sounds "right", but this is ultimately cultural more than it is a biological standard.
posted by naju at 5:07 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


For instance, that new Taylor Swift song has terrible production. It's one of those brickwalled pop songs that just sounds like shit unless you're drunk at a club.

This. I'll tolerate bad music a lot, lot longer if it doesn't have shite production values.

On the other hand, I cannot stand to listen to great music if it has shite production values. I'm looking at you, REM (Accelerate) and Killers (Sam's Town).
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:10 PM on October 18, 2014


I am a hater of lots of different kinds of music and I'm ok with that.
posted by freakazoid at 5:11 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


The author's list of all the allegedly wildly unpredictable music path that took him to Taylor Swift reminded me of this Onion classic.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 5:12 PM on October 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


Shit, she's not the Koch brothers.

I know nothing of Ms. Swift, couldn't name a song, wouldn't recognize her if she knocked on my door to complain about the noise. But it intrigues me to see the Koch bros get mentioned because that's effectively making all this political, which it is, I think. That is, my objection to what I choose to call bad music. I realize I have no high authority here, that what I'm saying is "just my opinion, man". But my rage at unnecessarily awful so-called music imposing on my day-to-day is ultimately a political rage. It is a response to power doing what power does -- shoving its interests down my throat.

Take a song I really have come to despise -- that Journey thing about believing. Back in the day when it had its first run through the culture, I had no particular opinion about it. It was just one more annoyingly polished bullshit hair band power ballad that would end eventually, and whatever, on with my day. But to hear it come back, resurrected by some TV show I've never seen, to have it become a standard, something that must be played before the evening is complete, to be repeatedly forced to endure its utterly soulless emptiness (Journey don't care if you believe or not, they never did; Journey only ever cared and/or believed in their own interests, and perhaps cocaine) -- well, I'm sorry, I can't help but feel some vast a malign conspiracy is at work that seeks to not just bore me to death but also devour the souls of young people everywhere forever.

so yeah, some music is bad and we shouldn't be afraid to say as much. I personally trust my network to set me straight if I'm wrong. They're pretty good at that.
posted by philip-random at 5:18 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


ThatFuzzyBastard - OHHH YESSS NAILED IT.
exactly what i wante to express in my other comments - all the stuff listed is very similar
posted by ghostbikes at 5:24 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


It has less to do with "objectively good" and more to do with a cultural stranglehold that we have yet to recover from. (See also: Dylan, the Stones, etc. - I feel like we're all trying to escape the dominant narrative of the Boomers to this day.)

did you know the beatles, the stones and bob dylan were silents, not boomers?

did you know the sex pistols were boomers? - along with just about every punk and post punk band you can think of

also, if we really want to be honest about what music the boomers have shoved down everyone's throat, one could count up the later bands that followed the beatles, the stones and bob dylan - and those who followed the velvet underground and black sabbath, kraftwerk and kc and the sunshine band

these days, i've kind of gotten away from the good/bad line of thought about music, although i dare say creed and journey can still annoy me a lot

is it interesting or not interesting?

does it make me want to dance (or trance out) or does it just kind of leave me physically or psychically unmoved?

does it make me want to learn how to play it or take elements from or is it just something to pass time with?
posted by pyramid termite at 6:12 PM on October 18, 2014


oh, yes, does it make me feel something (besides disgust or annoyance)?
posted by pyramid termite at 6:17 PM on October 18, 2014


"I know from my experience, that you perceive music in very different ways in different situations, sometimes I get some CD, I get a lot of CDs from friends because I travel, and I can put it on, and maybe I like it, yeah? I think "oh, it's great", you know? And maybe like three weeks after I put it on and I think it is shit, you know? And maybe one week after I put it on I think it is good, too, you know?

How can you say something is objectively good or bad? It's impossible (laughs). If I'm at a concert, and there's maybe hundred people in this concert, there's like hundred different concerts, because each person hear's something totally different, you know?

...

If I release a record and the record is pressed in a thousand copies, a thousand copies are sold, that's a thousand different records."

-- Zbigniew Karkaowski
posted by idiopath at 6:44 PM on October 18, 2014


Wow what's with the hate towards Taylor Swift?

Here's the most succinct way I've heard it put: Taylor is the "she" in "You Belong with Me" ("she wears high heels, I wear sneakers, she's cheer captain and I'm in the bleachers"). She's trying to project a likeable everygirl persona, but she comes across as a super-privileged and kinda fakey Mean Girl. If you dig into celebrity gossip a little, you'll find bits of this all over: her posed-as-hell post-gym paparazzi photos, the diss tracks about John Mayer and Katy Perry, and I'm sure there's more but I don't keep up with Swiftian news. "Shake It Off," catchy as it is, is four minutes of high-horsery about how everyone says mean things about poor Taylor, but she's too busy singing and being talented to let it get to her. You know how people who loudly declare "I hate drama" or "I'm sick of fake people" tend to be the ones involved in drama and fakery? That's what Taylor Swift seems like.

Although I don't care for her myself, something about the Taylor hatred makes me uncomfortable. I'm not sure if I can adequately unpack it, but there's a lot in there about image and gossipy personal matters, and not much criticism about the music itself, and I think it's deeply rooted in tear-down-the-pretty-girl misogyny, same as the weird hatred a lot of people have for Anne Hathaway. Of course Taylor Swift primps for hours and looks preposterously flawless; young women in the public eye are expected to be pretty, and Taylor's found that her ultra-polished appearance sells. Diss songs are all over the place in hip hop, but when a white female pop singer writes one she's shallow and catty?

Nearly all of this thread is about evaluating music qua music, and not much about image, but for mainstream pop it's difficult to separate the two.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:50 PM on October 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


I was about to post my usual response to this type of conversation, how all kinds of music have something valuable in them, and just because you don't like something doesn't make it bad, etc.
Then Rick Astley came on the TV singing "Together Forever". Ack, now he's leading the crowd in a singalong "Never Gonna Give You Up".

All this to say, there is some music that must be killed with fire.
posted by Daily Alice at 7:05 PM on October 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


John Lee Hooker only needed three chords.

Economy of means is an aesthetic virtue in many traditions.
posted by spitbull at 7:37 PM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


>To put it my own way: there are two options. The first is that the only standard on which music can be judged is the pleasure of the listener. ... if this true, then talking about music is utterly pointless,

This doesn't follow. If the first option is true there are still lots of patterns to people's taste in music and, if you are interested in those people, you are interested in those patterns, irrespective of your opinion on the music per se. Check out Artw's link, that book's all about this kind of criticism.

I think it can be meaningful to say that music is good or bad, but only if you have established what you want it to be good for. "Communication" is broadly acceptable; but I would not grant that there is a universal musical language, and TFA's position is that if you want to judge music for its ability to put the listener in a specific headspace, you must first speak its language.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:57 PM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


I really don't want to be the sort of person who likes "all music" any more than I want to be the person who likes "all food" - because a lot of it is bland trash that's not truly nourishing and even bad for you.

Music is one of the few most important things in my life, and it fairly regularly brings me to tears with its intensity. Many of the musics discussed here are bland and lacking in character and some of them are actively bad.

