Hey kids, Popblerd here! As you may or may not know, I’ve been on a hunt for other writers in order to make the site a little less about me and a little more about music and culture. One of the first folks to step up was a very cool kid named Sam. Of course, calling his essay a “Blerdatorial” is kinda wrong, ’cause he isn’t a blerd, per se. But when you write on this site, you become an honorary blerd anyway! So preach on, Sam, and I hope this is the first of many articles by you on this site!-Ed.
The definition of ‘taste’ in a musical sense is as subjective as an individual’s actual appreciation of music. It can mean what a listener likes; just as often it can mean what a listener dislikes. By ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes,’ there exists an immediate subjectivity – how can we accurately explain what it is about a certain song or album that makes us listen on repeat twelve times? Or turn off an album after three songs because we can instinctively tell that the rest of the album will be as bad or worse? It is easy to say we ‘like’ or ‘enjoy’ something, and even easier to brush something off as rubbish – it is much harder to say why we like what we like.
The underlying question exists too: Does it matter why? In the long run, who can say they actually care what makes a Lady Gaga or Paramore track better or worse than one by The National or Broken Social Scene. If you’ve given a listen to the former two and haven’t heard the latter bands, it makes a difference. It becomes a question of ‘taste’ in the broadest sense. We like what we like because of pre- or unconscious decisions.
Without delving into the depths of neuroscience, our brains are all individually hard-wired to respond to specific stimuli. In the most musical sense, it might be with what we are most familiar that sparks interest; the radio and our other friends repeat and replay certain songs that often appeal to the majority (whether it be Pitbull’s vapid club beats or Lady Gaga’s universal experience motifs). Our parents and older relatives cranked Led Zeppelin on the stereo for years and we instinctively respond because we can identify with a particular riff or we know all (at least some of) the words to “Rock ‘n’ Roll” off Zeppelin’s fourth album. In other words, it is with what we are familiar that allows us to connect to the music and the people that surround it. It matters because it is shared experiences that allow the fragile but durable human emotion to hold on.
A niche exists to explore the boundaries of music; noise-pop, electro-funk, spoken-word-disco-acoustics all are new and available through the development of technology – it is this same technology that allows musically-talentless pop sensations to market themselves to the masses. Yet other music might pique our interest because of what we are not familiar, and from this willingness to try or stubbornness to give in sprouts independent music. It is literally ‘independent’ threefold. The artists pursue sound for the sake of self-exploration, rather than for the masses. Their music is distributed DIY or through non-major labels whose goals it is to support this behavior. Third, the goal of the music, usually, is not to bump beats for the sake of bumping beats or appeal to everything all at once, but rather focus on a specific emotion felt by the artist. It is how paintings work on the exploratory sensations of the mind; the artist might have a specific idea in mind when penning the work, but the work is still open to interpretation. No one can deny both Pitbull’s “Rompe” and Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” are about coitus, but Radiohead’s “Black Star” is wide open to elucidation.
And yet the mainstream prevails in terms of widespread appeal and monetary success. The major labels have but one goal: to make money and squeeze a song for all it is worth. Radio has suffered because of the stranglehold the labels hold through the quotas they impose; in a sense, the free-broadcast system is more controlled than ever. But the stronghold matters very little in the long run. In the recent and not so distant past popular music has been redefined so many times; rock music once dominated the globe, and before that jazz, and before that opera. There was a time when guitars were seen as sacrilege and the human voice was not to be manipulated from carefully calculated soprano, tenor and the like. Are today’s standards any different from those a century ago? Clearly for the last 15 years, it is the direction in which we are moving; and there’s no stopping it, at least as long as the radio stations have their way.
Nineteen years ago Nirvana released “Nevermind,” a final culmination of innovative 60’s guitar, 70’s punk, and 80’s thrash. Both the mainstream and the alternative cultures accepted this album as great, or at least good. It marks the last time the alternative was the mainstream; after this album, bands like Dinosaur, Jr., Jawbreaker, and others continued guitar mashing, while Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch and, later, The Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and ‘NSYNC found a formula that appealed to the dwindling musical education in America. After Nirvana’s untimely (perhaps timely) demise, an emphasis was placed on making money and marketable looks. No longer did talent dominate music, which is partially the radio’s fault. Top 40 music, which once included The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Beach Boys and Sonic Youth, now sounded like Top 2, where every song sounded like a replica of the last one, with an occasional power ballad thrown in. Guitars were perfectly tuned and voices perfectly pitched, and yet music suffered. How did this happen?
