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Objectivity and taste: Should unpopular music mean worse?

I often read interviews in which musicians say things along the lines of ‘I only care about my fans – I don’t make music for critics; it’s all for the fans, man.’

While I am obviously a crazed music lover, I don’t often pay much attention to the ins and outs of what musicians say, unless I believe it will endow me with some insight and understanding of their music that I couldn’t get at from listening alone. This opinion, however, is far from uncommon in the music world and it got me thinking about the way we think about the quality of music and our judgement thereof.

As an independent music fan, it can be tempting to think of chart music as inferior, somehow in virtue of its wide appeal. Now, as unpleasant and snobby as this view undeniably is, what’s the alternative? To think of the charts and musical popularity as some kind of quality indicator? HA! No way.

xand yBut hang on! Why not?! Well, let me examine that. Here’s a few things we’ll need to have in place before I get going:

1. X is a major label artist who writes their own songs

2. Y is an unsigned artist who writes their own songs

3. X is more popular than Y

4. Popular means a lot of people like it:

“i. Liked, admired, or enjoyed by many people or by a particular person or group

ii. (of cultural activities or products) Intended for or suited to the taste, understanding, or means of the general public rather than specialists or intellectuals

iii. (of a belief or attitude) Held by the majority of the general public

iv. (of political activity) Of or carried on by the people as a whole rather than restricted to politicians or political parties” (Google)

5. Is X ‘better’ than Y? (Or rather, should that mean we start thinking X is better than Y?)

Right, here we go.

Ask most people how they make judgements about how good some song is and odds are they’ll say something about taste, and how the song relates to such taste. So, popular just means X fits within a lot of people’s tastes and Y fits within fewer people’s tastes. Let’s run with this thought.

Taste is all subjective…

Obviously, saying that X fits within the tastes of many people doesn’t actually imply that everybody has similar taste. Think of a Venn diagram if you can’t get your head around this. (In fact, think of a Venn diagram every time you struggle to think of anything – they never fail to help.) In fact, here’s a Venn diagram:

Venn Diagram

Each intersection represents an artist and each circle represents a person’s overall taste.

All it implies is that X happens to appeal to people of differing taste, which is also in line with a common view about taste – namely, that it’s hugely subjective, varies very much according to the person and provides us with no objective, universal grounds on which to judge music.

This sort of view could imply that neither X nor Y is actually ‘better’ than the other. Our taste dictates our response to their musical output, and because this reaction is so subtle and non-aggressive, we attribute some sort of quality or lack thereof to their works, as though this value judgement is an actual property of their works, rather than a product of a feeling based on taste. Just because X is in the top 10, it doesn’t mean their song is better than Y’s, which has yet to chart.

For example, I watch this:

And my immediate feeling is: “eurgh.” I thus attribute the property of ‘being terrible’ to this song, and furthermore, David Guetta.

But, this view of taste as subjective says I am wrong to think of David Guetta as being terrible. My reaction should only reflect on my taste – it is a property that belongs to me, namely the property of ‘inducing eurgh-ness for me’, much like carrots make me feel sick, but they do not possess the property of being ‘sick inducing’ full stop. It is not a property belonging to Guetta. I am the one who infers a property as belonging to Guetta.

Result: It would be irrational to claim that X or Y is better than the other. ‘Goodness’ is not a property belonging to works or artists. Rather, properties of taste belong to whoever is judging something’s value.

Where, then, does this leave music critics? Should they all quit their jobs and give tautological reviews saying that X and Y will appeal to whoever is likely to like X and Y? I suppose they could, but it wouldn’t do them any favors in justifying their purpose.

The Role of the Critic

In modern terms, a culture critic is someone who is paid to offer opinions and value judgements which are perceived to be authoritative in some way on artistic works.

When X or Y says that they don’t care what the critics think, they are presumably disputing this authority in some way and if it’s genuinely irrational to think one song can be objectively better than the other, then indeed, this authority does look to be in danger a little.

