Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Popular Music

 Many years ago, I had a friend named "Gus."

Gus liked weird music. Some of it was good - he was the one who introduced me to Killing Joke - but some of it was unlistenable.

He was very punk in a post-punk world.

One day, I asked him, "Why do you like this crap?"

I'll never forget his answer.

"Because I know no one else will."

In his mind, the term "popular" meant "bad." Granted, Gus was a man of extremes, but he purposely sought out music that was not popular. I think the logic went something like this... Most people are stupid. So, if too many people like something, it can't be good.

I've often used a slightly less judgmental explanation with musicians who were puzzled by the success of bands they saw as "generic" or operating according to simple songwriting formulas. Creed took much of the brunt of this criticism from rock purists, along with Nickelback.

"Imagine you're a wine connoisseur," I would say. "You have a refined and highly-developed taste in wine. You're horrified by the fact that there are people out there who drink white zinfandel off the grocery store shelf when they could have a Winbirri Bacchus. But, the thing is, there's a lot more white zinfandel drinkers out there than there are connoisseurs."

I would pause a few seconds to let the analogy sink in, and then continue.

"Between them, they've sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 million albums. So, Creed and Nickelback are just the white zinfandels of nu rock." (I had to be careful not to say "infidels").

Eventually, I discovered that most people thought the logic behind that explanation was sound. I also discovered that most people are incapable of arguing with you when you've used a wine drinking analogy.

My first job in radio was at a Top 40 (contemporary hits) station. Think back to the popular songs of 1994 (if you were beyond the embryonic phase of life at that point). Some were genuinely good. And some still cause me to retch at the mere thought of them. The fact that I heard each of those songs 10,000 times probably doesn't help.

But that brings us to the key question. Do you choose the music you listen to because you think it's good? Or are you listening just because everyone else seems to be?

We're certainly subject to many influences on our musical taste, especially in our developmental years. Parents, siblings, friends, and various media have a profound effect.

So, do we like some music just because other people do? The answer is... yes. Of course. But we should be careful, shouldn't we? Choosing music based on what's popular is the cultural equivalent of chasing the latest cold virus that's going around. Just because other people have it doesn't mean it's good.

At some point in my early teens, I began developing my own taste. Do you remember the old music clubs - Columbia House and BMG? I started buying albums, and reading the liner notes. I devoured artist interviews from CREEM and Rolling Stone. I made a habit of visiting the local record store.

The first two things I remember saving money for were an import copy of the Who's "Live at Leeds," and an original Capital Records release of "Pet Sounds" by the Beach Boys.

I explored different types of music, within certain boundaries, and occasionally ventured outside those boundaries. I don't do country music of any sort. Ever.

I'm a rock guy. Although, for me, the term "rock" covers an enormous variety of artists. From Joni Mitchell to Alice in Chains, the Animals to Tame Impala.

Led Zeppelin is the greatest hard rock band that ever was and ever will be. Although they're really good at light rock too. I've seen Sevendust live twenty times. But I love Steely Dan. I'm a huge fan of Fuel's first three albums. I also love the Fixx. I like Rage Against the Machine. And Fiona Apple. And Little Feat.

Despite numerous attempts to convince me otherwise, by people whose opinion I respect, I don't like Janis Joplin's voice. I'd rather hear the sound of kittens being thrown into a wood chipper. I like Bob Dylan's songs. I just don't want to hear him singing them. And, please, Bob, don't play the harmonica. It's not your thing.

I've never been a fan of the Velvet Underground. Or the Clash. Or the Ramones. I never liked Bruce Springsteen. Or Bob Seger. Or Black Sabbath. Or the Smashing Pumpkins. Or Radiohead. Or the White Stripes.

I'm perfectly willing to admit they're good at whatever it is they do. I just don't want to hear it.

If I'm dating myself with my lists of bands, now you know why I've undertaken this quest - to find newer music I can enjoy and appreciate.

The point is... once you've put some thought and effort into exploring and discovering what you like - once you've developed your taste - there must be certain things you don't like, right? I've met people whose taste in music is so broad and eclectic I can't even fathom. To me, it's like having no taste at all. Either you've put no thought and effort into digging beyond the generic horseshit music that is thrown at us every day in huge volumes, or you're a mindless moron.

Now I'm starting to sound like Gus...

But there's a middle ground here, isn't there? You don't have to like things just because you think no one else will, but why not take a chance and stop liking things just because everyone else does?

If you'd like a personal introduction to good music you've probably never heard before, you're welcome to come to my house one evening for a good listening session.

Be sure to stop at the grocery store on the way to pick up a bottle of white zinfandel...

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