Posts Tagged ‘Reviews’

Taste and Culture

June 24, 2008

Well, then. Time to alienate as many people as possible in quite a short amount of time. In the interest of maintaining a certain level of aggression in society, and making sure that I come off as a pompous ass, I thought I’d take this moment to insult people’s personal tastes. I have, wise as I’ve undoubtedly become, noticed that people generally feel a little upset if their taste in music is criticized. One can complain about a person’s political leanings, discuss whether atheism or agnosticism – or even Gnosticism – is the way to go, debate what football club is the best or least corrupt, and usually nothing is accomplished, but feelings are not necessarily hurt, neither. (I’m talking about more or less reasonable people here, not your average Jihadist or American republican). I think this is because one’s leanings in these matters are easy to defend, one has spent some time to validate for oneself why these choices have been made.

Maybe the key word is Choice. One can choose to be a socialist or a bastard. (I’m ignoring theories of heritage and environment here because I choose to). One can also choose to educate oneself in the history of films (by at least watching some films and not just assume that whatever is on now is the pinnacle of the form), say, and thereby learn to appreciate different types of films. This does not mean that some will accept that they are not able to give any real value judgements about whatever film they have just seen. And they shouldn’t. They should, however, learn to listen to other voices than their own, and maybe accept that they have misunderstood something, or they could have given greater attention to this or that, or that theirs is not the final word on the subject.

All discussion about works of art is good for the temperature of public life. I could just hope that the amateurs kept away from reviewing films. One thing is being badly informed privately, quite another to strut one’s incompetence from the throne of a newspaper that by it’s very existence seems to say “Listen to us, we have a voice worth listening to!” I generally find that most people, though, are willing to discuss and exchange ideas about films without feeling personally insulted. A reason for this, I think, is that the matter under discussion involves some skill, both in the making and receiving (seeing) of it. This skill is at times only felt, one is almost unaware of it, but it is there.  One suspects that since one’s own skill always could be better, there is always still something to learn, there are ways of bettering oneself; one’s own opinion is never ideal, never the last word.

The same goes for literature. It is not expensive to visit the library, and unless one lives in one of the hundreds of unfortunate societies that think it is prudent to censor certain books, or privatize the school system so that most is denied the right to be educated, one can have a world of literature to choose from. But some have by their own volition chosen less, and they know it and are conscious of it, and thus can understand that there can be differences in skill both in producing and reading literature.

Maybe this is why people who have read little tend to surrender easily in discussions about what is good or bad in literature. There is the same feeling I mentioned above, only still stronger, maybe, that reading takes some kind of skill, and as such there are good or bad readers, there are the more and less experienced. Or maybe they just don’t care as much about literature that they find it worthwhile to debate or to let themselves be hurt by the fact that what they thought was perfectly entertaining is considered trash by another person. The “higher” the art, the more reverential people become in their assessment of it. A layperson would scarcely take it upon himself to form a very strong opinion about, say, ballet or a modern atonal symphonylike performance. He might not like it, but he’d get up with the rest of them and applaud. A layperson would, however, not be very likely to visit such a spectacle, unless his boss had bought him tickets or a ladyfriend talked him into going against his better judgement…

This finally brings us back to taste in music, and I’m talking about more or less popular music. Here, in a much larger degree, everyone feels they have a say, that they are always talking on the same ground, so to speak, listening to the same loudspeakers. Because it doesn’t take any special skill to listen, to maybe hum along with a song, to feel happy or sad by the tones and the tunes, no matter how ineptly composed. As a consequence, it doesn’t matter how many reasons you can give for claiming that Phil Collins is the musical equivalent to – does a sufficiently bad product exist for a comparison? – that thing you put in the toilet to eliminate unfortunate smells, no, worse, Phil Collins is the bad smell. The person will feel that you by slamming Phil is in fact not only criticizing his/her taste, but an inherent part of him/her; something that matters, something (s)he would not be without. Maybe (s)he would also feel sorry for Phil, thinking that he hasn’t deserved to be treated in such a way by an infidel.