There is also music that I don't like but understand the importance and value of, rather like my relationship to goat cheese. There is even music that I like but feel is bad for you, rather like my relationship to ice cream.

(PS: I feel bad about it but I have no idea what Ms. Swift's music sounds like, or much about her at all except for her ornamental appearance. It's hard for women in music and I wish her all the best.)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:49 PM on October 18, 2014


Hey y'all lay off on the Creed hate. I love me some bombastic sweaty man music.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:12 PM on October 18, 2014


If only Tori-Amos-worshiping 16-year-old me knew just how much rap music I'd be listening to at 31 . . . and mostly not """good""" rap, either!

I think it's pleasurable and ethical to learn to like things you initially resist - or, at least, to learn to understand why people like them. Taste is largely to do with class and culture, and it's healthy to stretch those boundaries, make them more permeable - to understand that your aesthetic likes and dislikes are largely the result of your ideological positioning and programming, and, if you're in a position of power and privilege, maybe it's important to learn that your likes and dislikes are no more important or correct than anyone else's.

I enjoyed the article in the OP because it seemed like a generous-minded call for people to do that work. It just bugs me how so much identity-fashioning and group-policing is built up around hating the "correct" music. Like how a year or two ago it was taken as given in a lot of corners of the internet that Nicki Minaj, who is an immense pop talent, embodied how "shit" contemporary music is (how many times on social media did I see that .jpg of the chorus of "Stupid Ho" juxtaposed with the first verse of "Stairway to Heaven" as "proof"? Urgh). Or the way people got on about the tonal and rhythmic signatures of dubstep - the modem screech / broken machinery aesthetic. I swear, you could take people from the 1910s complaining about jazz music, switch out the pertinent nouns to make it about dubstep, edit out any old-timey figures of speech, and they'd be indistinguishable from contemporary complaint. Ditto for rap, more obviously.

Earlier today I was actually reading some reviews of Muse (shut up I like Muse and I was procrastinating) from across the last decade. It struck me how, with each album cycle, so many critics were either blind to Muse's charms or willfully chose not to recognize those features as charms - never seeming to clue into what Muse's purpose and appeal was. Muse embodies outlandish excess, like Queen but on designer steroids and so. much. cocaine. And in outer space! With lasers! And explosions! Of course the music is dumb and silly; of course it favours spectacle over substance - that's entirely the point. But time and again, these critics panned Muse for, I don't know, not being tasteful indie-guy guitar music? Or for choosing to flattering their listeners' adrenal glands rather than their cerebellums?
posted by erlking at 10:32 PM on October 18, 2014 [4 favorites]


a lot of it is bland trash that's not truly nourishing and even bad for you

Comparing music preferences among friends and acquaintances over the past 40 years or so, I've come to realize that there is no standard of "good music" or "bad music." It's all purely personal aesthetics.

You decide you want to like some sort of music, and then you do. I love Top 40 crap (yes, Katy Perry, yes, Kelly Clarkson), the Smiths, classical, jazz, (early) Daft Punk, IQU, Built to Spill, Brian Eno, Joy Division, Led Zeppelin, etc. etc.

What don't I like: "world" music; reggae; new country; Korn; Tool; the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Dave Matthews, GRIZZLY BEAR, etc etc.

But I certainly have friends whose opinions I do respect who like all of those genres and bands. My wife was/is a HUGE Dave Matthews Band (probably one of my least favorite musical acts EVER).

There is simply no objectively "good" or "bad" art. It is ALL subjective, almost arbitrarily so.

There is even music that I like but feel is bad for you

Aside from objectionable lyrics, how can music be bad for you?
posted by mrgrimm at 10:39 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


mrgrimm: music is the only mainstream artform that is likely to permanently injure you. We don't put up with visual art that can burn your retinas, or dance that puts bystanders in the ER, but progressive hearing loss from loud music is an epidemic problem.
posted by idiopath at 11:08 PM on October 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


If you like everything, you'll never have the time to listen to everything you like.


And worse, you may someday utter or type the phrase "I have eclectic tastes in music." If Google is any indication, within two to four sentences you will reveal yourself as a shining example of hubris. Not everyone with a Fishbone CD and works from Cyrus pére et fille is as interesting as you think that makes you.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:53 PM on October 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


Sometimes, like with Rihanna or Taylor Swift, I get to work through my prejudices and recognize that pop is still a force that can move my body, mind, and heart, and I sometimes have a failing where I think I'm "above it" and dismiss it as disposable, when it's really capable of everything I want out of music. Throughout a large part of my teens and twenties I was into a lot of serious music by serious men. That was a blinkered view of the music landscape and it's really, really important that I figured out how obnoxious I was being.

naju, you wrote this in response to my comment, so allow me to clarify: I think that "serious men making serious music" is a total drag, and some combination of a false perception of brilliant musicians and an accurate perception of shitty musicians. Often both at once! Frank Zappa was brilliantly silly (and brilliantly negative at times), but the parts of his music that I least enjoy are the parts that feel like Zappa trying to communicate something More Meaningful with his music. Not saying Zappa's music isn't meaningful, but he has far more of a range when he's letting himself be innovative in manners that are as frequently cheesy and corny and ridiculous as they are sublime and analytical and incisive.

I had a Very Serious Professor once who loved to talk about how Philip Glass's music is all a torturous examination of pointlessness and futility, and how it's intended to test its performers with its boringness, except that that's not what Philip Glass does at all. The dude's impish and epic and his music, performed by the right people, feels like video game music before video games, these comical sounds mixed with a spiritual awe and grandeur that seem to say that one could not exist without the other. So that's one Serious Man who isn't very serious, after all.

But anyway, I wasn't trying to say that I Like Good Music, And Therefore I Don't Love Taylor Swift. I think Taylor's gotten better with every album, and while I used to despise her I think that she's gotten better in ways that retroactively justify her earlier music for me. I used to love Lady Gaga, and I thought that Dope did something really interesting even if her album overall was too muddled to do anything for me. I've learned a lot about my sexuality by examining why I find Katy Perry semi-repulsive, even though my examination had more to do with why she was in the wrong than why I was. (This bullshit-semi-Buddhist notion that any time you criticize something it's a chance for you to think about what's wrong with you is one of the worst problems with the Eggers-and-Wallace-inspired mindset, IMO, and it only ever leads to gross hypocrisy.)

Nonetheless, I stand by what I said about taste and criticism, and think that it holds equally well if you want to limit your palette to, say, three songs on the Billboard 40, than if you try to compare Taylor Swift to Beethoven to Captain Beefheart. And actually the criticism'll probably be a lot more incisive that way, simply because the broader you get in your critiques the more you're talking about philosophy rather than you're talking about the work right in front of you.

But at the end of the day I think that criticism is awesome, and I appreciate criticism of all kinds — just as I appreciate praise of all kinds. What's more, I think that the insistence that critics put as much effort as possible into understanding and articulating their feelings is stupid, because that's a requirement we don't force upon people offering praise, or upon the fucking musicians themselves in this equation.

