What Makes Music “Good”?
written by: Aidan Adams
Music itself is probably humanity’s most superfluous, immaterial and universal art form, transcending spoken word to communicate emotions through a whole new language — a language of melodies, rhythms, and harmonies, or even ripping aural assaults.
Every culture boasts their own musical style, some eventually forming entire genres, with Jamaica’s Ska, Scandinavia’s Black Metal, black America’s Blues and later Rock’n’Roll, Britain’s Punk and Grindcore, and countless other regional genres and their respective folk and grassroots songs.
Music may be a personal experience, but it is ultimately a universal medium that is ingrained in our cultures’ and humanity’s history. Music itself is older than written language and has evolved greatly over history. With the modern internet, we can share and consume music at an unprecedented rate — letting us move away from radio and cater to our own tastes. Through streaming, we can now dedicate entire playlists to moods — or let algorithms formulate new listens based on our likes and genre biases. With the increasing access to music on an international scale, we come across a lot of interesting and compelling work, parallel to a fair amount of underperformers. My friends and innocent passersby can attest to my unhinged rants on my most hated artists, leaving myself, and in turn, you, to wonder if music is objectively good or bad? This is what this article is for. Before we start hashing out criteria, I want to lay out some facts, and a little history.
Streaming has become a media giant over the past few years, spearheaded by the likes of Netflix and Spotify, with the latter boasting 180 million users and over 35 million available songs. YouTube, to this day, is still the #1 source of music video consumption. In 2017, Bandcamp saw cassettes being sold every 30 minutes. As high-speed internet becomes more common, so will music consumption, which exacerbates probably the most vicious of all internet topics — music discussion. People have been tackling music discussion since the 70s with publications like Rolling Stone, reviewing soon-to-be trailblazers like Black Sabbath with almost cynical speculation. It can be argued that up until the boom of home internet, music discussion was dominated by established publications and radio hosts, less so public opinion. With years passing and more grassroots-oriented publications like Terrorizer and internet forerunners HipHopDX and Pitchfork, the eternal debate of “good” and “bad” music became much more accessible to the average Joe.
Over the years, musical categorization has also evolved, mostly due to necessity. More and more music became accessible, and more and more consumers had a specific style they enjoyed. While for a long period you could only purchase recordings of orchestras and radio shows, eventually you had Jazz, Blues, Polka and Pop buying up real estate in a record store. Then came Disco, more Jazz, Rock’n’Roll, Country, early Electronica and New-Age. And that’s just the 70s. Now, we have bedroom pop, harsh noise, witch house, psychobilly, blackened sludge metal… you name it. Seems a little out of hand, doesn’t it?
Genres are the perfect example of the convenient, yet restraining nature of labels. Per definition, genres are described as: “A category of artistic composition characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.” A genre cannot perfectly describe a band, an album, or even a song’s nature, influences, sound, structure or lyrical content, but a label (ie a genre) can definitely give you an idea of what you’re in for. I can expect blast beats and growling vocals from a ‘Death Metal’ band, but there are always outliers. Genres are of course, imperfect. Genres are effectively a consensus of roots, stylings, and soundscapes that aim to paint a not-too-broad stroke for a potential listener. This is not to discredit or call for a genre abolition but to further understand labels do not define us, or anything we as humans do. Is a piece’s departure, or of the same token, conformity to a genre an inherently “good” or “bad” quality? The answer probably relies on a heaping pile of context, which I will expand on later.
So, we’ve touched on the nature of music and what a “genre” is. What else might make a piece of music “good”? The first obvious answer is: Well, you like it. But, you or me liking a piece of music isn’t solid criteria.
Let’s imagine a brand new, never-before-heard band. They have unlimited resources and can play any genre. Their name is “Aidan’s Awfully Thought-out Thought Experiment”, and they release only one song: “Songy Song”. You listen to Songy Song, and… Oh my God. This is the best tune you have ever heard in your life. Makes your #1 album of all-time sounds like Corey and the Angels. Here’s the issue, no one else on Earth likes it. In fact, they hate Songy Song. Pitchfork gave it a -3, Rolling Stone writers refused to even listen to it for a second time, people on social media will go on unrelated rants about how much they hate Songy Song, and Donald Trump calls it “a travesty to the entire world”. Now imagine a parallel universe, except EVERYONE, likes Songy Song. It’s the talk of the town! Every radio station is playing it. Every publication is raving about this revolutionary new song. Your favorite local band covers it. Your Dad even likes it. But you? Not so much. You awful person, you.
