“It’s so easy to laugh
It’s so easy to hate
It takes guts to be gentle and kind.”
– The Smiths, “I Know It’s Over” (1986)
Humans love to hate. If that wasn’t clear from the bloodbath of human history or the prejudice that continues to plague our world, it is certainly evident in the deluge of close-minded and hateful things that people post online. Time and time again, I find myself excited at the discovery of a new musical artist, only to check out what the internet thinks of them. Then, that excitement turns to despondence when I realize that many people have only nasty things to say.
I recently began exploring the work of St. Vincent (pictured above), an indie pop artist who, in my opinion, is probably the coolest person in the world right now (and not just because she’s appeared on Portlandia multiple times, though that does add to it). While many music fans appreciate her work, some people label her with the dreaded pair of adjectives that could be used to shoot down any unconventional artist: “pretentious” and “hipster”. These words (and some more unsavory ones) littered the comment section of one of her music videos:
First of all, very few people are actually pretentious. People do what they feel, and they act the way that is natural for them. Pretension implies that someone is deliberately trying to fake some kind of importance or relevance that they don’t actually possess. The goal of art is to create a representation of inner thoughts and emotions. By definition, this means that artists have to project an image onto their work. The only people who use the word “pretentious” are people who don’t want their art to be artsy, which is very contradictory if you ask me.
Even Pitchfork, the supposed bastion of pretentiousness in music criticism, is just a bunch of people doing what they feel. You may not like my writing style, you may consider my sentences too long or my prose too pompous, but I’m not writing this way in order to present an image. I’m typing these words because they feel right to me. St. Vincent is also creating exactly what she feels she should create. Even celebrities who are despised for “being famous for being famous”, like Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian, are just being themselves. They wanted to be famous, and that’s who they are. Their images and public personas are a part of them. Deal with it.
And second of all, hipsters don’t exist. Hipsterism is not a cultural movement, despite what Wikipedia may tell you. It’s a mean word that people use to put down certain types of people, much like the F-word for gay people and the N-word for black people.
When I read people’s negative opinions of things I like, I immediately start to doubt myself with thoughts like: “Am I lame? Do I like uncool things? Am I a square dud and not a hip, jazzy cool cat?” But then I remember something.
There is no bad music.
At Disney World, there is a very special soda machine. Located in the heart of the Epcot park, this soda machine contains sodas from all over the world for people to sample. Almost all of them are delicious, fizzy, and refreshing. The exception is Beverly. Beverly is a bitter, foul-tasting Italian soda that, as an apéritif, is somehow supposed to whet people’s appetites. It didn’t whet mine, I’ll tell you. But even though the drink is objectively disgusting, it’s an experience. That’s exactly the philosophy I wish people would apply to music.
The Dude hates The Eagles. As do many people. The band also have lots of fans, but it is a deadly faux pas to mention that you are an Eagles fan in the presence of “serious” music listeners. These kinds of music fans often pigeonhole The Eagles as a bland, middle-of-the-road, unadventurous country rock band that pandered to the worst excesses of 1970’s FM radio trends. But here’s the thing. Nobody did bland, middle-of-the-road, unadventurous country rock better than The Eagles. If you can appreciate them for what they are, then it’s possible to like, or even love The Eagles. If you go into an Eagles listening session expecting something revolutionary and experimental, or really anything other than peaceful, by-the-numbers 70’s rock, you will be disappointed. When you know what you’re in for, you might be pleasantly surprised.
You can apply this theory to other acts that seem initially off-putting. Like U2. Don’t like bloated, corporate arena rock? Well, nobody does bloated, corporate arena rock better than U2. Don’t like ironic, experimental millennial indie pop? Nobody does it better than St. Vincent, so it’s worth giving her a shot. People often dislike Belle and Sebastian because they make soft, twee music. But there’s a place for every type of music. Every artist can find their niche. If Led Zeppelin have a right to exist, then why not Belle and Sebastian?
Even the dreaded Carpenters, the most notorious peddlers of sappy, self-indulgent pop cheesiness, can be respected for what they are. Because nobody did sappy, self-indulgent pop cheesiness like The Carpenters.
Call it a guilty pleasure, I don’t care. But when I listen to The Carpenters, I smile. Maybe it’s because they are relics of a world gone by, when this kind of music could top the charts and nobody had to ride around naked on a wrecking ball to sell music. In fact, they dressed like this and still went platinum. Or maybe it’s because The Carpenters are so at odds with the more daring music that I usually listen to. But truthfully, it doesn’t matter why I react to The Carpenters the way I do. If I’m feeling something while I’m listening to them, then that means they’re entertaining, and therefore worth listening to. Whether they’re subjectively “good” or “bad” doesn’t matter.
With this type of thinking, it’s possible to expand your music listening to cover an endless amount of uncharted territory. You can even like The Shaggs, a totally talentless band of three sisters who were so incredibly incompetent on their instruments that the music they made has a strange kind of do-it-yourself magic:
You laughed while you listened to that, right? It was entertaining, right? So even though it sucks, it’s good! Kurt Cobain listed The Shagg’s 1969 release, Philosophy of the World, in his top 50 albums of all time. Frank Zappa called The Shaggs “better than The Beatles”. In a way, they are, because The Shaggs occupied a niche in music that is so far removed from any other artists. They exist in a world of their own, and cannot be judged against anything else. The Shaggs are the kind of band that changes people’s views on music. Weezer released a song a while back that most people view as a total failure, and one of their worst recordings. But I kind of like it. Try the philosophy I’m advocating in this article, and listen to this:
It’s bad in a funny way, and it’s so not what one would expect from Weezer. If you don’t think about it too much, “Can’t Stop Partying” becomes perversely entertaining.
To paraphrase The Smiths, people hate because it’s easy. Human beings love to divide themselves into little camps based on their preferences. This often leads to hatred of certain things or ideas, because it’s easier to dismiss something outright than take the effort to engage with it. I often find myself drawn to works of art that are challenging and provocative, that people either love or hate. To me, that means they’re interesting enough to provoke a reaction. Generally, when there’s this kind of love-hate divide, I fall on the “love” side. That’s just who I am. That’s why Yeezus is one of my favorite albums, and why Spring Breakers is one of my favorite movies. Both are masterful exposés of 21st century culture.
I’m not saying you have to like things that you don’t want to. But I do think that having an open mind can lead to a lot of cool discoveries. Sure, maybe the title of this article is somewhat misleading. Some music is bad. But no music is worthless garbage, despite what some may think. In its own way, bad can be good. Yes, even Nickelback.