Sunday, 6 April 2008

Is there such thing as objective musical goodness?

The difficulty is that the any conception of Good necessarily contains a subjectiveness – even the open-eared draw the line somewhere. Although by some sort of standards drawn perhaps out of thin air, it must somehow be possible to be able to dismiss some conceptions of Good that I deem to be without valid justification. For me, goodness contains and requires so much (though of course not finitely, for after all that would be going too far in the way of objective and crossing the line towards overly-forumlaic): lyrics, texture, structure, elucidation, instrumentation, melody, harmony, performance, narrative… perhaps even being memorable. But if one or more of these elements is absent, it does not mean to say that failure to tick a box has a necessarily conclusion of failure to pass the non-test. It is moreover the fact of reference to some justificatory criteria which will persuade me to accept other peoples' tastes - and this is where the crux lies. Without even an attempt at subjective reasoning, I fail to objectively (subjectively objectively?) see how a person's taste can withhold even their own testing. Given, not everything needs a reason, but here I feel that music is something which stands weaker alone than with benefit of being backed up with an interpretation of some sort, something which is linked. Although is ‘linked’ not subjective? There are many hurdles. So this is where I see the anomaly in 'fans' of music I deem as having no objective good. Perhaps here now I can identify another common connection (or lack thereof): I see no possibility for objective good in music performed without feeling. Feeling, accepted, is on my interpretation, but I think it unmistakeable that there is an objective level of feeling forming a dichotomy with automatism (not acquiescence). I suppose I could be seen as a hypocrite for having listened to 'pop', performed by artists other than the songwriters, but then again I see no harm in separating my musical experiences into different whys, wheres, whos and hows. And what for a band whose drummer writes the lyrics? Forget that, let’s go one step further: I can appreciate Girls Aloud on a completely different level to how I appreciate Life Without Buildings. The same applies to any attempted distinction between Cat Power and Madonna. So I've ended up switching the focus from my interpretation of music, to my interpretation of the performer, somewhere I didn't really foresee the argument going. In returning back to the question of whether there is some objective level of musical good, I think there is another strand that has been left out - I do not feel that on a mere couple of listens to a track that music can be fully appreciated. Is this objective? Well, the casual listener's argument of subjective good can, in my mind, be superceded by that of the listener who has seen the artist live, listened to the songs repeatedly, built up their back catalogue, listened carefully to the lyrics (these are all just examples of what comes to mind when recalling my connection with my favourite artists) – and referring back to a previous point, a consumer (if that’s the most appropriate moniker) has an objectively better case to argue for an artist whom they’ve partaken in these activities with. But is that fair? Whose fault is it that person x’s favourite band are an Icelandic hip-hop collective they’ve no hope in hell of ever seeing live, let alone listened to interviews with. This is highly contentious as well, but I reckon that y’s appreciation based on the one single they’ve heard on the radio can’t objectively be as convincing a case as z’s, who’s actually bothered to read about the band, listen to more, and generally be more pro-active. There are two further qualifications though:
1. How much can you ever find out about an artist without knowing them personally? Or further, without actually being them?
2. Whose to say that such self-important attitudes as my own regarding music appreciation and the utilitarian desire to spread the word are the way forward? Well, certainly me but that’s not everything.
Aside from the aside, to say that this is all just opinion would be weak at this point but to an extent I must return to that perspective because with the plethora of 'good' music available these days, it is not possible for every 'valid' fan to listen to it all. But I still hold that there lies an impermeable membrane between the objectively good and the subjectively good somehow although I’m ever unsure why. How can anyone argue the case for Mika over Kate Bush? Green Day over Funkadelic? Wagner over Debussy? Why do I feel like I’m being more controversial when I bring to mind the last comparison? Is it any less dichotomous to anyone other than myself? Maybe the whole thing’s just a defence mechanism kicking in instead of accepting the reality that humanity is gullible, disappointing and surprising in equal measures.
