Phrenology of a Music Snob

I like listening to cheesy pop music.

I don’t think it’s great art but, like junk food for the ears, there’s no denying it tastes good.

I guess I like bad music.

Now, it might be that years of listening to endless classical new releases has done something unusually bad to my brain that manifests itself in the desire to listen to Disney pop, but I honestly think if there’s anything unusual about this at all, it’s only that I’ve noticed it.

Here’s how the good/bad* – like/dislike matrix works out for me…

I know a lot of folks who don’t make a distinction between good/bad and like/dislike. If you’ve no interest in music beyond its ability to entertain you, the difference is pretty much meaningless.

For most people, that’s completely fine. They come up with some way to rationalise the way their favourite noises make their hair stand on end, and everything they like becomes “good music”. Any outliers are “guilty pleasures” and we don’t think too hard about them.

A lot of influential tastemakers behave this way. They cater to an audience that shares their unspoken preconceptions, so given the right set-up, there’s a good chance they’ll like the same things.

If you’re a music critic, though, it’s perilously easy to confuse…

a) what you like about it


b) why you like it

…and that’s where the trouble really starts.

As we’ve established before, it’s entirely possible for perceptions of what you hear to be coloured by your expectations. You can hear something different just because you thought you would.

Still, little harm is done by a positive review that makes dubious leaps of logic, ascribing the awesomeness of a concert to some largely irrelevant factor like the youth of the conductor or the nationality of the soloist.

What really does the world no favours is a review in which a writer sincerely denounces a piece of art as trivial, superficial or worthless, simply because there’s something about it (or the people that made it) that he doesn’t like.

You might think this mistake would have to be the #1 no-no for a music critic, A&R guy, radio programmer or concert presenter, but it seems to pop up all the time.

When you’re being paid good money to say what you think about music, it’s easy to end up thinking that everybody else’s reactions are opinions while yours alone are facts.

A performance isn’t necessarily good just because it has been the subject of ill-founded criticism, but whenever I read something that is either true, or the defensive ramblings of a self-deluding snob, my bullshit detector goes on high alert.

I think there might be more snobs than really bad music.

* If you find the spectrum of good/bad hopelessly ill-defined, try replacing it with “interesting/boring” – the core of my argument survives, and you’ve got an axis that’s much easier to quantify.



Post a comment
  1. Hundovir #
    January 8, 2011

    Now, when I were much younger I used to worry about this. e.g. Top of the Pops was “BAD COMMERCIAL MUSIC” but John McLaughlin was “SERIOUS ART”. (I was never too sure about Van der Graaf Generator).

    I still sometimes suppose that opera is “good” music – I just can’t stand operatic voices. (Much prefer Sandy Denny type vocals.)

    I mean – I USED to think there was a distinction between “music I like” and “good music” even though the two categories might often overlap.

    These days…

    I listen to everything from ambient electronica, early vocal polyphony, “pop”, Beethoven, Boyce, Brahms, Bach, “world music” (ugh, don’t like that label)

    and I suspect that the distinctions are invented/promulgated by self-designated “music critics” who wouldn’t like anything at all that the plebs like…

  2. January 9, 2011

    When it comes to thinking (and writing) about music, there’s little point in saying you like or dislike something, without working out the ‘why;’ assessing what it is about (or within) the music is where the fun lies; and the trouble begins.

    Too many critics, as you say, simply assume that their vaulted status as ‘Music Critic for Worthy Broadsheet’ gives them the right to present Baseless Opinion as Universal Truth. Thank the Lord for writers like Alex Ross and Tim Mangan, who combine personality with reasoned argument; there’s too few like them.

  3. mclaren #
    January 12, 2011

    That “sugar coated minimalism” thing actually makes it sound cool. I wanna hear me some of that.

    I’ve heard “A Hudson Cycle” and that ain’t it — Muhly’s music is a lot more sophisticated that it seems at first listen. I find I like it more the more I hear of it. But something like Harold Budd’s “The Pavilion of Dreams,” now THAT’S sugar-coated minimalism “useful mainly for chilling out.” And what a great CD! Give me more of that kind of stuff. Or Bunita Marcus’ “Adam and Eve.” Wow. Megabitchin’. More sugar coating, please!

  4. Dave J L #
    January 26, 2011

    “I know a lot of folks who don’t make a distinction between good/bad and like/dislike.”

    I think too many people don’t make that distinction, and not just for music either; I’ve read many comments about films where the author seems to not understand the difference.

    Music I find it hard to like includes the plinky-plonkiest, most trilly-cadenced works of Mozart and the like, which I tend to find predictable and dull, though I’d never try and argue that the music was bad.

    In my possibly futile and almost certainly unnecessary quest to find an over-arching reason for why I like the music I do, in any genre, I’ve alighted on the idea of honesty: music which does all it can do and knows its limits. A classical composer’s limits are vague and distant, and there are myriad dazzling possibilities in their genre, with their knowledge, technique and resources; a cheesy pop song has fewer places it can go, and can’t, for me, reach the giddy heights of art music, but it is preferable in different contexts, and can be just as much a source of joy provided it is a well-crafted example of its type.

    The music which I actively dislike is usually defined less by the genre and more the apparent attitude of the musicians (and fans): rock bands who think their overlong noisy anthems are masterpieces when they’re musically quite conservative and uninteresting; indie bands with solemn album covers who seem to think their lyrics and chord progressions are innovative and profound, when they’re neither; and so forth.

  5. February 21, 2011

    As one who worked in record stores for most of his life, I always found it exceedingly difficult to recommend music precisely because most of the music I liked was bad, according to critics. Many customers seemed to agree with those critics, or were perhaps basing their tastes on that input. I once read an article written by a critic who seemed to be bragging that he removed a Jimi Hendrix record from a turntable at a party and replaced it with side 2 of the Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light White Heat’ in order to ‘relieve the monotony’. Aside from the fact that side 2 of WLWH is an example, technically, OF monotony, I drew only one inescapable conclusion from the article. When rock critics show up at a party, the party is over.

    • properdiscord #
      February 21, 2011

      “When rock critics show up at a party, the party is over.”

      – That’s the truest thing I’ve heard all week.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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