Unsurprisingly, koeselitz said it beautifully in his own response to you:

[M]usic is a fundamental communication of essential inner states, part of the fundamental communication of the soul that is art in general. It is a thing essentially intended to be shared, and more importantly to be a vessel of shared things that humans can take part in together. It is like all other arts in this way – like speaking, like writing, like painting, like crochet, like architecture. And all of these arts mix together, because we humans share things in interchangeable ways. We talk about music, we make songs about talking. And that's okay.

(Some of the most interesting things I've heard anybody say about music, by the way, have come from koeselitz when he was criticizing musicians that I was fans of, oftentimes at the same time as I felt that his arguments were completely misguided. It's possible to have a beautiful and illuminating take on something and still not have the whole truth of it, which is yet another reason why I value criticism, even of things I adore, very highly.)

My understanding of art comes from my formal study of "play" in all its ambiguities — the way we play with the world around us simultaneously to see what's possible with it, to experiment with things inside ourselves, to make connections with other people, and to have fun all at the same time. Understanding art as a form of play helps to come up with objective interpretations of it — pop songs use particular chord progressions to play with people's fundamental emotional responses to harmony, whereas Alban Berg's Violin Concerto searches within unusual combinations of notes for new kinds of lush, bombastic evocations, and La Monte Young's sometimes more focused on the waveform of a trumpet note than he is in what would happen if there were, say, two notes in a piece instead of just one. You can talk about the Beatles' use of pop music as an exploration of providing easy inlets to philosophical, spiritual, or personal understanding, or about Devo's turning pop in to criticize its own nature, and by it something about human nature. You can compare and contrast the performed sexuality of Nicki Minaj to that of Beyonce and decide that you prefer one or the other approach better, or that each of the two is doing something worthwhile and interesting. You can look at the compositional rigor of metal songs and compare them to the rigor of musical theatre, and try to use the ways in which they vary to plot an intersection of the two which would give rise to a deeper musical rigor.

What you can't do is say that any of this is subjective, because it isn't. You can say that people's standards of what is "good" and "bad" are subjective, sure. You can say that by the varied nature of people, no one work will touch everybody identically. You can say a whole lot of statements that are essentially pointing out the relativity inherent in two different things, people or ideas or works, relating to one another. But what you can't say is that the thing which exists is not objective, has not been made in a particular way, does not make a connection to people in various particular manners.

I don't think that everybody's got to like music, or love it, or think about it. I think that there are many other outlets to happiness, enlightenment, what-have-you. But I also think that it's a fallacy to assume that, if they're not getting into music, people are getting into something equally valuable instead. I've met a lot of people with big gaping voids where they ought to have living, vital thoughts and inquiries. Rarely people who're so damaged that they possess literally nothing of value, but frequently people who have got things wrong with them, and for reasons which are social/cultural rather than physical or mental. I also know people who are much better off, and whose comparative wisdom and happiness and contentment often goes hand-in-hand with their curiosity, their intrigue, their willingness to explore the world further. And I absolutely believe that art, perhaps even especially music, is one of the greatest and most valuable tools for getting people to explore in that particular manner, for convincing people to allow themselves to grow.

One of the notions that most fascinates me, in that at first it only seems loosely related to all the concepts at work here, yet it fits them all together perfectly, is that of addictive behavior. I'm not talking about physical addiction so much as what I'd call "procedural" addiction: you discover a stable cycle of actions and responses which keeps you spinning around and around in perpetuity, not because those actions/responses are ideal but because they are stable, and because we value order even when it is obviously and transparently not good for us. And I say this as somebody who ate so many Hot Pockets in one sitting last week that I robotripped.

It's kind of stereotypical (and shitty) for critics of XYZ Cultural Item to call it an "opiate", thanks to Karl Marx's famously-misinterpreted statement and a million semi-Communist snobs' collective lack of imagination. I do think it makes sense to look at the ways in which people attempt to anesthetize their exhausting lives or individual paints, and think about the exact reasons that any given anesthetic is useful for that particular situation. When people turn to music for some reason other than personal enthusiasm, it's worth looking at why they do — and sometimes the answer is that they're enthusiastic about singing or dancing with friends, all of which are healthy enough, but I do think that there're a lot of unexamined ways in which people make music a part of the fabric of their lives without fully understanding what that music's impact will be on them when they do so. This is true of other recreational activities — football, drug use, shitty frathouse sex — so I don't think it's entirely insane to look at music as another force which may have effects on people of which they aren't aware.

One reason the atonal composers liked the idea of atonal music was, when you insist upon tonality, you limit the range of ways in which people can play with the medium, and create works for other people in turn. If you insist that music must be harmonically evocative, you are insisting, in a sense, that music favor emotionality over being detachedly thought-provoking. I can simultaneously dislike atonal music and find this argument to be true. And I can look at the ways in which previously avant-garde methods to creating art ultimately serve to inspire brilliant works of popular art as well, as the range of techniques which people know to make a pleasing and entertaining combination expands. So even people who love music for shallow reasons benefit from more interesting kinds of music existing.

In fact, I would go so far as to argue that, just as it is possible for art to be simultaneously emotional and intellectually provocative, so too is there a wide range of ways in which songs can enrich your lives in multiple ways at once. It's possible, therefore, for criticisms of some music being "too intellectual" and criticisms of other music being "too brainless" to both be true at once, even if between those two criticisms you can reach out to the entire spectrum of musical composition at once. If you understand art to be in part about the dense interplay between various elements within a piece, reaching out to and touching upon the artist and the audience and the surrounding culture all at once, then it's a very valid criticism to say, "This work of art lacks X particular dimension", and the criticism is meaningful both for people who value dimension X and don't know how to articulate it, and for people who haven't ever thought about dimension X at all. It's even valid to get emotional about that lack of dimension, if you are trying to express in part your frustration that this potentially meaningful thing is being overlooked for other values; this remains valid even if all those other values are meaningful as well. Saying "everything is potentially important" doesn't render worthless the various opinions people have about different important things' being important. That's the Ayn Rand/The Incredibles flawed logic of "if everybody's amazing, then nobody will be". Multiple kinds of amazing can exist at once, and you can complain about pop songs with shitty production or lyrics or jazz songs with awful melodies even as all those things simultaneously do other incredible things, and what's more those complaints can be frequently very meaningful.

I think that, ironically, the attacks against criticism do exactly the thing which criticism frequently exists to point out: they focus on one value to the exclusion of all others, and then hypocritically hold up that value as more important than all the rest, concluding that therefore people who make criticisms based on the values they hold are making some kind of fundamental error in judgment. Which is why it brings me pleasure to respond to those criticisms in exactly the manner that they ask me not to. Arguments like this can usually be refuted in precisely the way they tell you things should never be refutable, and the petty schadenfreude is so delicious to me that I find myself far happier than anybody should ever get out of defying anybody else's wishes. Which is the lovely thing about criticism! It often makes you "happier than you should be" by means of its arguments, and that's precisely because it often strikes against the false notions of "shoulds" to offer a take on things which resonates far more closely to you than anything being said by the ostensibly polite people asking you to keep your damn opinions to yourself.
posted by rorgy at 12:05 AM on October 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


Can someone throws some Beatles hate at this thread and we can see if any one criticism stands?

