What Song Do You Hate?

In spite of the Summer of Love and the historical open-mindedness of musicians, music culture is a culture largely dominated by hatred and opposition. The most famous music star today is also the most universally reviled (Justin Bieber). As has always been the case, the latest popular genre of music (dubstep) is the target of vehement disdain from many. Even artists who are generally recognized as possessing some kind of talent (Kanye West) are more hated than admired. So in the spirit of enmity and general hostility towards one’s fellow man, let’s rip on some songs we don’t like.

Today’s Topic: What Song Do You Hate?

My Answer:

There’s a lot of really awful music out there, and it’s tough to single out one song amidst the dentist-office production of adult contemporary, the noisy excretions of mindless thrash metal, the flag-waving, truck-having, and stereotype-reinforcing of modern country, and Nickelback. So I’m going to pick on a band that ostensibly sensible people seem to idolize, but who have always struck me as the antithesis of everything good about music.

My pick is R.E.M.’s “Stand.”

There is nothing good about this song. From the vapid faux-etry of the lyrics to the insistent blandness of the melody to Michael Stipe’s computer-programmer vocals to that awful chord change at the end to its inexplicable ubiquity at food joints. I’m not a fan of stereotyping my own race (or anyone else’s), but this is possibly the whitest music ever made, in the worst possible sense.

R.E.M. apologists have told me that the mind-numbing stupidity of this song was, in fact, intentional: Stipe and the gang apparently wrote the song in response to pop conventions, with tongue firmly in cheek. (Which explains the music video–then again, so does “It was the 80’s.”) That does not make it better. That, in fact, makes it much worse. It’s one thing to be Tommy Wiseau and try really hard at making an artistic masterpiece, and yet ending up with The Room. That’s almost endearing. It’s another thing altogether to make something intentionally awful, then watch, possibly while cackling with glee, as the gullible plebeians eat it up. That’s not being an artist. That’s just being a colossal douche.

We don’t have to stand for “Stand.” Let’s aim higher.

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Your Turn: What Song Do You Hate? Why?

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Is The Album Dead?

Many years ago, in civilizations long past, music was sold in single form. People bought one song (or two) at a time, presumably after walking 20 miles uphill through the rain and snow to the record store, and they liked it, dammit. Eventually, with the advent of LP records, artists and labels started to release discs with multiple songs on each side, and the album as we know it was born. Flash forward to the present day, where the album is still regarded as the standard format of new releases–but many people are going back to buying one song at a time through iTunes or similar services. It’s tempting to view the album as a cornerstone of modern music, but has the concept outlived its usefulness?

Today’s Topic: Is The Album Dead?

My Answer: No–but maybe it should be.

Let’s get this out of the way: the album is not dead, and it will not die as long as vinyl-brandishing hipsters exist. That being said, I believe the concept of the album is outdated and obsolete. The internet and the iPod have rendered the album unnecessary and inconvenient. In the days of the LP, albums were a revolution; now that we have other options, they seem more like a scam, forcing patrons to buy songs they probably don’t want in order to get songs they do.

Album aren’t just constraining for buyers; they’re also constraining for artists. I’ve said before that constraints can be a good thing, and that holds true for albums as well. However, it is incredibly rare to see an album that doesn’t contain filler or hastily made chaff, the type of songs the artist would never release to the public were it not cloistered in an album. The only album I can think of off the top of my head where every song is single-material is Led Zeppelin’s fourth album. (Feel free to help me out here.)

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Are there any benefits to the album format? Sure. There’s the iconic album cover artwork that helps define an artist’s identity. There’s the concept album, which is rarely successful in my opinion, but still a worthy endeavor. But maybe most important is the idea that an album is a great snapshot of an artist at a certain point in time. The flow of an album can serve as a narrative of the stream of consciousness of its creator in a way that a single song or a career retrospective might not be able to. But is that enough to save the album from irrelevance?

For now, I’ll say no. But we’ll see how I feel after I release my first album.

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Your Turn: Is the album dead? Is there an entire album you can’t live without?

What’s Your Biggest Musical Pet Peeve?

Music is good. But music isn’t always good. Sometimes it’s pretty bad. Sometimes it’s downright awful, to the point where you’d rather listen to this. Other times, and these may be the most frustrating times, you hear music that would be utterly perfect, a complete masterpiece, an inarguable classic–were it not for one conspicuous flaw.

Today’s Topic: What’s Your Biggest Musical Pet Peeve?

My Answer:

I’m interested in music production, so I’ve developed a bit of a producer’s ear over time. This has led to a newfound appreciation of well-produced music and a newfound hatred of over-produced or poorly produced music. It’s also given me a list of pet peeves longer than the Nile. I hate fade-outs (and their rarer counterpart, fade-ins), but I also hate songs that abruptly end because they’re supposed to segue into the next song on the album (Pink Floyd did not predict the Shuffle era, apparently). I hate 80’s synth, 80’s drum machines, and the 80’s. But for my biggest pet peeve, I’m going to have to forget my producer’s instincts and go with a classic; a lyrical cliche that has been with us as long as the English language.

