Reviewing Music: Can You, and Should You?
From Anthony Fantano to your local record shop employee, it seems there’s plenty of opinions on any and every piece of music out there. Naturally, as people discuss the art they take in, there are disagreements on what projects are of the highest quality. People even debate whether someone is able to give a valid opinion, and gatekeeping can run rampant.
You’ll find people arguing that Biggie was better than Pac, and vice versa. Despite the outrage, I would even guarantee there were people who really believed Macklemore’s The Heist deserved the Grammy over Kendrick’s good kid m.A.A.d. city. So where do these disagreements come from? Can you really find objective criticism of music? Let’s explore it together.
The Fundamentals of Recorded Music
You might point out that music has fundamentals and theory. This must be proof that there is music that’s better than other music, right? Harmonies and chords aren’t just laws we whipped up out of thin air. The relationship between notes and the human ear has been studied for a long time. That being said, not every piece of music that is held in high esteem follows the rules. Music is as much about its impact as it is about its composition. This is where the lines start to get blurred!
Is mixing and mastering held to real standards, or is it just what sounds best? Is there such thing as a proper decibel range for songs? Are lo-fi artistic choices bad taste or personal taste? Are organic instruments needed to make “real” music?
While many lifelong artists continue to learn and “perfect their craft,” many listeners aren’t caught up on which album is the best in a technical sense. This is the reason why many amateur projects of famous artists continue to be their most revered. In another sense, some people are listening to music for the skill and harmony that a trained artist can inject into a song. This leads to a never-ending argument. People on two sides of a piece of music find themselves split because half is impressed, while the other half felt like it had no life. Vice versa, people may turn their noses up to a song that doesn’t follow musical theory and contains questionable melodies, yet others could hold the art dear to their heart for being so emotionally touching.
It’s perhaps to approach this on an artist-by-artist basis. What are they trying to accomplish with their music? What are they known for? It’s okay to have expectations, but perhaps we need to stick to the relationship between a single listener and a single artist/project. No one is telling you to ditch your preferences, in fact you should be way more focused on them!
Do Artists Put Out Their Best?
Let’s state an obvious fact- some music is purposefully not made to the highest quality possible. In this particular case, it’s the fault of music being commercialized. This has happened to art in nearly every medium, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. While some music is being made purely to generate sales, that doesn’t characterize the entire industry. Even when existing inside the “industry,” many artists still approach music projects with the intention to make the best music they can.
What is “best” for one artist might not be the same for another. Every artist is inspired by different things and has grown up around different music. Some cultures favor certain timing, instruments, and melodies. This is evident in the difference between east and west coast rap, but also in a broader sense, the entire world. Likewise, we have opinions and preferences crafted by the music in communities we grow up in and interact with. Art communicates perspectives, of which there are literally infinite! This means that the perfect song in one mind can be completely different from another.
Our Personal Bias
Throughout life, we unconsciously choose things to identify with. This can be something like your ancestors’ lineage, or your favorite artists. Our egos can become attached to these things and cause us to take a tribal mentality that discourages outside connection. For example, I loved hip hop so much in high school that I wouldn’t allow anyone to play country music around me. It felt like the antithesis of my identity. Nowadays, I’ve learned to look past that and found many country songs that I truly enjoy.
That being said, you aren’t required to love every piece of music you hear. Just like people don’t love every painting, you can’t love every song. It’s entirely natural to prefer certain types of music. What we need to keep an eye on is how this personal bias can affect our open-mindedness to other tracks and tastes. This is good for everyone, you included!
Changing the Narrative
Art is becoming a commodity instead of an expression. People care more about if it’s a “good song” than about the emotion. Where is the line though? I don’t put just emotionally provocative songs in my playlist, and they don’t just nominate everyone for a Grammy, yet my favorite playlist feels more genuine. I guarantee I could find an incredible amount of people that wouldn’t be caught dead listening to my music. When it comes to where the sweet spot of quality and emotion is drawn, it only makes sense that you draw the line by yourself, for yourself.
Instead of debating Certified Lover Boy vs. Donda, we should be exploring the themes and subjects of both albums separately. We should talk about how artist’s music affects us. Tribalism and pride keep people divided; it affects how and what we listen to. This negatively impacts our ability to open our minds to art and the perspectives of the people who create it.
If we want to widen our perspective, being able to understand personal taste is the first step. When you drop the argument of whether a piece of music is “good,” and start to talk about its impact, then you find yourself examining art for the life that’s been put into it. Expression of ourselves as humans doesn’t deserve to be ranked and hierarchical. Our artists and their creations are meant to be treasured and appreciated! It’s time we focused less on who’s making the best art and focused more on the art that’s being made.