Part of the reason people are so defensive of their choices of musical favourites, is, I think, nostalgia. Music is for many of us not always a primary activity. It often is something we have on in the background while doing something else. It is played in bars while we talk, it is on our stereo while we read or write, it is heard from a window one burning hot June evening the year we lost our last ties to our childhood. And as such it is something more than itself, tainted by our own lives, and at the same time tainting them. We feel something when we hear a song – no matter if it’s good or bad – because we once felt something, and the song was there. We had no choice, we still don’t. There is a truth here, but not the whole of it.

Yet, there undoubtedly exists similarities between the more or less popular arts I have mentioned, if not in else than in as vague a concept as sensibility, in degrees of commercial viability, in whether or not someone wants to communicate more than the sound of money. Personal vision is a dangerous term – sounds slightly messianic, or has a hint of New Age – but I’ll dare to suggest that it is equally there in all the arts, but maybe not equally noticeable?

I have noticed that a person can like an idiosyncratic director or some obscure author, but still hum happily along to a chart single. Maybe there is nothing wrong with that, but it strikes me as strange, for example, that Robert Bresson can coexist gaily with Garth Brooks, or that Dan Brown is found in the same household as Benjamin Britten, or Hootie & the Blowfish with, well, with whatever. I think the problems in my, albeit limited, understanding stems from what I perceive as an utter incompatibility between a person’s taste in music and his taste in films, for example. Shouldn’t the same tendencies of taste, the same leanings of a person, inform his choices of favourites in all the arts?

Now, by mentioning Britten, I’m inadvertently referring to something I guess has already been named Cultural Crossover, or Surfing Between the Arts, or somesuch. I don’t mean that, I’m not referring to being able to appreciate both “high” and “low” cultural expressions. This I actually take for granted. I think I’m talking about quality, about being able to discern quality in whatever form it takes. As such, I’d argue there is a bigger difference between Bonnie Prince Billy and Garth Brooks (even though both play what very loosely – and I’d say erroneously – has been labelled country), than between the same Will Oldham and the Arcade Fire, for example (even though their genres have little to do with each other).

It seems I’ve finally reached a place where I have to talk about what quality is, and I feel now it’s not the nicest of places to be. Let’s talk about music, not open windows that July night, let’s talk about judgement, not brotherhood.

What is quality in this case? It is not difficulty or complexity, it is not hummability or ease. It is not a hundred notes played at the same time, while reciting Milton with a monotonous voice. It is not only one of these in any case, and it certainly is not three semi-incompetents – the refuse of a popularity concert – playing the blandest version possible of a Leonard Cohen song. I’d like to say originality has something to do with quality, but how original can one be, and isn’t too much originality easily bordering on the unlistenable? Authenticity is another word one can easily use, but what the hell does that mean? That the music is pretty much the same as when the form first developed? That the feelings one is trying to communicate is somehow deeper, more real, than the mainstream? That one is not consciously copying a specific song? I just don’t know if I can form a good answer to this. I feel like the American in the art gallery (“I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like!”)

If it all comes down to personal preference, what good are reviews? Often they are not much good at all. I find a reviewer I see have more or less the same taste in music as myself and find out whether he liked so and so’s last record. Seldom do I learn anything about what made the record good or bad. He might say it was boring, too many uptempo songs, too slow. Yes. Indeed.

There must be something more, something else to say. Music is an extremely democratic form of art. Few people will admit to having a bad taste in music – and the few who do flaunt it like a badge of honour (yes, hello you homosexuals out there!). People are perfectly happy about listening to what I would deem excretable crap, even if it is redundant, and I guess no one is hurt by this. But yes, hell, we are hurt, we are hurt by the record companies manufacturing hits, manufacturing music as if they have a code to solve what people want to listen to. The code is called money, it is called publicity, it is called directing the product to the market, finding the least common denominator and squeezing it like an overripe lemon.

“What is wrong about giving the people what they want?”

But they don’t know what they want, they take what you throw at them, what saturates all entrypoints to society, they don’t know the alternatives to what the radiostations offer them.

“So, you’re saying you are smarter than the rest of them, that you know better, that your taste is more elevated?”

No, well, yes.


God, I don’t know. Because …

“We thought so. Thank you for calling.”

The good thing about writing a blog is not having to defend oneself. I guess I should try it.

I notice that I’m beginning to be less than stellar in my reasoning, so I’ll stop here for now. I meant to write a short post about 10 highly rated music groups or –artists that really and in fact beyond any reasoning are shit, but that will be a matter for the next post…