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Isn’t it easy to dislike popular music? More than movies, more than books, more than video games, mainstream music seems to be the most often dismissed of the major forms of entertainment. Every year, every hit single, and every new I-V-vi-IV song that enters the Billboard chart and stays for more than a few seconds is a reason to be annoyed at the state of popular music.

But why music? The magnitude of the complaints about the film industry pale in comparison. Even the most cynical of moviegoer may have a guilty pleasure Michael Bay explosion-fest that they admit enjoying some of, if even just for a few minutes.

I propose that the reason that music is the form of entertainment that receives the most cynicism is that people consider an enormous amount of extra cultural information when consuming it in a way that they don’t do to nearly the same degree with anything else. I am mostly referring to 20th century music, which for cultural reasons tends to be subjected to much more scrutiny than earlier music.

Perhaps it’s because the music industry itself has focused so much on the performers or writers, how they look, what they wear, and their biographies. It’s easier to break down someone’s barriers to enjoying (and purchasing) music when they are already aspiring to or identifying with the performer. The problem with this strategy is that it can backfire for some percentage of the potential audience.

For example, imagine switching the songs of Hanson and Tenacious D. The boys (now men) of Hanson can sing, they can play their instruments, they can harmonize… Tenacious D and Hanson both harmonize over acoustic guitars, and both groups’ break-out albums were produced by the Dust Brothers.

These groups singing each others’ songs, especially when Hanson had their initial success, would have been really weird. Can you imagine those three boys singing “The Greatest Song In the World”? Can you imagine Tenacious D singing “MMMBop”? The answer is probably no, because you’ve invested meaning in Tenacious D singing their songs, and you’ve invested a different meaning in Hanson singing their songs.

So what happens when a non-target listener consumes the music of an artist they can’t identify with? If you’re like me, you have to fight the urge to judge the song based on all the cultural baggage that comes with the artist just to appreciate the melody, or the lyrics, or the production, or the musicianship.

Here’s a list of cultural reasons not to like a song:

  • The singer has behaved badly in public
  • A band member looks like somebody we would expect not to like or get along with
  • The band/artist’s image seems to have been generated by a committee of music industry robots
  • Some of the artist’s music seems to advocate or glorify bad behavior
  • A band member is originally famous from another industry
  • The singer comes off as unlikeable in interviews
  • The band wears makeup or silly outfits or is otherwise intentionally unfashionable
  • The band’s “image” seems to be composed of ideas entirely taken from a previous generation
  • The band’s music has changed over time and they are now 100X more popular than they used to be
  • The band is popular but has a reputation for attracting fans who are younger and dress differently than you

Even when we aren’t culturally predisposed not to like something, it’s easy to focus on specific qualities of the song or arrangement that, in isolation, seem like Bad Things. It’s even easier to focus on these things when we’ve spent a moderate amount of time and effort in writing our own songs, getting to that phase of artistic output where our ear has outpaced our ability to create. Everything we make isn’t good enough, so we judge our own creative output harshly, and then hold anything else to impossibly high standards that can only be met by our already-favorite artists.

Here’s a list of reasons not to enjoy a song:

  • Melody is confined to one or two notes
  • Chord progression is the same for the verse and chorus
  • Chord progression is only four chords for most to all of the song
  • The singer’s voice is annoying or off-key
  • The techno drums are inappropriate
  • I recognize a melodic sample that underlies most of the song
  • The song is too similar to another song I know and like better
  • The singer’s voice is similar to the voice of a singer I know and like better
  • The main riff is repeated too often
  • The musicianship seems sloppy

Unfortunately, putting down other peoples’ taste in music is easy and somewhat addictive. It feels good. It makes you feel superior. And knowing that a song used a chord progression out of Songwriting 101? That makes it so much easier to make an official ruling on the Objective Measurement of Song Suckiness.

Of course, it also means that you’ll find reasons to dislike every band that has ever existed. Melody is confined to just a few notes? You can rule out some really good John Lennon/Beatles’ songs. Musicianship seems sloppy? There go the White Stripes. Singer sounds too similar to another singer? If you liked Radiohead first, then gone are Muse and Coldplay. The techno drums seems inappropriate? A lot of great songs from the 90’s, well, now They Suck Too. Chord progression is the same for the entire song? Well then, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah must Also Suck!

You get the idea. There are a million reasons not to like something. It’s easy, fun, and disgustingly enjoyable to be cynical, to run around the musical circle playing “suck, suck, goose,” cursing most things and damming the rest with faint praise.

The truth is, though, there’s only one reason that matters: Do you enjoy listening to the song? When you stop judging it based on any individual factor, when you take in the whole, how do you feel? Do you want to tap your toe? Do you want to bob your head? Do you want to sing along? Did the song paint a picture or evoke a distant memory? Did you shake your head, remembering a relationship that went bad? Did you smile, thinking fondly of your girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband, or other kind of significant other? Did you want to dance? Did you want to cry?

And if you did any of those things, what does it matter that the singer is a jerk? If you liked the song, who cares if, on close examination, it’s actually very similar to another song that was less popular 20 years ago?

Honestly, though, I can’t always turn off the judgemental part of my brain. That’s just how I am. Through practice, though, I have learned to ignore it. It’s still harder to turn it off with music, especially popular music. It still happens in film, too, but generally only when I’m not enjoying the movie anyway. I try to absorb myself completely in the world that the film is creating, and only if that continuity is somehow broken (by the movie itself or by real-world distractions) do I tend to start thinking of the movie as the sum of its components rather than the whole… and that’s what makes it easier to pick it apart.

I almost wrote a paragraph that sounded like a television advertisement for a new drug: If you find yourself judging and deconstructing music or any other kind of entertainment, ask yourself… etc. Then I realized, that’s just me judging everybody else (judging things), and that’s not good either.

As far as I see it, the truth is this: With access to services like Spotify and Pandora, there’s no reason for music-lovers not to consume as much music as possible. Discover new things, use the Related Artists feature in Spotify or listen to an entire unknown song you’re not so sure about in Pandora before you give it a thumbs-down.

Use your ability to deconstruct to find elements you do enjoy in songs you would otherwise not enjoy. Appreciate the production in a pop song you don’t like, or the emotion from the voice of a singer who can’t hit their notes. Focus on the musicianship in metalcore or the ridiculous amount of patience and technical knowledge that went into a dubstep track.

There’s always a bucket list of media yet-to-be-consumed that some friend or critic or academic recommended. If you love music or film or video games or any kind of entertainment, consume as much as you can. You won’t regret enjoying it, and if someone tells you it sucks and you shouldn’t like it, that’s their problem.