Personally, I’m quite a fan of Weezer’s Pinkerton. But Rivers Cuomo, the Weezer frontman, hated it,.. at least back in 2001. Maybe he’s grown to love it, but what good is a Pinkerton fan’s word of approval up against one of the album’s creators? One’s opinion is not a very reliable seal of approval. Can you definitely answer for Songy Song’s or Pinkerton’s quality based solely off public and/or personal opinion? Probably not. Maybe we need more criteria.
A few come to mind: The piece in context to the band and the associated genres, the piece’s emotional weight or ability to invoke emotion, and the piece’s use of its resources.
A piece’s context is actually a common measure of quality, from radio hits to the deepest recesses of your local noise scene (trust me, you have one). Bands who are known to release quality material, and/or be a staple of their associated genres, will probably be held to a higher standard than your local three-dads-want-to-feel-young-again punk outfit. Because of this, some releases may be held to much harsher criticism, creating an almost pointless level of quality control. The best example for that would be Blink-182’s California or the Doors’ Other Voices, both being albums that dedicated fans despised due to the lack of previous elements, namely Blink’s departure from their skate punk roots, and the Doors’ tragic loss of Jim Morrison. When judged in a vacuum, these albums are by no means “bad” but lack a trait which previously made the band “good” by their fanbase’s standards.
An artist’s legacy will always be a constant factor in their musical endeavors. Eminem will always push out a platinum album from his name alone, Green Day’s early fans never got over their departure from the Dookie sound, and Nas never really escaped the shadow of Illmatic. Context is key.
Emotions are important, and are the most human element of art, with emotion being the driving force of most, if not all, music. When music evokes an emotional response from the listener, whether intended or not, you can argue the piece has “done its job” and is a “good” piece of art. Now, we can bicker about a piece “doing its job” not being an arbiter of quality, but if a song makes you cry (not counting crying from how bad a song is), I would find it impossible to argue the song being “bad”. Music can bring out emotion in anyone, intended or not, emotional responses to music are integral to the musical experience and add another level of enjoyment or depth to a song.
Personally, I have experienced burning rage, despair, absolute sadness, loss, mental breakdowns, and struggle, all through a few songs, while also learning about love, joy, recovery, having fun, being yourself, strength and resiliency… or just plain nonsense. Everyone has a different experience, and that’s what makes music such an intimate art form.
We all know that most genres rely on equipment and producers to augment or fit a song to an artist’s vision. This can range from pedals to quantizing to making you a whole instrumental. Now, not everyone can afford Rick Rubin or DJ Premier, but a good producer who knows their genre can make a phone recording sound like a radio hit. An example, if I may: There’s a general consensus among the more snobby metalheads that Metallica’s discography tanks post-Black Album. The infamous Load (aka Load of Shit) is easily one of Metallica’s stinkiest releases (next to Re-Load, but no one should have to suffer through that) and has some of the shoddiest production I have ever heard for a million-dollar band. A bland array of grainy guitars, salt-shaker drums, and vocals that have been stripped of any character, all from a band that pushed out some of the most iconic metal albums in history. When a punk band’s breakout album that was released two years prior sounds better (with a slight Spotify quality hit, mind you), you have a problem.
Well, we have four pieces of criteria now. Your personal opinion, the music in reference to its contemporaries and broader genre, the emotional input or output, and overall technical quality. This is a strong basis for any review or criticism of a piece of music. Except, we’re missing one key, the final element that I’ve been hinting at since the very beginning: What does everyone else think?
