Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Critical Ear & The Question 'Why?'

It's happened again. I've found myself blown away by the frivolous way people treat their music. Let me paint you a couple of pictures.

The first is of a decades-old rock band. They rocketed to the heights of musical stardom 25 years ago and they've announced the release of another new album. This is not a the-band-broke-up-and-then-got-back-together-after-a-really-long-time release. No, they've been more or less at the top of the music world for the past two-and-a-half decades and have been releasing albums and touring the entire time. They are a supergroup if ever there was one.

The new album drops and after not even listening to it one entire time, my worst fears for the record are confirmed: it sucks. The production and audio quality are terrible and the songwriting is mediocre, at best. The band sounds absolutely uninspired on the record and completely out of their depth with whatever they were trying to accomplish with this new musical direction. Nevertheless, to my never-ending frustration, most every music rag comes out with nothing but praise for the record, saying it's the group's best effort since the late '80s. There is obviously some cloak and dagger chicanery going on with all the press, because, to any kind of objective observer (even one very biased towards fandom for the group), this is most definitely not the group's best effort. At anything. Ever. They haven't put out a crap record in more than two decades and yet, here we are. No matter, though, claims the press. The greatness of this latest album is plain for everyone to see.

The second case is a younger cat. He's had a small handful of major label releases and has established himself as a serious writer and musician amongst a field currently dominated by radio pop and bachelorette party music. Nevertheless, he is hailed as something much more than he is: given the backdrop of all the other popular musical groups around him, he comes off much better than he happens to be, comparisons being what they are (which is to say, subjective and relative).

Because of all the positive press and constant upper-tier attention his music gets, people become convinced that everything he ever puts out is going to be great simply because he puts it out. Instead of judging it by any kind of musical standard, his fans declare his music amazing before it's even been released. The artist's fans let him determine what their musical taste are going to be, so, in a very real sense, he can never let them down. Whatever he touches is gold in their minds, and if you don't think so, it's your problem and not because he may have dropped the ball.

Both of these cases seem distressing to me. As a musician, I understand that I am a kind of specialist in the field. Like an auto mechanic with cars or an umpire with the game of baseball, I understand and comprehend a lot more of the minutae and little details of what makes up music - the difficulty of playing a certain part, the actual uniqueness of a given artist, the level of excellence poured into a particular song. I can hear that stuff better than most because I've been given gifts that allow me to do so and have trained on them for years. I get that not everyone has the kind of critical ear that we in the music world need to possess in order to do our jobs. I understand this and I understand that not everyone can relate to it.


What bothers me about these kinds of stories is not that people enjoy artists I don't. In the first case, I very much like the band in question. And, anyway, people are free to like whatever they want. That's part of the beauty of music - there is more than enough variety and diversity to accommodate everybody's singular tastes. But when people end up liking something because they're told to like it by somebody else, little clarions go off in my brain.

This is not to say that people shouldn't promote what they love and try to share it with others. I do that very thing right here on this blog. But pop music has an unusual characteristic about it - sometimes it's popular for every reason under the sun except its musical veracity. Nobody likes to be called a sheep, but when people spend their hard earned money on CDs, downloads, & concert tickets for music that they cannot even begin to articulate their love for beyond, "It's cool," or "I like it," the art itself is trouble. If someone can't answer the question, "Why?" after they say that they love something, what does that tell us?

All entertainment gets saddled with different labels and contexts in order to make it more economically viable. IE: we'll attach a song to a cool commercial so that when people hear it they will associate it with a cool consumer product, or we'll promote a movie according to who produced it (as if anyone ever sees a movie because of the producers) in an attempt to connect it with a previously popular film in the hopes that people will buy tickets, and yada yada yada. There's nothing inherently wrong with this kind of thing. It's business, advertising. Do what you gotta do. But for the rest of us: the fans, the consumers, the ones who very directly determine the success or failure of a piece of entertainment or art, I feel like there needs to be something deeper.

Love what you love because you love it, not because some writer for Rolling Stone told you to or because you think you're supposed to because it's the cool, hip thing of the moment. Know the answer to the question, "Why?" and don't let your tastes and preferences be dictated to you by others. If a particular book is a guilty pleasure, fine. At least it's your guilty pleasure. And if a song speaks something deep into your soul, great. But don't let what it speaks into your soul be the quiet assurance that you are now part of some cool kids group because you purchased a particular mp3.

Art, in all its forms, will end up meaning more to us both as a culture and as individual fans if we do the work of discovering why we love what we love. It's not hard, it just requires a little thought beyond what MTV would require of you. What we love says a lot about us. Let's make sure it's saying what we want it to.

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