When I was 14 or so, I discovered this band called Umbrellas, probably through the emo rag Alternative Press or some mopecore blog. They quickly became one of my favorite bands, not because they made the best music, but because they made the saddest. Almost every song they’ve ever written is about either: a) breakups or b) just generally being sad. Real sexy stuff. But I ate it up; I would listen to Umbrellas whenever I was sad. And let’s face it: at 14 I was very, very sad.
To this date, I’ve never met a single person who also likes Umbrellas, even a little. I understand it — they’re pretty bad. I understand that an objectively accurate music-judging machine would reject them for their unwarranted emotionality, their relentlessly fey attitude and sleepy orchestration. But I am no objectively accurate music-judging machine. No human can be.
The best thing about musical taste is that everyone’s is different. It means that we’re all bound to totally “miss the point” and adore some artist who we know is actually awful. It’s the reason that “guilty pleasure” is a cliché, that last.fm gives you the option to erase embarrassing songs from your listening history.
If bad taste is inevitable, it’s obvious that we need to embrace it.
My tale about Umbrellas proves that the value of music doesn’t lie only in its formal proficiency. If music makes you happy, or is cathartic, or reminds you of having fun with your friends, or brings you closer to your parents, it doesn’t matter what it sounds like — it’s already doing some good.
When I listen to dubstep, I kind of want to cry. Some people find the “wubs” exciting, heavy, dirty or serious. I just think that the “wubs” are clutter. But dubstep is music with a purpose — it’s supposed to make drunk clubgoers (and wublovers) feel loopy. I don’t really go to clubs, so I don’t understand. There’s something really liberating about that statement: I don’t understand, and I probably never will. But I don’t need to. Subcultures form to provide their members with space for their own standards of good and bad, away from the mainstream.
The groups that routinely get the most flack from critics are always the ones with the most tight-knit fan communities. That support is infectious; people are more likely to hunker down and create more and more music when they feel they’re protecting something important. I like to imagine that DJs who made house music in the ’90s probably felt like underdogs. They were squarely positioned as a niche genre with little mainstream appeal. Fast forward 10 years, and you can hear that every pop song sounds at least a little like those niche club hits of 1999. Lady Gaga owes so much to ’90s house and ’80s Italo disco (an even more maligned genre). Bad taste is part of the evolution of pop culture.
Really, embracing bad music upends power structures in the taste industry. What follows is a vast oversimplification of Bordieu, but here goes: taste is more a reflection of our upbringing and social status than it is grounded in something concrete or absolute. When I judge the taste of others, I’m getting tangled up in a mess that says a lot more about my worldview than anything else. And when a music critic chooses to denigrate something that you love, they are condescending to you.
So when someone in a position of authority tells you to dislike something, choosing to enjoy that thing is almost revolutionary. That may sound hyperbolic, but one of the hallmarks of music that critics find supremely awful (I’m thinking Insane Clown Posse or BrokeNCYDE here) is that it is so foreign to the prevailing tastes that it’s virtually unmarketable. The scenes that are built on independent values, respectability and talent, like ’90s indie rock, were so easily co-opted. The artists diluted their values and signed to major labels because they could sell. But ICP? They’ve been drinkin’ Faygo for 21 years, and they’re still independent.
I know that in these hallowed pages, I’ve told you about how much I dislike a vast array of things — but I’ve tried so genuinely to think deeply about every value judgment I’ve made, and I accept wholeheartedly that I could be wrong. The objectively accurate music-judging machine might find that nothing threatens the future of music more than poor musicianship. But really, the only dangerous thing is giving your brain over to that imaginary machine.