Community (or per record label, customer) opinion is the greatest influencer of music consumption. Period. This includes professional and amateur reviewers, your friends, scene people, bands, what-have-you. In theory, at least under capitalism, a strong fanbase (or lack thereof) can make or break an artist. Of the same token, if that dedicated fanbase turns on a band, how will that affect your opinion or the band’s future projects? Now, you may be asking: “How is a diehard Weezer fan who refuses to listen to anything post-Pinkerton going to affect whether or not Weezer makes better or worse music?” My answer to you is groupthink. If a group of people you respect tells you that post-Pinkerton Weezer or Ghost sucks (because they both do), you might be inclined to avoid the band or regurgitate that opinion entirely, solely off of the merit of your friends’ or acquaintances’ music opinions. While this may or may not negatively affect sales, what it does is shift your perspective from X is ‘good’ to X is not ‘good’.
This isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to music, as it is always easier to parrot someone else’s opinion (educated or not) rather than doing your own research and come to your own conclusion.
I can already hear you frantically explaining: “But that’s just like…their opinion, man. I am still my own person and I will defend Red Hot Chili Peppers til my last breath!” Look I get it, we all like to think we’re independent, freethinkers, but it’s pretty easy to trace our biases. No one is immune to propaganda. Even if you are a steadfast consumer, with very little external influencers or internal biases, your opinion will always contribute to the discourse and occasionally, groupthink. It’s simply unavoidable.
Music discussion, whether it be friendly, argumentative, or even downright hostile, is a crashing ocean of opinions and stances. An amalgamation of agreeable takes might help you form a stronger opinion, a referential opinion if you will. Now compound these referential opinions with increasing scrutiny and debate, you get what some people call objectivity. While this is ironically a bad-faith use of the word, the concept is sound. If enough people, through vigorous review and discussion, find a consensus among opinions, this means they naturally found a “right” opinion or an objective stance. But of course, that’s not good enough. No one can assure this process was done in good faith or with proper study. There is no proper way to review or compare music, it all boils down to your opinion vs my opinion vs radiohead_guy33’s opinion, and so on. You could follow your own criteria, follow my criteria, or just roll a dice or ask your friend what they think. And just in case the point wasn’t clear enough:
There is no consistent or honest way to review music or to conclude if a piece of music is “good” or “bad”.
If there was, we wouldn’t have platforms like RateYourMusic, reviewers like Rap Critic, or publications like Terrorizer and Pigeons & Planes. We wouldn’t have 400-comment threads on “your definitive 2018 AOTY” (mine was Convulsing’s Grievous, for the record) or yet another post debating Kanye West’s GOAT status. Music wouldn’t be as fun, or interesting, or worth the effort, if it weren’t for the endless amounts of innovative and different music and bands to consume and share with the rest of the world.
So what’s the point of all this?
Good question. My answer? We need to stop using “good” and “bad” in music discussion and review. “Good” and “bad” are loaded terms. They package your opinion into a convenient, vague and authoritative label, which is not only disingenuous but self-restricting. Using easy terms like “good” and “bad” takes away from why. Why was it good? Did it bring out serious emotion? Did it entertain you? Why was it bad? Did it not live up to the artist’s discography or hype? Was it produced poorly? Did you just not enjoy it? These questions open up healthy discussion and share your experience, instead of hiding it behind faux objectivity, or worse, contradicting someone else’s opinion. Now, the Internet is always a shining example of how people really feel, but avoiding “good” and “bad” in face-to-face music discussion lets us explore music as an art form, and as a reflection of our tastes, biases, and interests, and sometimes our needs and emotional states.
Terms like “good”, “bad”, and number ratings need to go. Number ratings act similarly to “good” and “bad”, a shoddy attempt at summarization that only alienates the conversation further. It is time we share our opinions, openly and thoroughly, and focus on what we enjoy in our music, not if our tastes are “better” than the next person’s. I cannot argue that conflict is eternal, and humans can be a divisive bunch, but our passion for music should not be weaponized against one another, and instead be used to share and foster new tastes and ideas. Unless there are Nazis or other assorted fuckheads in your scene, then please, get rid of them by any means necessary.
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- What Makes Music “Good”? - June 16, 2019