The unpardonable crime of rhyming “girl” with “world.”

I get it: “girl” and “world” are both common lyrical themes, and there’s not much out there that rhymes (or is at least assonant) with them. “Girl” and “world” are also fairly open terms with regard to how they relate, whether one is traveling around the world and seeing many girls, or wanting a girl more than anything in the world, or possibly even envisioning a girl who is also, coincidentally, a world.

But the second you throw that line into a song, you lose the right to call yourself a lyricist. You’re destined afterwards to be known as either a lazy, talentless hack, or John Lennon. You’re just asking for the girl in question–or the world in question–to reject you. There are few sins in art, but this is one of them. Don’t do it. Ever.

And while you’re at it, stop saying “baby” unironically.

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Your Turn: What’s your biggest musical pet peeve? Can you still enjoy songs that feature your pet peeve?

Does Genre Matter?

When you ask someone what kind of music they like, the most common response by a landslide seems to be “I listen to a little bit of everything.” This is, of course, seldom true–most people just give me blank stares when I ask them which Angolan Kizomba artists they would recommend–but it reflects an interesting development in music culture: genre is going out of style. The past few decades have seen an unprecedented mingling of genres. Punk rock mixed with ska and reggae, hip-hop blended with metal, and EDM found its way into everything. Eventually we gave up and started referring to everything as “alternative,” even after it had become the mainstream standard. It’s easy to see genre as an archaic concept that no longer has any use.

Today’s Topic: Does Genre Matter? Is There Any Point In Genre Labels?

My Answer: Yes–in theory.

No doubt, genre labeling is a messy issue. It always has been; even Debussy railed against being wrongly labeled. Lots of musicians resist genre labels, believing that they hamper creativity and promote conformity. In some ways, genre labels could be considered synonymous with typecasting for actors.

But genre does serve a purpose. It helps music fans discover music they might not have sought out otherwise. If I say some artist is a rapper, that’s imposing a genre label on them, but it’s also perking the ears of any hip-hop fans in earshot. Genre builds community: if you say you like music, well, good for you. If you say you like jazz, that’s a much stronger connection that we have. It implies other things we may have in common in a way that a broad interest in music does not. The genres you like or play are a key part of your identity.

Is genre restrictive? Yes, it can be. But believe it or not, that’s a good thing. Rather than lessening creativity, restrictions can actually improve it. It’s easy to become lost in the ether when trying to create; often the mind becomes overwhelmed by the possibilities, and succumbs to option paralysis. The conventions of a genre can form a foundation amidst the chaos, and set soft parameters and limits that you are free to break or abide. The vast majority of creative people begin by playing within the conventions of their medium, testing the waters to see which laws can or should be broken.

That being said, our current genres are in disarray. Half of our main genres (pop, rock, the aforementioned alternative) have no defining characteristics and mean virtually nothing. We have a strange and unecessary schism between classical and “popular” music. Music also has a shameful history of dividing genres by the race of the artists rather than the content of the music, a practice that subconciously continues today. (The label of R&B is often the modern equivalent of “race records.”) Ideally, we’d demolish our current genre concepts and start over. Since that probably won’t happen, we’ll have to try and shape the concepts we do have into reasonable approximations of meaningfulness. Otherwise, we’ll all end up listening to a little bit of everything, and being defined by lot of nothing.

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Your Turn: Does genre matter? Is genre a dying concept? What genre are you most closely associated with?

Who’s Your Hipster Band?

As we all know, nothing secures social and cultural dominance and unanimous respect like name-dropping an obscure band in conversation and expecting other people to know who they are. Nothing asserts your superiority over the mainstream plebeians like uttering “Oh, you’ve never heard of Hurdy-Gurdy Mcghee and the Flailing Jesus?*” with an inflection of mock surprise. We may make fun of the hipsters, but we also often humor them, faking knowledge because we’re afraid of their judgment; afraid of being made to seem like a culturally-deprived idiot. Just ask these idiots.

But hipsters aren’t all bad. Sometimes hipsters can be useful, like a bearded, fedora-wearing tool that can help you discover talented artists you never would have found otherwise. These are the Hipster Bands, musicians that exist in the ample space between the mainstream and anonymity. But Hipster Bands aren’t exclusive to hipsters; most people who have an interest in music listen to some bands who might be relatively obscure. Maybe they’re local groups, or maybe you found them at the bottom of an iTunes rabbit hole. Or maybe you’re a hipster and you just don’t realize it.

Today’s Topic: Who’s Your Hipster Band?

My Answer:

I don’t listen to much modern music, so in a truly hipster move, I’m going back to the late 60’s with a baroque pop group from Belgium, the one and only Wallace Collection. I discovered them in an admittedly non-hip fashion–after hearing I Monster’s “Daydream In Blue,” which samples a cover of Wallace Collection’s one hit, “Daydream.” After some research on “Daydream In Blue” eventually led me back to the band, I tried to find their music online (legally, and sometimes otherwise). It wasn’t an easy task–though they were somewhat popular in Europe, they have essentially nothing on iTunes or almost any music service, and they aren’t the easiest to Google, as they’re named after a (considerably more famous) art museum in London. My search soon turned into a quixotic obsession, and eventually I managed to acquire their first album, Laughing Cavalier.