Sure, I'll bite (and I'm their biggest fan).

The White Album is a depressing pointless mess. It is thoroughly mean-spirited and ugly (could they even remember the love-soaked acid joy of Sgt. Pepper?), and only of interest as a document of the impending bitter divorce of two songwriters who had previously inspired and respected each other immensely.

So slovenly that its authors could not even be bothered to give it a title or a cover - and despite the instinctive turd-polishing they gave to the production and arrangement of most songs, stands as the real 'this is us with our trousers down, we can't function any more, now please leave us alone' statement that Lennon explicitly wanted 'Let it Be' to make, made here before he realised what he was doing.

Low-lights include several throwaway campfire singalongs; a Beach Boys pastiche (the first time the Beatles gave up and attempted outright parody); the invention of pompous plod-rock so dull and self-absorbed that only Eric Clapton doing a coke-addled guitar solo could save it; unspeakable vaudeville horrors from McCartney; Harrison's brain-fart ode to a box of chocolates plus another of his with a harpsichord in it; a heavy metal song so bad it led to the Manson murders; a Yoko sound collage nobody on Earth has ever listened to, and... 'Goodnight'.

What the Beatles invented with The White Album (they were so creative that even their garbage had vast influence) was the fundamental 'rock' aesthetic in which the gesture of the sound and its superficial intention, and the perceived lifestyle choices of the performer is more important than the structural unity of its form. This is why 'She Loves You' sounds ardent, fresh and meaningful (and like it fell from outer space) 50 years later, whereas 'Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for me and my Monkey' just sounds like The Strokes thinking they're cool because they bought a vintage amp.

('Julia' is good.)
posted by colie at 12:55 AM on October 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


The correct answer to "I like everything" is "come over to my place and let's chill out with some Merzbow, followed by some Webern string quartets, Beijing Opera, and some Dick Higgins."
posted by idiopath at 1:31 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


a Yoko sound collage nobody on Earth has ever listened to

my name is nobody
posted by philip-random at 1:45 AM on October 19, 2014


Nice sentiment, terribly executed. For me I've loved and hated many many kinds of music throughout my life so far, and have no plans of interrupting that trend. In fact for me a pretty good predictor of what I'll love in about three years time is what bugs the hell out of me now, and what I love now in three years time will seem exhausted and tiresome. Context changes, people change, and when you're ready for it there's a sound that's waiting for what you're ready for. Or you go and make it, which is why I'm a musician I guess.
posted by threecheesetrees at 2:06 AM on October 19, 2014


(See also: Dylan, the Stones, etc. - I feel like we're all trying to escape the dominant narrative of the Boomers to this day.)

That's such a gen-x thing to believe, that boomers of all people still have a stranglehold on culture.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:36 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


The only dispute with the Koeslitz crew is about whether, once one appreciates all music as music, one can objectively rate some pieces or artists or genres as "bad" or "unhealthy" or some other Platonic thing.

There certainly is a long, proud tradition of rejecting degenerate, corrupt, entartete Musik.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:50 AM on October 19, 2014


Look, here's the bottom line: anyone who thinks the Beatles are better than the Shaggs is just wrong. WRONG, alright? And if you don't agree with that, you are not my friend and never can be.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:55 AM on October 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


That's just a priori duh.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:23 AM on October 19, 2014


The only dispute with the Koeslitz crew is about whether, once one appreciates all music as music, one can objectively rate some pieces or artists or genres as "bad" or "unhealthy" or some other Platonic thing.

Well, sure, Platonism will almost always get us into trouble because it requires us to identify and judge material against universal, ideal, and objective essences.

But it's certainly possible to think about the various kinds of cultural work music can do, and examine a limited sample in terms of what particular kinds of cultural work it does, and, within the boundaries of those "jobs," how well -- in a given context -- it does those jobs.

To use an extreme example, when you or I sing in the shower, we're expressing ourselves and entertaining ourselves, two basic things -- self-expression and entertainment -- that music can do. But "me/you singing in the shower" is pretty bad at almost every kind of cultural work music might do; it's not even that great as self-expression or entertainment most of the time.

And forget thinking about music as a technical field, music as metacommentary on music, music as commercial product, music as expression of cultural/group identity, music as affective solidarity, and so on. (Yes, some of these things overlap.) So music can be discussed, perhaps, as effective or appropriate and so forth. Some genres of music, especially those that are almost entirely about cultural identity, can indeed be seen as broadly "bad" in that sense: the explicitly white supremacist stuff like Rock Against Communism, for example; or minstrel songs in nearly any but a very few, very specific, and usually ironic-reclamation contexts.

Further, while we can't talk "objectively" about music being "good" or "bad" in a general context we can talk about music that turns out to do a whole bunch of different kinds of cultural work in a whole bunch of different contexts. That music may not be "better" or "worse," but it is likely to spread and stick around.

And we have to remember, of course, that there's a music industry, within which there's plenty of quite disposable or ephemeral music, music that does so little work and does that little work so ineffectively, even incompetently, that no one remembers it or even notices it in the first place. There's a shit-ton of "professional" music that is "bad" at almost any kind of work that music does, and there's even more music that no one here has ever heard and that never winds up incorporated into any kind of cultural narrative in any significant way.

I doubt most of us will be releasing personal installments of the MeFi Shower Tapes anytime soon, for example.
posted by kewb at 7:47 AM on October 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


Also, pretty much everything in the "I hate the White Album" post above can be answered with a simple "sez you!" Half of it is adjectives posing as analysis.
posted by kewb at 7:51 AM on October 19, 2014


Well, I was responding to a request for some 'Beatles hate' in the thread.
posted by colie at 8:08 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


To be fair, excessive praise of The Beatles is pure beanplating decades before the coinage of the term. Some of you will read that sentence and remember the Aeolian cadences that recall Mahler's Songs Of The Earth.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:44 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


That's not beanplating. It's just music theory.
posted by colie at 9:03 AM on October 19, 2014


me: “To put it my own way: there are two options. The first is that the only standard on which music can be judged is the pleasure of the listener. ... if this true, then talking about music is utterly pointless,”

LogicalDash: “This doesn't follow. If the first option is true there are still lots of patterns to people's taste in music and, if you are interested in those people, you are interested in those patterns, irrespective of your opinion on the music per se. Check out Artw's link, that book's all about this kind of criticism.”

This is only true if you cut off certain forms of artifice as "not really art." Like speech – talking to people – is that an art? If you think of "art" as only particular forms of creative activity, and define it narrowly, then you can pretend that speech and text are meaningful communications grounded in something real, whereas "art" is just grounded on the pleasure of the listener. But when you include speech and text as art – as I think you rationally pretty much have to – then they are not meaningful communications grounded in the real unless they are judged by the measure of truth, not the pleasure of the listener.

To be fair, this is what most people do. We think of music and painting and maybe the writing of novels as "art," but all the other forms of human communication are "not really art" to us. This is a convenient way to detach ourselves from "art" and make it this sort of distant object we can talk about, but ultimately it doesn't make sense, particularly in a world where people speak and write artfully.

