“You’re favorite bands suck! Trust me, they SUCK.”
Why do I like them then?
“I’m telling you that the band members cannot play their instruments, and their lyrics are stupid. They ripped off just about everything they did from better artists, and they weren’t very good people.”
What’s the difference between my favorite bands and the more technically proficient musicians playing meaningful, important songs? The arguments that critics and other music experts make involve a long, complicated algorithm that involves, in part, the technical proficiency that their well-trained ears hear, meaningful, important lyrics, and insider stories that detail performance inadequacies. These insiders write about moments our favorite guitarist couldn’t complete a complicated riff, and the record company, or the producer, had to call in a studio musician to do it. They know that our favorite music involves drum machines and drum samples that our favorite drummer wasn’t talented enough to complete to anyone’s satisfaction, and they know when technical wizards enhance the vocalist’s voice in parts. They tell us about how our favorite albums, by our favorite musicians, were tweaked in final mixing process, with special effects boxes, overdubs, and everything that the non-musicians accomplished in the high priced studio for the right money.
“Your favorite album, from your favorite artist, is a fraud perpetuated on the public,” they say. “It is an overly produced, computer enhanced contrivance that your favorite artist will never be able to play live without assistance.”
For the rest of us, this long and complicated algorithm ends in a big fat, “No one cares!” box. No one cares if the lyrics in these songs are deep and meaningful. Some do, of course, as they want others to view them in a serious light, so they avoid silly music with silly lyrics. Most people consider lyrics anywhere from silly to irrelevant. They might seek out the lyrics to find out what the vocalist is singing in the song, but most people don’t care one way or another if the lyrics prove sophomoric. Most of us bake that idea into our listening experience. Most meaningful, important music is woefully overrated. Most of us also don’t care if our favorite musicians are good people or bad people either. Cringe worthy headlines might stain the reputation of a musician, but our emotional attachment to most musicians does not extend to their personal life. Experts and critics don’t consider this an adequate defense. They require us to defend our favorite musician based on their criteria.
We know that if we enter into a debate with experts and critics, standing toe-to-toe, to defend our favorite band, they would beat us to pulp. If our debate had an audience, would these critics and experts persuade anyone in that audience? Would they care? Who is their audience? Are they trying to persuade us, or are they writing these critiques to one another? How many sacred cows of rock receive less than four stars? Are critics afraid that no one will invite them to cocktail parties if they violate the standard ratings?
We know most experts and critics can hear technical proficiency better than we can, and we know that all of the reasons we have for enjoying one band over another are tough to explain, except to say our appreciation for creative flair is greater than our appreciation for technical proficiency.
The experts will also tell us everything we want to know, and some that we don’t, about better artists who didn’t achieve one-fourth the acclaim our favorite artists did. They will comb through the historical timeline and lament the cheated artists who were better at the craft, and they’ll tell us how our favorite artists stole the sound of those artists and simplified it for mass appeal. They’ll tell us something about those time and place intangibles that factor into the equation of how one artist achieves more popularity over another. They’ll tell us about some kind of successful, but contrived appeal our favorite artists made to achieve fame. They’ll also tell us that our favorite artist is a well-packaged marketing gimmick for people who know nothing about real music. Some of them will then give us a list of artists we should be listening to instead, and some of us will give those artists a listen.
Most naysayers do not list their favorite groups, because if they say that our favorite bands suck, and they offer an alternative, we might think their favorite bands suck. It diminishes a contrarian’s argument to provide an alternative, but putting themselves in such a position is also admirable in that sense. If we find their argument compelling, on that basis, we might listen to their favorite artists. After a couple listens, we might admit that their band is probably technically superior, but they don’t display the same creative flair our favorite bands did. Something is missing, as their band failed to capture the magic our favorite band did.
Even if our favorite artist is guilty of all of the above, we think the people involved in the album(s) created something that the more accomplished, and perhaps more deserving, artists either wouldn’t or couldn’t achieve. At this point in the argument, the experts might ask us why we fell in love with our favorite band. Was it the iconography that surrounded our favorite artist at the time, and did your peers convince you that they were great? Were they a better celebrity? Did our favorite artists have a better voice, were they better looking, or did they have some other superficial appeal that we found more pleasing than the better artist’s appeal? This is difficult to answer for most of us, because most of our attachments to music are emotional, as opposed to rational, and we cannot defend or explain why we prefer our bands to theirs, but we’re also not susceptible to having our minds changed on the subject.
I used to be that guy. I used to engage in the “my music is better than yours” childish game that some critics and music experts do. I don’t think I ever said those words, but I thought you would know the truth the minute you heard it. Even though I had no personal stake in my favorite band’s success, I loved their music so much that it became “my music”. I introduced “my music” to everyone I knew. For all of the reasons inherent in why we identify with our music, I was personally insulted when they didn’t enjoy it, and I considered far too gratifying when they did. I was far too proud to be the one who “discovered” the band among my peers. I think I considered it creativity on my part. I knew the joy I felt was vicarious, but I wasn’t doing anything else creative at that point in my life, so I think it filled that void.
The problem others had with “my music” was that it was silly. My serious music aficionado friends wouldn’t go anywhere near that group, that album, or that track on the album, lest they be hit by the stank of unserious music. They didn’t want anyone to consider them silly. If I attempted to promote a new album, they said, “Didn’t you like that track from that one album?” I did, I responded, I do. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with silly songs. I don’t understand why serious aficionados dismiss a whole chunk of music because it’s unserious. My music doesn’t focus on depression, pain, anger, anti-social behavior, relationships, drug addiction (primarily heroin), war, death, and other emotionally charged topics.
One particular instance involved an “undiscovered gem” I found from an “undiscovered” artist. That album blew my mind at the time, and I still, thirty years later, consider that album one of the top ten of all time. I wanted to be that guy who introduced that album to everyone I knew. I considered the album the product of creative geniuses. The music on that album spoke to me on a level I felt compelled to share with everyone I knew. Everyone I forced to listen to this album enjoyed it, but no one I knew bought it. Three years later, another band stole their sound. This other band personalized that sound a little here and tweaked it little there to make it fit with the zeitgeist better. I loved that album too, and I introduced it to everyone I knew. Everyone I knew loved it, and everyone I knew bought it. That album sold five million copies. This band went on to national acclaim, and critics still recognize them as one of the greatest, most original artists of all time. Yet, they stole that sound, and I learned later that they publicly admitted it. The band that I declared one of my favorite artists currently carries an asterisk no artist wants of being critically acclaimed, but never well received.
What was the difference between these two bands? The answer, again, involves a complicated, multi-tiered algorithm that takes us through a wide variety of boxes that might explain how one critically acclaimed band succeeds while another one does not, but it, too, ends in another big fat, “No one cares!” box. The artists who do not succeed probably went through a similar, frustrating algorithm that included paying their dues through exhaustive touring, spending mind-numbing hours in studios, doing radio interviews, and various other promotion efforts, until it ended in a big fat, “Thems the breaks” box to explain why they didn’t succeed. To the fans who, like me, vicariously wallowed in the misery of watching their favorite artist do everything required to succeed, only to end up in the bargain bin of record stores, hearing thems-the-breaks and no one cares doesn’t sit well. My advice to all of you is save your breath, and don’t waste your time trying to convince your world of the band’s virtues. It makes no sense to us, the critics, or the experts why some bands succeed where others do not. It can be as simple as time and place, looks, and a well-designed, comprehensive package that hits for whatever reasons. What we consider the greatest music of all time might be relatively boring to others, and music is as relative as comedy.