The treasure was finally mine, and treasure it was. Laughing Cavalier was recorded at Abbey Road Studios at around the same time the Beatles were recording the White Album, and there is a noticeable Beatles influence throughout the album. But it’s no imitation: Wallace Collection definitely had their own sound, a seamless blend of pop and symphony that stays consistent even as they wander into strange territory, like ragtime and Russian folk music. Some favorites: “Get Back” (not related to the Beatles song) is a superb ballad that twists and turns. “Misery” predicts Rush so directly that it’s hard to imagine Neil Peart not being aware of the song. But the jewel of the album is undoubtably “Daydream,” a tragically hidden classic with a Hey Jude climax that should give chills to anyone with a pulse.

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Your Turn: Who’s your Hipster Band? How did you discover them? Why do you suppose they aren’t more well-known?

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*An actual band, probably

Can There Be A “Best” Song?

Welcome back to the Thursday Topic! Last week I asked for commenters’ favorite songs. This week tackles the same idea from a different perspective.

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As Buzzfeed and its many clones can attest, people love lists. And no one seems to love lists more than music lovers, who have been making “Best _____ of all time” lists since the first sound was made, and then a second, arguably less pleasing sound was made. Ranking music can seem like ranking children at times: pointless and mean-spirited; also, we all know who’s better anyway. But whether we’re looking for some sort of objective artistic truth, trying to get to know our own tastes better, or just spreading publicity for some hipster band, we continue to make these lists and debate them endlessly.

Today’s topic: Can music be rated? Can there be a “best” song?

My answer: No, but we should think “yes.”

Whenever this question comes up, it opens up a Pandora’s Box of annoying but pertinent questions, like “can any medium/art form/thing in the world be judged?” and, most damningly, “by what criteria?” Talent? Originality? Emotional Resonance? All good qualities, but good luck coming to a final consensus on any of them. Music is not a science (thankfully), and though it may frustrate the left-brained among us, there are no objective answers to this question.

But don’t fire all the music critics yet. (Actually, never mind that. Fire them all.) There is still value in “Best of” lists and in all those arguments about how Limp Bizkit actually wasn’t that bad. The music that you champion shows people who you are–and the inverse is also true. (Apparently I’m really, really NOT whatever R.E.M. signifies.) Also, just because talent and originality can’t prove that an objective “best” song exists doesn’t mean they aren’t important, and that we shouldn’t exalt those artists that may display those qualities. Just because we don’t have a mathematical formula for music greatness doesn’t mean that the null hypothesis is “One Direction = The Beatles.” Like almost everything else, there’s a happy medium of uncertain truth in musical quality, with enough wiggle room to argue about who exactly the greatest musicians and songwriters are, but also enough commonality of experience to know that we’re generally in the same ballpark in the end.

So please, do tell me more about how Eminem is the greatest rapper of all time.* And I mean that honestly.

*He isn’t.

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Your turn: Can there be a “best” song? Can there be “better” and “worse” songs? How would you judge those songs?

What’s Your Favorite Song?

Welcome (back) to the Thursday Topic! Last week’s post focused on the importance of lyrics in songs, with the consensus being that lyrics do matter, but often in a negative sense (lyrics have more power to ruin songs than to improve them). This week, we’re moving away from music philosophy and touching on a more lighthearted topic. If you liked last week’s post, check back next week for another philosophical topic.

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We all have our song. Maybe it caused a profound reaction when you first heard it, or maybe it grew on you. Maybe it describes you perfectly, or maybe it represents something you’ve always wanted to be. Maybe you’ve always had it, or maybe it’s changed hundreds of times. But there is a song that is more important to you than any other, and it has shaped your appreciation of music and of life.

Today’s topic: What is your favorite song?

I will admit, my favorite song has changed repeatedly over the years. I started out a rock acolyte, listening exclusively to classic rock radio, before venturing into folk and funk music, and discovering a passion for soul music and jazz. But like a music-loving Percival, my adventures have led me back home, and I’ve come to embrace the first song I ever truly loved.

And here it is.

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I first heard it when I was about five. My dad had made me a mix CD that had songs I liked at the time (apparently I was really into Styx for some reason) mixed in with songs from his band and various other tunes. Even to my young, inexperienced self, that song stood out to me as different from the rest. At first I didn’t care for it; I thought it was too weird. But I kept replaying it, almost against my own will. Eventually it became clear that Styx didn’t compare to this. Nothing did. (Of course, being a child, I later forgot about the song and got into N’Sync. You can’t win ’em all.)

Today, closing in on 40 years after the song’s release, it is still unique and unmatched in its completeness and emotion. Is it cliche? Sure. But that’s simply the consequence of a well-deserved ubiquity. And with the niche culture and hipster ethos of modern music, who knows if we’ll ever see a song achieve such a status again? So here’s to you, Freddie.

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Now it’s your turn. What’s your favorite song? Why did that song stand out from the rest? How did you first experience that song?