“I think it can be meaningful to say that music is good or bad, but only if you have established what you want it to be good for. ‘Communication’ is broadly acceptable; but I would not grant that there is a universal musical language, and TFA's position is that if you want to judge music for its ability to put the listener in a specific headspace, you must first speak its language.”

Other people have said this in this thread – most notably here:

LooseFilter: “Well of course there is good music and bad music, just like there are good and bad versions of all the things human beings make--music is a craft as much as an art... Substantial criticism of music is possible and would sound something like ‘the production is lacking because x, y, and z’ or ‘the band's sense of form is unbalanced, with transitions occupying far too significant a portion of each track’ or ‘this singer is out of tune to a degree that is distracting’ or so forth. It is also possible to critically consider composition/production and performance separately.”

This is another attractive option as far as criticism of music is concerned – the idea that it can rest on purely 'aesthetic' grounds. We speak this way all the time, and I think it's sort of a natural tendency – saying, for example, 'he isn't a very good piano player,' or 'she plays the guitar very well.'

The trouble with the aesthetic way of judging music is that – as naju noted above – it's utterly arbitrary. It depends entirely upon what standard one wishes to choose. There is, as far as I can tell, no pure and absolute ground of aesthetic value. You can say (to use the above examples) that 'the singer is out of tune' or 'the production is lacking,' but there are plenty of people who like the Shaggs, and when they talk about the aesthetic reasons why they like the Shaggs, they're just listing an utterly different standard, one that may as well be just as good. This was sort of one of the lessons of punk, I think: the old notion of 'relative aesthetic worth' has pretty much been exploded by the successive iterations of rebellion against previous aesthetic standards. The only value left is moral justice.

Potomac Avenue: “The only dispute with the Koeslitz crew is about whether, once one appreciates all music as music, one can objectively rate some pieces or artists or genres as ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’ or some other Platonic thing. Which is a tough question in the abstract but easy in the particular. Nobody, not even the damned, can defend Creed. It somehow combines the brutishness of hard rock with the inoffensiveness of pop. We all hate it and we can all agree it isn't good. QED.”

MartinWisse: “There certainly is a long, proud tradition of rejecting degenerate, corrupt, entartete Musik.”

Certainly there is, and modern music is in large degree a working-out of the difficulties and dead ends wrapped up in that tradition. I am a fan of death metal, for example, and my sense is that a major theme in much of metal is the interplay between the perception many people have of "evil" music and objective truth and justice: the moral conundrums of degraded religion and society and our place in them, the problems faced by those unjustly rejected by such religions and societies, etc. Rock music in general, at its inception and throughout its incarnations (glam rock, punk music, etc) has dealt with similar issues.

But that doesn't mean that there aren't objective standards upon which music can be judged. And I want to be clear: I am not sure whether Creed is an example of music that is objectively evil. You could start to make the argument that it betrays the premise of rock music generally, as I described it above anyway, and that betrayal seems a lot like a moral wrong; but it's more on the level of lying to a friend about something minor. The real question ought to be: what actual, objective harm has Creed caused to human beings?

I understand seeing that as a futile question. However: if we believe, as I do, that music can do objective good for human beings, then we ultimately have to believe that some music is actually objectively harmful.

Above, I cited Prussian Blue as an example of this; that may seem a bit inflammatory, but I think we have to look to the far end of the spectrum of musical evil to understand what it means for music to be actively harmful to human beings. Prussian Blue sang songs that made white supremacy seem noble and put a kind, gentle face on genocide. This is a real evil.

There's some to be said here about lyrical content – the fact that that is part of music, too, so the lyrical content of a song, its rightness and wrongness, is inextricably linked to the moral character of a song. But I've probably said enough here for now.
posted by koeselitz at 9:04 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


The only value left is moral justice.

Sorry to be dim, but can you explain? I get really weirded out when people talk about art's value in terms of "morals."
posted by naju at 9:12 AM on October 19, 2014


Well – I'll try to say it as directly as possible. It is possible for people to say evil things. A speech urging genocide is objectively evil. A speech urging conciliation and love can be objectively good. Music is just communication, and expression of things people share, so it's also possible to say evil things through music. I did give an example above of a group of people who actually used music to urge genocide. They were not the first to do so, either.
posted by koeselitz at 9:17 AM on October 19, 2014


This is only true if you cut off certain forms of artifice as "not really art."

I don't believe that anything is "not really art," and I have no idea how you made that connection.

I did give an example above of a group of people who actually used music to urge genocide.

Is it your position, then, that Kenny G uses his music to urge ... something? Complacency perhaps?
posted by LogicalDash at 9:20 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'd buy an album by 'Kenny Genocide.'
posted by colie at 9:23 AM on October 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


This is a really basic and maybe stupid example of what koeselitz describes, but I remember, after a dance that I had to monitor at a summer camp, being incredibly grateful to Owl City's "Fireflies", which I'd previously thought was just mush, in the context of an overly-sweaty and hormonal dance floor. That there was a pop song that catchy, that danceable, and yet that soothing, relatively speaking, was a great relief to me, in the context of Max Martin's "all aggro all the time" phase of production. Everything else at the time felt ridiculously aggressive, even invasive, when it was being blasted by a shitty DJ at a bunch of adolescents, but "Fireflies", down to its arrangements, felt like its antithesis.

As somewhat of a pop outsider, with a knack for completely avoiding radios which're playing the popular songs of the day, I feel like in my observation of pop culture there've been some peaks and troughs. It felt like there was a period of time where every song was about making ladies give guys head, and that felt intensely uncomfortable to me; there was also a phase concurrently with part of the Twilight series in which every song was "nice and romantic" in a way that felt grossly misogynistic to me. I dunno if that was really all that was on the air at the time, but my cross-section of pop felt pretty icky in both those cases.

On the other hand, I think we're in a pretty fucking terrific place right now, to the point that even the artists I'm not especially fond of — I find Beyonce really boring, even as I respect the shit out of her craft — are generally putting out a pretty awesome message. I love Nicki Minaj, I love Kanye, I think Miley Cyrus is doing something really fun (albeit in occasionally-problematic ways) and that Wrecking Ball is pretty terrific. I feel the same way about Mumford and Sons that Hank Hill felt about Christian rock, but I also know for a fact that they've opened the door for a lot of people to get really, really into bluegrass, so their own relative mediocrity I can ignore, especially since their only crime is being a little bit too pleasant. So yay 2014 pop!

on preview: Sometimes I wonder about the moral dilemma of something (or somethings) which are bland, messageless, and overly simple dominating culture to the extent that they drown out the potential for more meaningful art where they exist. There's a story about the early days of Apple in which Steve Jobs calculates how many lifetimes could be saved by something as simple as making a computer boot ten seconds more quickly for five million people a day, and obviously that kind of utilitarian approach to ethics only gets you so far, but I do wonder.

