“Wake up and argue!”
– Hound Dog Taylor, shaking awake a sleeping Ted Harvey, after seven or eight hundred miles on the road.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had some variation of this conversation:
Some Schmuck: Hey, Schooley, do you like [insert name of some horrible, shitty band here]?
Schooley: [with great diplomacy] No, that is some horrible shit.
Schmuck: Aw, you don’t like ANYTHING!
Schooley: Well, actually, I have a lot more records than you do, and I like all of them, so I probably “like” way more stuff than you do.
Schmuck: No, you just hate EVERYTHING!
Schmuck: I’ve never heard of any of those so they don’t count!
One of the good things about working in a record store was getting to hang out and talk about music all day. I don’t know about you, but I find it an entertaining way to pass the time. Naturally, people are going to disagree. Some people get highly insulted when you don’t share their taste in music, because they have constructed a persona around the kind of music they like. Naturally, these people are the most fun to argue with. No longer working at a record store, and finding myself surrounded by normal (i.e.: boring) people, these kinds of discussions have become rarer.
I went to a fun party recently, and got have a big musical debate. There were a bunch of musicians and record nerds there, and after a few beers we dialed up Youtube on the TV and started watching obscure videos of assorted bands. Soon it degenerated into a hilarious discussion. I held my tongue in the beginning, but after a while – alcohol may have contributed – I found myself in the throes of a heated argument with some dude who thought blues-based music was “boring,” and shouting “SAM PHILLIPS SAID THAT’S WHERE THE SOUL OF A MAN NEVER DIES!!” You are probably thinking, “That Schooley, you can’t take him anywhere!” and mentally removing me from the guest list for your next elegant dinner party.
(In my defense, the hostess of this particular party ended up taking some shrooms, biting me on the shoulder, passing out on the floor, and having to be carried to bed – I did say it was a fun party – so I’d say my behavior was practically Cary Grant-like in its wit and sophistication by comparison.)
The whole episode got me to thinking about what I like musically and what I don’t, and why my tastes don’t seem to make sense to anybody else, while other people liking the things they do seems equally inconceivable to me. According to Myers-Briggs, I am a big “N” for iNtuitive, so I tend to just go with my gut. I find it hard to articulate why, exactly, but my likes and dislikes make perfect sense to me.
I think part of the disconnect is that I have my criteria for what is good, and other people have theirs, and these two sets of criteria are not at all similar. Seems like the things that matter to a lot of people, I don’t give a shit about. But how to define these, without resorting to “‘cuz it rocks, maaaan!” or “it’s got a good beat, I can dance to it”?
Maybe it would help to start with what I don’t care about, musically, that other people appear to value. Not to say that the criteria below are bad qualities, they just aren’t at the top of my list. Might be an added bonus, but they aren’t the primary criteria that matter to me in the grand scheme. So, in no particular order –
SHIT I DO NOT CARE ABOUT:
1. Popularity/commercial success
Obviously, plenty of absolute geniuses died unknown and in poverty, while untalented hacks have raked in millions and become famous, so why even bring it up?
Let’s keep it simple: There’s two kinds of music – the kind I like, and the kind I don’t.
3. Technical virtuosity
I’ve talked about this before, so I don’t want to belabor the point. While it is nice to have somebody who can actually play their damn instrument, technical chops are not a selling point in and of themselves. If they were, I’d be cranking Yngwie records all damn day. But complete incompetence isn’t a selling point, either. It’s a fine line.
Max said it about 80s teen comedies, but it is just as true with music:
“I care way less about who did it first, and more about who did it BEST.”
Not even “best,” just “well.”
Sure, I love plenty of artists who broke new ground and influenced all those who came after them. I love some of the ones who constantly reinvented themselves, changed their sound as their careers progressed, and ended up in a completely different place from where they started. Yet I also love many that kept pounding out their signature style for years, or even decades, without changing it.
I think the whole idea of the genius toiling away in isolation before foisting their “new” creation on the world is bunk. Even bringing up the word “art” creates all kinds of unwanted connotations, so I prefer to think of music as a craft. Every musician has influences, and even if they took them and ran with them to an entirely new place, they didn’t just conjure them out of the ether.
I find a lot of people mistake the combining of things that haven’t been combined before for “originality” or “innovation.” NPR-listener types love to hear some kind of world music mixed with something else and think they are experiencing a new thing. Throw in some genre labels, “afro-cuban hip hop chill wave” or some such, and you can shovel that shit by the truckload. Like Tim Warren once said, if that’s “progress,” then
“I’d best hang it up now trying to work this #%$@# computer, build myself a time machine and fly my ass back to 18,000 B.C. There’s probably more fun to be had listening to cavemen banging rocks together.”
– liner notes from Cheapo Crypt Sampler
Part of the reason I find blues-based music appealing is the the twelve-bar form. Some might say that it has little to do with innovation, but I like seeing how different people can sound within the set context it provides. Charles Brown and Hound Dog Taylor,for example, have vastly different takes on what to do within a twelve-bar blues progression.
Paradoxically, working within the form really gives the artist a chance to show off their individuality. I don’t get somebody who thinks the blues all sounds the same – it’s a motif, working within the form is what makes it the blues. Complaining about that is like going to a Noh performance and bitching about everybody wearing masks and how the actor’s movements are too stylized.