The strange thing about this, though, is that plenty of artists do enjoy critical praise, and some rely on it. Especially, perhaps, Y, our unsigned artist.

Even if taste is subjective, I believe there is one sense in which the critic still plays a vital role, namely, that their subjective opinion can be better informed than mine.

Now, without assuming a load of stuff about ‘what it takes to understand music’, it seems plausible to claim that one person’s taste may be superior to another’s, which may seem to land us back at square one, but given that we are talking about properties of those who judge, rather than properties of that which is being judged, it actually suggests a whole new way of thinking about judgement more generally.

Say X and Y have written one song each this week. Both X and Y’s songs reference the golden age of political hip hop, and make some comment about how that age is gone ever since Notorious BIG started talking about girls, gold and guns. The only relevant difference is that X accidentally stumbled upon this deeper meaning, and Y had intended to write a song commenting on this issue within Hip Hop. There does seem to be something superior about Y’s song because of this.

It is perhaps this kind of external factor – an influence which isn’t actually a feature of Y’s song – which the critic is able to inform us of.

The critic can tell us which traditions Y is working in/transgressing against/manipulating in their music. We certainly assume that critics possess superior knowledge about musical history and this cultural and contextual understanding can alter our tastes and the way we think about songs.

You can only really assess stuff relative to its aims, so understanding aims is often the first step to critical judgement.

Consider Die Antwoord’s ‘Evil Boy’:

A song I found vulgar, offensive and perplexing upon first lesson, but mainly ’cause I had no idea what they were trying to convey. Read this VERY VERY NSFW AND EXPLICIT article:

Feel differently? Yeah, so did I.

In short, critics can pick up on features which, though not belonging to works themselves, can affect our understanding of work and while these external factors may not actually influence how good a song is, they inform understanding. Understanding a song’s aim is key to assessing how well it achieves this aim and the skill of its creator. No-one’s gonna congratulate Bob Dylan for writing club anthems, but political poems and American epics? He’s got that down.

Universal Standards

Now, all of this aside, there is just some stuff that seems objectively bad, isn’t there? Even if it happens to be popular?

This suggests that, while we should think about taste and the relative quality of songcraft differently, there could be some kind of universal standard against which we judge music.

Now, I don’t want to go too far into the ins and outs of music theory because I know absolutely nothing about it, but it seems fair to say that our entire musical system dictates the quality of melody, to a certain extent. This may be a tricky line to walk, though, because musical systems are often very very culturally influenced. For example, Eastern music may not even sound like music to Western ears and vice versa. This isn’t because either is ‘wrong’; this is because we’re not plotting on the same graphs.

In this sense, there can be no ‘universal’ standards, but it seems fair to say that there can be regional or continental ones, and perhaps the skill doesn’t lie in necessarily abiding by these standards, but by understanding them, whether execution manifests as deliberate violation or perfect mastery.

Combination View and Conclusion

Undeniably, music creation and criticism are very different skills, and many artists are capable of creating great music without having sufficient rhyme or reason to satisfactorily explain why. Aphex Twin, for example, claims to have listened to very little music in his life, implying that cultural understanding and manipulation has very little place in his music, and he is arguably one of the most influential electronic artists of the last few decades.

Conversely, on a more pretentious note, Nietzsche wrote extensively on music, and had a profound understanding of it, but when he tried to write his own, well, it was not received well. In fact, it was received astonishingly badly.

There does seem to be some sense in which the combination of cultural knowledge and musical mastery makes for the best music. I would count Radiohead as possessing both.

Popularity pertains only to taste and taste has nothing to with quality because it is not a property possessed by individual works, though external factors can contribute to quality indirectly. X being more popular amongst a given population than Y should only be considered a reflection of said population and their own propensity or predisposition to like one thing more than another.

In conclusion: X is not better than Y. Unpopular need never mean worse.



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