Generally I think of that kind of morality as something which can only be a range of positive values, i.e. even really bland and useless art is positive in a way, it's just not as positive as the things which I like more. But it's why I really appreciate all the various flavors of pop which strive to add more to their music than just what's strictly necessary. I'm a pretty big fan of the National, even though they're pretty one-note tonally, because I appreciate how much craft they put into making a type of song that's usually far less well-constructed. When I'm in a mood where I need a National-type song, they've created a whole catalogue of beautifully-crafted, rhythmically intricate songs that fit that mood. Though they could still be a lot better and more interesting and more urgent and keep the things in their songs that make people want to listen, in my oh-so-humble opinion.
posted by rorgy at 9:28 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Presumably there's a universe where I'd find Prussian Blue's music utterly incredible, spiritual, life-affirming - even while I find their message and lyrics truly execrable - and I'd be forced to resolve that conflict. Luckily that's not the case. But I 'm curious how you'd work through that situation. Other situations - such as bands that flirt with appropriating fascist sentiments while using them for other purposes - invite confusion and examination. Anyway, a speech urging love is not "objectively" good, nor is a speech urging genocide the opposite. I don't know how we can resolve these apparent disagreements. And speaking just for myself, there is no moral consideration in my judgment of music qua music. There's no morality embedded in notes and silences and timbres. Lyrics aren't the entire picture. (For me, lyrics are likely to be nearly an afterthought in a lot of situations.)
posted by naju at 9:34 AM on October 19, 2014


Also! I think Prussian Blue would agree with you that music should be judged on moral character. That sentiment is scary in the way it mirrors fascist thought. Not to Godwin the thread, but hey, I guess that ship sailed haha.
posted by naju at 9:38 AM on October 19, 2014


(Black metal fans, by the way, are totally used to being forced to resolve the conflict between music they find incredible, and artists who hold repugnant views.)
posted by naju at 9:45 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


> Aside from objectionable lyrics, how can music be bad for you?

Objectionable lyrics, precisely.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:51 AM on October 19, 2014


There's no morality embedded in notes and silences and timbres. Lyrics aren't the entire picture.

I actually want to take the opposite stance of koeselitz here and say that I am far more convinced in the morality inherent in notes/silences/timbres than I am in the moral value of music's having to come from the lyrics. (I love lyrics, don't get me wrong, but they're almost a separate artform.) I do think that more surprising, delightful, intriguing, beautiful music has a moral value to it that other music does not, and that as time's gone on, the music I gravitate towards is as much a search for more beautiful and incredible works of art as it is an evolution of my personal taste. I often go back to old favorites, moreover, and realize that they were far better-made than I was capable of consciously realizing at the time; I feel that that's an indicator of the fact that well-made music speaks to people even if they don't understand why it does speak to them.

The way I've been thinking about art for the last couple years is that, to some extent, it's a matter of density — density of thought or idea or effort or texture or really anything. The trickiest thing about discussing art is that the place where the ideas happen or where you're meant to focus or to understand shifts in every work, to the extent that you can't start to make a judgment about whether something's doing something well unless you have at least a hint about what that thing's doing and a willingness to accept that objective for its own sake. (I immediately want to double back, however, and say that those objectives themselves could be judged on a moral plane, with the same recursive warning that you can't judge those objectives without some understanding of context and yadda yadda yadda.)

All that throws a wrench into the attempt to make moral judgments about art — which, to my mind, is a good thing, because Jesus Christ can discussing morality lead to scary, scary places. If morality is to have any value, then discussing it ought to be an inherently difficult thing — i.e., it should require a lot of dedicated focus on the parts of both individuals and on the discussion which exists between its participants. I feel that to some extent, it is only possible to talk about the goodness of the things which you know to be good with any amount of confidence whatsoever. Yet that doesn't give rise to my agreeing with the initial argument in this post; I think that you can say meaningful things in negative criticism by explaining what things you do find valuable and cherish, while contrasting that to a thing which you feel lacks those values.

The trick in both cases, I think, is to be aware of what things are and what they are not. If you want to talk about how beautiful a song is, it helps to know all of the things which that song doesn't even attempt to do, so you can better articulate what makes this given wonderful thing so special and unique within its constraints. If you want to shit upon somebody else's favorite band — and boy, do I! — then it helps to be able to acknowledge all of that band's achievements so that you can then point to the thing which you feel it lacks, or which you feel their attempts to create what they want to create have somehow fallen short. Ultimately, it comes down to whether or not the praise or the critique that you're offering is truly worthy of being offered up; I find that I'm generally much happier when I write praise than when I write critique, but I have devoured literal books of criticism on C. S. Lewis and Arcade Fire that were thought-provoking and joyous to an extreme. Some people find it easier to talk about what makes something valuable with the added final context of "...and this thing definitely isn't."

(If I think there's a moral dimension to lyrics in the context of musical formation, it's that more potent lyrics demand more precision in their delivery. The tighter you intend to focus your words' meanings, the more you have to construct a powerful song around them to do those words justice. My favorite example of this is the many, many variations on Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", which take potent words and interpret them in so many different manners that everybody's favorite covers seem to become the ones which do the most justice to what they feel the words mean. I love Cohen's and John Cale's versions in two entirely different ways, am impartial to k. d. lang's, and consider people's lavish praise of the Jeff Buckley version to be an implicit admission of their sins, but all those reactions say as much about my interpretations of the lyrics as they do about the various arrangements themselves. I could see myself growing up and changing my preferences entirely, just because I suddenly find something in the lyrics which I'd missed before.)
posted by rorgy at 9:57 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


naju: “Also! I think Prussian Blue would agree with you that music should be judged on moral character. That sentiment is scary in the way it mirrors fascist thought. Not to Godwin the thread, but hey, I guess that ship sailed haha.”

You said above that "to assign 'good' and 'bad' to languages, to dialects, to expressions and utterances within languages" doesn't make sense to you. But if this is the case – if we really and truly can't say anything that is actually good or evil – and if, as seems clear, we can talk about actions, and in fact talking is an action – then there's really no such thing as right or wrong, anyway.

In which case I shouldn't care about being anything like Prussian Blue at all.

But you'll notice I don't agree. There is an objective good. And I'll go further: much of the rhetorical strength of Nazism came precisely from this blurring of the lines of justice and injustice. In the eyes of fascism, there was no objective justice – only personal interests, whether individual or collective, from 'I would like a sandwich' to 'we must preserve the inner might and glory of the master race.' They saw justice as a lie invented to subjugate and enslave the superior beings.

It's a common thing nowadays to believe that any whiff of morality or thought about justice is restrictive, and is the path to fascism. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, the opposite is true: what allowed the rise of fascism was a belief that moral truth is outdated, unimportant, worth moving beyond.

naju: “(Black metal fans, by the way, are totally used to being forced to resolve the conflict between music they find incredible, and artists who hold repugnant views.)”

True. But that doesn't mean they reject the entire conception of justice or good.
posted by koeselitz at 11:01 AM on October 19, 2014


The real question ought to be: what actual, objective harm has Creed caused to human beings?

Given that there are only a limited number of minutes/seconds in a day, every Creed song ever played on radio or whatever has denied us the relevant, beautiful, good music that might otherwise have occupied those minutes/seconds. This is a crime against humanity, a comparatively minor one, but nevertheless a crime.