5. Physical attractiveness/sex appeal
I’ve never understood why people get so impressed if a singer or musician is good looking. Sure, it doesn’t hurt if they are, but it doesn’t really matter to me. Music is an audio art form, and while we may see musicians live or watch some videos, for the most part we are listening to them, not looking at them. Even with contemporary artists, you may never meet them, and you probably won’t get to make out with them if you do. If you’ve got any taste at all, most of the musicians you listen to are long dead anyway. Who gives a shit how handsome or beautiful they were?
I guess it is the idealist in me creeping out, but part of the magic is that somebody who might be considered ugly by the less charitable can become beautiful when making good music. George Morrison is a pudgy ginger window cleaner, but Van Morrison singing Could You, Would You is a LOVE GOD. At 63, Precious Bryant was unlikely to have been seen in the pages of Maxim, but when she sang Don’t Jump My Pony she was sexy as hell! Do you think Beyonce could have done a better job?
This may seem rich coming from a guy who is bothering to write a lengthy article about why he likes some music and not others, but I’m not looking for something “smart.”
Many are the atrocities committed in the name of “intelligent” music by people who don’t appreciate that poetry, literature, and music, are entirely different art forms. Lyrics that are nonsensical, banal, or downright stoopid on the printed page can become transcendent when heard in their proper musical context. Meanwhile, people trying too hard to sound smart often end up writing some pretentious and embarrassing lyrics. I overthink everything as it is, I spend enough time inside my own head, I want music to be a release from all that. Good music exists outside of standard definitions of “smart” and “dumb.” Just ask Claude McLin:
Entertaining stage shows can be great, but only if the chops are there, too. Sure, it is cool when Screamin’ Jay Hawkins comes out of a coffin, but it wouldn’t matter if he didn’t have that voice. It is entertaining when AC/DC shoots off cannons, or breaks out the giant inflatable Rosie, but they would be just as good (probably better) to see in a small club without the stage show. Most bands are not Alice Cooper, and should probably leave the theatrics to the actual theater, so it can continue to die a dwindling death.
This isn’t an excuse to be boring, just an acknowledgement that all the facepaint, fireworks, light shows, and platform boots in the world won’t hide the fact that you can’t write a song or have nothing to say. Or, in a more punk rock context, all the puking on stage and shooting fireworks out of your buttcrack won’t help, either, if you don’t actually have the music part down. Now, the bands that can pull off all of it, the music and the stage show – then you’ve got something.
I am a bleeding heart, pinko commie, give-it-away-to-the-bums liberal, but I don’t care if the musicians I like share my politics. All too often, blatantly political messages in song end up sounding hackneyed, and they tend not to age very well. I think the act of self-expression through music is an inherently liberal act anyway, even if the lyrics aren’t overtly political. What do you think made a bigger societal impact – all the combined lyrics of Rage Against the Machine and The Dead Kennedys, or Little Richard singing Tutti Frutti?
Pete Seeger is a perfect example – the man is a saint and an American hero. He was on the front lines during the Civil Rights movement, putting himself in real danger to fight for justice, he fought the blacklist and McCarthyism at great personal cost. He did a hell of a lot to promote American roots music, and help educate the public about many performers that I love. I admire the man and in many ways he is a personal hero of mine, but yeesh, ever try to listen to one of his records?
Now, Jerry Lee Lewis on the other hand, is by all accounts a complete bastard. But hey, Live At The Star Club.
Related to the above example: some musicians may be intelligent, funny, and self-effacing, donate their time and money to charities or the humane society, volunteer to feed the homeless and change bedpans at the children’s hospital, and it STILL doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not their music is any good.
This kind of goes along with #5, but I am constantly amazed by how people get wrapped up in what an artist wears, and how they might “reinvent themselves” (gag!) throughout their careers to become or remain more fashionably “relevant” as the trends change and years go by. Many are the cool points to be gained by championing artists that can be seen as fashionable, and by remaining fashionable.
Me, I take a more subtle and discerning view, and ask, “Who gives a shit?” I like the idea of total schlubs who look like shit and don’t care about what’s in fashion suddenly turning it around and looking cool, just because the music they play makes it that way. I also like the idea of maniacs so devoted to their vision that they stick to their guns and keep pounding it out for a lifetime, even as the winds of fashion change.
David Bowie was always on the cutting edge of fashion, meanwhile Iggy has been wearing no shirt and tight jeans for fifty years and counting. Either way, who gives a shit? I don’t need them to help me pick out my clothes, or to emulate as a “fashion icon.” That’s what Paul Newman in Hud is for!
This is to differentiate “fashion” from “style,” though, because some musicians may not be doing anything “fashionable” yet they have their own style that is awesome and unique to them, even if it isn’t the flavor of the week. Sometimes, the rest of the world even comes around years later.
By way of conclusion, I don’t want to pick on the 60s folkies too much, but a perfect example that ties almost all of these together is Joan Baez. She’s beautiful, intelligent, talented, committed to worthy political causes, and if you’ve seen any interviews with her, she comes across as a total sweetheart. She was even a “fashion icon” of sorts in the 1960s, influencing every hippie chick to follow her. You would have been lucky to have her for a girlfriend in 1965, or for a grandmother in 2012. But could you stand to listen to one of her records? I sure as hell can’t! No wonder Dylan had to split.
After reading all this, are you thinking “Schooley likes dumb, apolitical, unoriginal music created by unfashionable ugly people”? If so, you may be missing the point. It’s not that I’m looking for the opposite of these criteria, just that while they be important to some, I’ve got other things on my mind.
There are probably even a bunch of bands that these things don’t apply to, but that I still don’t like. Next time, I’ll talk about what what DOES matter to me, music-wise, and you can see if it makes any more sense…