To Define Art
by Joel Caris
I remember myself in junior high–eighth or ninth grade–sitting in Journalism/Newspaper class. All of us were lounging around the classroom, supposedly working on articles and other such writing assignments, but in reality listening to tapes we had brought in. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill was playing, and I was liking it. I liked her at the time. Most of the kids were enjoying it, but there was one girl who decided to chime in with condemnation. "I used to like her until she got so popular. Now I don't even like her anymore."
It pissed me off. I went off on a rant and demanded to know what the hell difference it made if she had become popular. She attempted to back pedal, I believe making the case that she just had gotten tired of hearing her on the radio, but I was still annoyed.
Now, I love obscure music. The majority of what I listen to comes from smaller artists and independents. While there are major label, highly popular artists whom I like, the majority of the top selling artists bore me. Most mainstream pop doesn't work for me–I find it repetitive and largely uninteresting. Yet, there have been plenty of popular artists I like. What I've never understood are the people who stop liking an artist simply because they've become popular.
I can understand hearing them too much on the radio and getting sick of a certain song, but do you not like the other songs? And are you now willing to say flat out that you don't like the artist–not just that you're sick of certain popular songs they have, but that you've ceased to like the artist completely? How can more people listening to a specific artist actually cause a person to stop liking their music? It makes no sense and seems to simply be a matter of posturing, rather than a matter of genuine like or dislike.
This can be a huge component of musical likes and dislikes in general, though. Last week, I wrote about embarrassing music I listened to as a kid. I made judgements about Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men and other artists. But who am I really to proclaim them as bad? I have my reasons behind feeling that way, but at least part of those reasons do boil down to popular sentiment. They're not perceived as great artists, in general, so I buy into that perception and integrate it into my own musical beliefs. Of course, that's not to say I don't engage in personal evaluation of music, but it would be a lie to say that the overriding perceptions of people I otherwise agree with or whose views I'm sympathetic with don't influence my own.
Often times, I think these mass assessments are fair. I'm not going to disagree, say, that Radiohead is a much more accomplished and artistic band than the Backstreet Boys. What is this based on, though? To some people, the strange instrumentation backing Radiohead may seem like little more than ridiculous noise, while the more classic (in a pop sense) backing music to the Backstreet Boys or Mariah Carey may be pleasing to the ear. Therefore, who really has the authority to proclaim one better than the other? Similarly, in reverse, the backing music of the Backstreet Boys is boring as fuck to me, but the strange synthetics of Radiohead's Kid A and the fuzzy, distorted vocals are fascinating. Is my opinion more legitimate?
Well, I think it is. But I can't really say why. I can make the argument above, saying that Radiohead's musical experimentation is interesting and compelling, bringing new sounds to the musical landscape, while the Backstreet Boys are simply rehashing sounds that have been a mainstay in pop music for years. Yet, just because something is new doesn't make it better. More unique, perhaps, but that does not automatically translate to a greater quality.
Are the weird lyrics and lo-fi sound of Neutral Milk Hotel more artistic or higher quality music than the clichéd lyrics and sound of Kelly Clarkson? Which is more artistic: repetitive clichés or nonsensical imagery? Are the actual words being sung any real indication of quality, or is it the emotional response that those words create? And if so, is the forty year old soccer mom or twelve year old girl who responds viscerally to Kelly Clarkson's latest song about betrayed love having any less an emotional reaction to that music than the twenty-something hipster who responds viscerally to Neutral Milk Hotel's more uniquely-worded song about betrayed love?
Or am I just over thinking all this?
Maybe it's biological. Does the unique instrumentation of Radiohead create more neurological response within the brain than the latest sappy love ballad topping the charts? I don't know the answer to that, but even if it does, does neurological response denote art? Or is it just base stimulation?
Even if you delve into the subjects of songs and proclaim that this indie rock band confronts complex sociological, psychological and spiritual questions while this mainstream pop artist over here wrote ten shallow songs about love–half of them happy and half of them sad–well, what the hell does that prove? I would hate to live in a world devoid of complex questioning of human reality, absent of scientific inquiry and pursuit, with no great collective drive to discover the mysteries of the universe. At the same time, I would hate to live in a world devoid of the messiness of love, both fulfilled and unfulfilled, or lacking in strong emotional reactions, or without entangling, complicated human relationships. Which is more important to have? Neither. I want them both. So how can I judge one song that tackles the complexities of racism or prejudice as inherently better or more worthy than another that deals with how much it sucks to be dumped?
Which, I suppose brings me to the simple notion that your taste in music is simply your taste in music. People like what creates more enjoyment within them. So while I may find it deplorable that someone could abandon an artist simply because they've become too popular, who am I to condemn that? If a person no longer likes an artist, I can't step in and tell them that's not true. Similarly, if a person thinks the musical styling of Kelly Clarkson or Mariah Carey put to shame the work of Radiohead or Neutral Milk Hotel or Spoon or The Shins, I can't necessarily prove that person wrong. All I can do is argue for my opinion while she argues for her own.
The simple reality is I can't even give a coherent explanation as to what makes art and what doesn't. Worse yet, I can't come up with any kind of universal guidelines as to how you determine what is and is not art. Which kind of sucks.
Luckily, being human, and being filled with weird and conflicting emotions, and often being overtaken with a complete lack of logic, I'm just going to keep considering certain kinds of music as more artistically worthy than other kinds. It may not make sense in the end, but it's much more fun being able to make judgements and definitive statements.
Joel has been filled with weird and conflicting emotions ever since Janet Jackson's nipple slip.