This gets back to my admittedly sloppily presented position that the strongest argument against bad music is a political argument. Why is Creed* bad? Because their imposition unto listeners of sonic torture-terror-oppression-ugliness-boredom serves the interests of POWER if only by denying listeners the actually good stuff that might have occupied the same airwaves (or whatever).

or as rorgy put it ...

Sometimes I wonder about the moral dilemma of something (or somethings) which are bland, messageless, and overly simple dominating culture to the extent that they drown out the potential for more meaningful art where they exist.

* The same can be said for Kenny G, although his album The Genocide Sessions is actually well worth a listen.
posted by philip-random at 11:04 AM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


You said above that "to assign 'good' and 'bad' to languages, to dialects, to expressions and utterances within languages" doesn't make sense to you. But if this is the case – if we really and truly can't say anything that is actually good or evil – and if, as seems clear, we can talk about actions, and in fact talking is an action – then there's really no such thing as right or wrong, anyway.

I dunno, this seems like the classic misunderstanding of postmodernism as completely morally relativist leading to the void of nihilism. It's not that we can't say anything is actually good or evil, or that there's no such thing as right or wrong - it's that truth is always contingent on the person doing the valuation, and it's that there are as many good/evil/right/wrong judgments as there are people doing the judging. Personally I have strong opinions but I don't think in terms of "good" and "evil" and find those terms unnecessarily loaded and restrictive in all sorts of ways, so it appears my particular truths are different from your truths in how we fundamentally think about them, even if we agree. And that's fine. We can have productive conversations about it. But those conversations, maybe all conversations, are about coming to terms with understanding each other's truths. It's not about objective, well, anything. (I guess we're sliding quickly into philosophical mumbo jumbo instead of music, hmm.)
posted by naju at 11:19 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Phillip-random, that's not why Creed is bad, that's why it is Bad that they are Bad. If you know what I mean.

They are Bad because [500 words about the flaws in their music, production, lyrical content, cultural significance, fashion sense, and every other aspect of being a musical artist] ie they are bad because they are bad.

Formalism is the ultimate in morality. Beauty is the Good. Ugliness is also The Good. Creed is simply Non-being: the absence of form. Shit I think I agree with Rory.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:53 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Philosophical Mumbo Jumbo is my second favorite Dr. John album.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:55 AM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I dunno, this seems like the classic misunderstanding of postmodernism as completely morally relativist leading to the void of nihilism. It's not that we can't say anything is actually good or evil, or that there's no such thing as right or wrong - it's that truth is always contingent on the person doing the valuation, and it's that there are as many good/evil/right/wrong judgments as there are people doing the judging. Personally I have strong opinions but I don't think in terms of "good" and "evil" and find those terms unnecessarily loaded and restrictive in all sorts of ways, so it appears my particular truths are different from your truths in how we fundamentally think about them, even if we agree. And that's fine. We can have productive conversations about it. But those conversations, maybe all conversations, are about coming to terms with understanding each other's truths. It's not about objective, well, anything. (I guess we're sliding quickly into philosophical mumbo jumbo instead of music, hmm.)

Postmodernism isn't nihilistic, but it is basically attenuated liberalism, discourse without end which never entirely enables a basis for non-discursive activity. Since we keep doing things, we need a way to choose or prefer which things to do. Postmodernism is good at deferral, and good at looking at completed actions, and good perhaps at imposing a kind of humility on actors and interpreters, but not very good at engaging the present or developing projects for the future. (Indeed, it requires profound skepticism of any such projects.) It's profoundly concerned with ethics, but by framing every ethics, every aesthetics, and indeed every action or signification as contingent and situated it hands the balance of power back over to the well-situated in every arena except that of history.
posted by kewb at 2:21 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


There's a lot in there I don't agree with, but - "good at looking at completed actions" - isn't that what music appreciation/reflection/criticism essentially is? Looking at completed actions? And I do think it's incredibly important to impose a kind of humility on interpreters. I think it's much more valuable to interrogate our interpretive prejudices than to brashly assert them, in music and lots of other venues. I'm skeptical of canon-forming statements. I think that's really healthy. I think asserting "Creed is objectively bad" is really unhealthy. And I think there's lots of things, endless things, we can talk about within this contingent and (hopefully) contemplative framework, so nothing's really being precluded by its postmodern basis. I'm not telling anyone that they can't like things, or that they can't talk about why they don't like them. But understanding that not liking something is a function of where your particular head is at, not some sort of objective truth, is super important.
posted by naju at 2:42 PM on October 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I guess that's where we part ways then friend. I am all about "what's good about Taylor Swift" or smooth jazz or Dubstep or etc. but that is meaningless unless there's some not good things in music, of which creed is, fundamentally, 100% composed.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:01 PM on October 19, 2014


But understanding that not liking something is a function of where your particular head is at, not some sort of objective truth, is super important.

in spite of various eruptions of hyperbole, I honestly don't believe that anyone in this thread is arguing (with a straight face anyway) that their likes/dislikes are akin to objective truth.
posted by philip-random at 3:03 PM on October 19, 2014


Creed without form? If anything, their music shares the quality, alongside the majority of pop music of being exceedingly formalized, under a very narrow set of rules. There are constraints on duration, timbre, chord structure, melody, tempo, amplitude, the clothing they wear, their use of language... I could go on and on. And these rules change very slowly and only after much struggle and controversy.
posted by idiopath at 3:23 PM on October 19, 2014


philip-random - I'm seeing it argued in various ways throughout the thread. Objective re: music theory and production techniques, objective re: the Beatles having consensus appreciation, objective re: Creed having no redeeming qualities, objective re: Prussian Blue being unquestionable evil, objective re: bad music causing active physiological harm to our bodies, etc. If I'm misunderstanding and we all actually agree, then I don't know how to interpret that stuff. And again, my response is to step back and think about why you feel that way (just a good approach to art in general), which has also received pushback. Let's find common ground though!
posted by naju at 3:42 PM on October 19, 2014


P.S. You just know there's going to be a future generation that reclaims Creed from the dustbin of history as brilliant songsmiths speaking to the fundamental dilemmas and religious conflicts of their time in ways no one could see clear enough to comprehend, and it's going to leave us all completely bewildered and it'll be fucking awesome.
posted by naju at 3:45 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


To be clear, naju, I was the only one making claims about physical harm, and it isn't bad music, but music that is too loud (which is most of it these days, in the live setting).
posted by idiopath at 4:21 PM on October 19, 2014



♫ ♫ ♫ ♬♬♬♩♫ ♫ ♫ ♬♬♬♩
Well I just heard the news today
It seems my life is going to change
I close my eyes, begin to pray
Then tears of joy stream down my faaaaaaaace
♫ ♫ ♫ ♬♬♬♩

♫ ♫ ♫ ♬♬♬♩
With arms wide open
Under the sunlight
Welcome toooooo this place
I'll show you everythiiiiiiing
With arms wide open
With arms wide open
♫ ♫ ♫ ♬♬♬♩

posted by signal at 4:35 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


naju: “I dunno, this seems like the classic misunderstanding of postmodernism as completely morally relativist leading to the void of nihilism. It's not that we can't say anything is actually good or evil, or that there's no such thing as right or wrong - it's that truth is always contingent on the person doing the valuation, and it's that there are as many good/evil/right/wrong judgments as there are people doing the judging. Personally I have strong opinions but I don't think in terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and find those terms unnecessarily loaded and restrictive in all sorts of ways, so it appears my particular truths are different from your truths in how we fundamentally think about them, even if we agree.”

