the cliché of "bad music"

February 20th, 2009

One thing that has been pretty much a constant in my life is the regular attempts I observe at cultural stigma by condemning someone to be a fan of "bad music". Of course, this type of cultural stigma is no different from other kinds of stigma based mechanisms that play a part in the daily social power struggles and hustles over group membership.

But it's interesting to me that it works despite how flawed it is. Obviously, the premise for the "bad music" stigma is that we all agree on some common standard for what makes good music. This may have been possible in the past, with three radio stations to choose from and little selection in a record store. But today, with the amount of choice we have, and especially among people who discover music online, it just isn't.

You just can't make a meaningful statement about bad music when just about every person you meet has something in their collection that's just awful. And half the people (or more) consider this something a cornerstone of their collection.

As far as I'm concerned, metal was invented to help us agree on the definition of bad music. But that's actually not the whole story. It turns out that if you take groups like Metallica and Linkin Park, and make them stfu, they do sometimes produce interesting instrumental music. It's just that all the yelling gets in the way.

There are subtler examples. Take Katie Melua. She has a nice voice, her melodies are pleasant, nothing wrong with her it would seem. But then you hear the lyrics. And I often don't even notice (or care) about the lyrics, but hers are so simple minded and annoying that I can't stand it. Same goes for Maria Mena.

And so forth.

But the practical impossibility of a consensus is not even the biggest problem with the "bad music" category. The more serious problem is that we still don't know why or how music affects the brain. In the future, perhaps, we will know why particular harmonies or rhythms induce a positive response. And composers over the ages have surely understood this intuitively, using precisely those "atoms" of composition that please us. But noone has been able to explain why those. So for the time being, musical taste can only be a purely subjective matter. And "bad music" continues to be a contradiction in terms.

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