It is not the use of my particular criteria which I feel distinguish the credible from the not-so- (for lack of a better turn of phrase), but instead merely the reference to criteria as opposed to none at all. This is true for any argument - a means of persuasion has greater strength by reference to commonly held principles than one based on mere instinct. I realise I may be contradicting myself in part, but I think that is because of the amount of time I have spent thinking about this - and it is undoubtedly positive for me to be questioning my own perceptions.I think I agree that subjectiveness is always the default, but for me the problem with this is that it deems all music reviews of little worth. Perhaps this is the case though? Regardless, I tend to return to ‘the criteria’ when listening to music I deem 'not good' - I reason in my own mind why it lacks the qualities that my favourite music possesses. And I return to the same theoretical approach too, but with a greater focus on looking at similiarites and differences across a repertoire of an artist. This is mainly why I respect The Beatles; I think no other band has or is likely to compose such a hugely innovative and varied back catalogue, yet sound so distinctly idiosyncratic. Given that history is on The Beatles side, and if they had never happened some other band may have come along and used the same recording techniques used in A Day In The Life but looking at the music industry now it is clear to see how that song really did break down boundaries. This is not to say that musical goodness is synonymous with the quantification of how many current artists were influenced by the original artist - in fact, far from it. Again this returns to the point I made earlier, that it is not certain criteria which comprise 'goodness', it is instead merely the reference to some criteria. It's ok to like whatever you want to like, provided you actually like it. But there’s yet another proviso – why does ‘like’ necessarily go hand-in-hand with ‘think’? For me, that’s because it does. But for others? That can’t be objective.
As a sidenote, I think that 'good' is a weak description but instinctively, we use it merely to separate the music (or anything else) we like from the music we don't. It's an easy operator, but moreover, a comparator.The intentions of the music have to be important too, regardless of whether I’ve convinced myself out of the case for the objective good - and I think with great pop (what even IS pop?), there's nothing wrong with listening to it. I’ve said it once with Girls Aloud, but some of the latest album is pretty challenging structurally and in its harmonies. Not so with the Spice Girls, but is nostalgia objective? This is brain-frying, ultimately. On a very basic level, something which I have only touched on so far is the importance of whether the performer is also the songwriter - and it is clear to see that this is the main reason why 'pop' (i.e. commericial music making the top 10 and appreciated mainly by tweenies) is so easily and often dismissed, and I've been thinking about the concept of lyrics 'intentionally made simple'. Whilst I think that it detracts from the possibility of the song being deemed 'good', I also wonder whether by default (or necessary antithesis), musicians who calculate every minute detail of their material could also be guilty of the same thing. For me, Field Music are one of my favourite bands, producing Tones Of Town which I consider one of the finest albums of this century. However, it is immediately obvious to notice that every note, every chord, every change in time signature, has been done for a reason. I suppose this is different in that the reason it has been done is for exactly the opposite reason as that of the 'over-simplified lyrics' example, but playing devil's advocate, who is to say that the manipulation is of any greater worth? Both are acts involving the demarcation of an ideal listenership. Thus I think it does come back to the same thing - whether the performers have had anything to do with the writing process. And my manipulation point links back once again, as if the listener/consumer/audience can see that the performer has been manipulated (again though I question whether there is a degree of this everywhere in the self-manipulation of performance), then that would provide some instinctive basis against a high 'goodness' score.So I think this comes down to something very similar to 'the social function' of the artist, creating something fairly akin to a presumption that 'pop' has to 'do' a lot more in order to gain respect, whereas music consciously and intricately written almost sets out on the other foot, creating expectations of high 'goodness', but perhaps facing harder critique because of this.
I think that my motive for this thought process is that I am not purely entertaining myself, but instead, I am doing so to try and affect people who I deem ill-educated in their tastes. So this goes back to the self-obsession point. And again, the more I think, the more I seem to theorise - the concept of a 'goodness' score also is something that I have trouble with, but this has made me think a bit deeper still, as who is to ever say that anything can ever be marked by anything other than subjective criteria? This is because I have just thought about music which technically possesses all of the criteria I deem as facilitating/constituting 'goodness', yet for some unattributable reason, I do not deem accessible or enjoyable. Equally, fitting new music into existing definitions of what one likes can potentially keep a person from hearing extremely difficult, yet wonderful, music, or can keep one from enjoying a simple, stupid, (yet fantastic) pop song. That’s the necessary antithesis of the whole criteria thing too though. It’s one hugely vicious circle.

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