We clearly don't agree. And I have to say – this isn't a misunderstanding, although I appreciate the seductive nature of the hope that there is a world where we don't have to disagree about right and wrong or good and evil. It would be wonderful to live in such a world. A lot of us nowadays are so all-fired lucky that we get to believe that such a world exists, and postmodernism is thus viable for us. But anyone who's ever been deeply wronged, who's been the victim of evil, or who has just had to face up to the problems of trying to govern or be a citizen in a society where people do bad things, has had to deal with these problems directly, and has had to have the respect for themselves and for others that is required for them to say certain things are or are not good or evil. The notion that these categories are just restrictions that don't serve us in any way is a notion borne from the deepest privilege.

But you're right – we're pretty far afield. Still, I think this is worth thinking about. I've been reading Plato's Laws while thinking about this, and my mind keeps flashing back to a bit in the third book when the Athenian Stranger claims (perhaps playfully) that the unlawfulness of Athens started with an unlawfulness in music – that the arrogance that leads all human beings to believe themselves wise, about music and about everything else, is the same arrogance that led them to leave aside the laws of the city and think themselves wise enough to make their own laws – and that the belief that the only standard is pleasure is what led people to leave aside any deeper or higher law.
posted by koeselitz at 11:40 PM on October 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'd appreciate being given the benefit of the doubt - I've been deeply wronged, yes, I'm acutely aware of injustice in my society, and I'm not speaking from deepest privilege, really - but overall I've found this discussion pretty interesting, thanks.
posted by naju at 12:13 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


(If it helps alleviate anything considering how horrific and privileged I seem to be- my own personal worldview is something I consider deeply spiritual, radically empathetic, and highly concerned with being a good person in the world. I haven't gone into detail about it, because what I personally believe is neither here nor there. The postmodern underpinnings of art, criticism, interpretation and truth are what's relevant for me here, not my own wacked-out and highly subjective moral framework, haha. Hope that helps, if not, oh well.)
posted by naju at 12:40 AM on October 20, 2014


This article was a little slight but interesting. The straw arguments he presented are there because they're real. I know I've heard nearly all of those dismissals in the wild.

I know I didn't like the first Tom Waits I heard, but I got over that. The first time I heard Metallica I really liked the music but couldn't deal with James Hetfield; now I happily listen to black metal.

Which leads me into what the thread has morphed into. I think I understand the idea that "beautiful" music is good but that just pushes the argument back to defining "beautiful." There are many, many ways to be beautiful, and not all of them are going to appeal to everyone.
posted by mountmccabe at 11:12 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


And, honestly, if we're going to argue that Creed are evil because they've taken up air time/rack space/concert halls that could be given to other music than I'd request expanding that argument to the Beatles. The Beatles have a lot of great music but they have such a stranglehold on culture that they've taken air time/rack space from other great acts of the 60s (and the 50s and 70s and every other decade).

I could make the same argument for Beethoven and I'm listening to his second symphony as I type.

I can't consider the music of Creed to be evil. The forces that brought it about and pushed it on everybody... arguments could be made but I don't see how that ruins the music. I don't have any love for it and prefer most other things so I mostly just don't spend my time on it. But at some point I will listen to a Creed song again, maybe on purpose even, and I'm sure I will have a fun, ohhhh, yeah, moment of memory and it will be a good thing. Then I will fix that playlist.
posted by mountmccabe at 11:24 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Hello! I am the author of the OP article. I'm glad to see that it sparked intelligent conversation somewhere, and that MeFi became that place. Discussion doesn't really happen on Medium, and Twitter is a pretty crappy platform for talking about art.

Lots of good thoughts above. I'm late to this and not well-read when it comes to nihilism or postmodernism, but I'll throw out a few thoughts about where I was coming from with this article, and I'll respond indirectly to a few comments.

First-off: I wasn't satisfied with the piece when I published it. I wrote it quickly during a very busy day, and I sort of wanted to get it out of my system and be done with it. Some of the connections are fuzzy, and in places (e.g. trying to summarize potential value of Tom Waits) I sort of settled for only vaguely music-criticish sounding language. Still, I'm glad parts of the piece are resonating with a few readers. If it comes off as patronizing, it may be because I'm coming from a somewhat defensive, frustrated place.

I think I tried to mash two things together: A) a personal blog post where I emotionally declare/defend my love for a specific pop song to those friends who can't understand why I'd listen to it, and B) a more rational attempt to rough out, via this example, a framework for thinking about the work and experience required for empathy and openness. Not sure I did either of those well. I tend to be more interested in encouraging open-mindedness than I am in debating objectivity vs subjectivity in Art.

For me, the most interesting section is the paragraph where I trace a specific thread of my consumption (Artist --> Artist --> Artist) to explain how I became primed for this song. And of course those follow a genre; I could trace an entirely different vector through my hip-hop consumption to explain how I was primed to be obsessed with the Run the Jewels album. I'd love to see other people do this for music that they enjoy that I tend to dismiss, so I can better understand how they developed their taste. It's kind of a fun exercise.

For the faux-dismissals, I deliberately chose established mainstream artists (Kanye, Tool, Dylan, Beck), because the dismissing phrases were familiar to me, snippets of commentary I've read or heard many times, and I thought they might help readers think about what assumptions they bring to other artists or genres. Anyway, if you thought this piece was condescending, just imagine the one where I defend my love of Neu, Steve Reich, the Shaggs, Captain Beefheart, Ant-Pop Consortium, Sun Ra, and Joanna Newsom. Maybe those aren't as esoteric as I think they are. But the point is: don't I sound smart?

(BTW, I think the connections between Vampire Weekend and Graceland is pretty well-treaded territory. And in addition to many music critics, both Ezra from VW and Paul Simon have commented on this. Certainly that overlap involves more general Afropop melodies and Los Lobos guitar sounds than it does Ladysmith Black Mambazo.)

Maybe this article should have just stated: It took me a long time to understand that a whole world of pop songs were worth my emotional and intellectual exploration. In the terms of pop music, distilled emotional themes and I-V-vi-IV progressions are a feature rather than a bug. It's as if the *idea* of the song (the underlying memetics, virality, impact) are more important than the actual production. I don't listen to other music in this way, so this discovery has been really, really satisfying for me. I now believe that a pop deserves close listening. If my perspective on this changed, what else am I missing in other fields of creativity?

Or, maybe: I made an emotional connection with a song. Now I'm working too hard to build a supporting analytical argument so smart people will still think I'm smart.
posted by sixfoot6 at 1:31 PM on October 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


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