Why did we as a society support this change from conscious songwriting to cookie-cutter jams and flat beats? Because it was easy; too easy for the average listener with an average ear to make up his or her mind. On the contrary, it was hard; too hard for the average listener to sift through the music themselves without the radio’s force feeding songs. We’ve become a lazy society, in terms of musical consciousness. Labels and ‘artists’ see a way to make a quick buck at the expense of quality and effort; and it’s they who are laughing their way to the bank.
But good music does exist and work ethic is not dead. There are ways for someone who does not accept the status quo. Good, here, will refer to those artists who pursue music for the music’s sake; people, especially college kids, have responded. Through Web 2.0 and Internet memes, word-of-mouth has spread DIY bands far and wide; predominant websites persistently dedicate their words to those artists who are dedicated to their words. Through this artificial symbiosis, bands whose radio play would have been (and will be) nil, can still share their creativity from anywhere to anywhere in the world.
That being said, in no way is Pitchfork.com (and the like) a be-all-end-all definitive power on collective taste, but their writers’ and editors’ words have had a profound effect on the independent music culture in the past decade. Without their support, bands like The Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective would (and could and, some would argue should) not exist at all in the capacity they realistically do. A 9.0 rating can vault a band from obscurity to the ‘it’ indie darling. And yet the rating is a double-edged sword. While the Internet and independent music live in a mutual relationship, art and numbers do not. For all the good the Internet (including Pitchfork, as well as The Onion’s AVClub, Stereogum, Consequence of Sound, et al.) does for music, arbitrary ratings on works of art are a huge detriment to the purity sound. Because the difference between a 7.5 and a 7.6 doesn’t matter, many bands get lost in the sea of numbers and they are doomed to obscurity.
Even objectively out of a 10.0 rating system, assigning an album a 6.4 means nothing in terms of its lyrics, performance, or production. That depends solely on the merits of the person or people involved. Assigning a production value of 5.0 out of 10.0 means only, that according to the reviewer, the band and/or producer did half as good a job as they could have done, based on some other review’s judgment of perfect production. And even with the 5.0 or 4.1 or 8.9, it may still sound good to a certain listener. This listener might be in love with the band’s music and it will not matter what a review says, but his perception might be altered by arbitration rather than a thorough listen. Though, in the long run, arbitrary grading systems will hurt music, but it still says something that bands strive for excellence, even if they fall short. A 3.0 doesn’t mean that the album is bad or the band didn’t try; it only means that one person has a very strong opinion about the music that doesn’t explain why we like what we like.
But we do like lists; something comforts us when we can compartmentalize and order things. Having a basis for comparison allows the human mind to put things into categories. When we see that 10.0, we automatically assume that the work is good; when we see multiple 10.0’s across many reviews, the work becomes an instant classic. Then, by comparison, we are coerced to think that that album is the standard, what every artist strives to create. Radiohead did it twice in a row; and yet people hate them, their sound, their persona, their aura. Is it correct to compare every new release’s reception to that of OK Computer and Kid A? No, it is not correct; it is lazy. But lists are easy, numbers malleable; however good an album might be the only thing we can ever really compare it to: itself.
Still, there’s still always something about music that appeals to everyone in a different way, like aforementioned ‘familiarity’ or ‘comparability.’From a musical perspective, traits about the band’s sound or history play a huge role in the sonic experience. Deft instrumentation and slick lyrics are often huge plusses in a band’s favor, but sheer genius can be shrouded by over- or under-production and shoddy performance. It is always a combination of the obvious: lyrics, instrumentation, performance, production, marketing, etc. that make a band good and listenable. But, as we are always told, there are intangibles. Just as a baseball player has instincts beyond his bat speed and glove work, and a lawyer can control a courtroom with other tactics than knowledge of the law, a musician or band, can control their own mystique through timing, outside ventures, and perceived authenticity.
While timing is important (the release of an untested concept album after a string of successful straightforward ones EX) and ventures (charity work, other collaborations, background) are crucial to understanding motives, a band’s success relies upon its perceived authenticity. To define: it is how real the band seems in the eyes of its listeners; if its objectives are clear and careful, a band’s music always has that little extra something that can turn a catchy hook into a standard or an interesting, albeit strange, musical choice into a connection.