All music is bad, yet all music is great.

katy-perry-super-bowl-sharks

A few months ago I posted about how my kids weren’t into punk rock, despite my attempts to show them how that music had influenced me for the better.

I received comments on various social media platforms ranging from “I know what you mean,” to “I worry about the music my kids listen to.” The latter sentiment basically boiling down to, “I don’t like the music my kids listen to, and I want to guide them to music of ‘substance,’ or ‘quality.’” Meaning: “my kids listen to Katy Perry, but they should be listening to the Beatles.”

Of course they shouldn’t…or at least not if they don’t want to.

This isn’t to suggest that the music of Katy Perry is somehow more valuable than that of the Beatles, or the Kinks, or Randy Newman, or Led Zeppelin, or whatever the hell else you want to throw in there. It’s just that kids need to be kids, and find their own way to music they appreciate. If the Kinks are good, chances are they’ll find them.

When I was a kid it was “Disco sucks!” Not really. Most of it might have, but that was down to the individual. Then it was “Rap is crap!” Never mind that the morons making this proclamation were unknowingly rapping as they said it. Heavy metal was demonic, with bands ingeniously writing lyrics that somehow said “let’s party!” when played forwards, and “kill everyone in Satan’s name!” when played backwards. Didn’t happen. Grunge got a pass because somehow all that flannel and ripped denim reminded people of Neil Young, and for whatever reason that was a good thing.

There are all sorts of socio-political and cultural reasons why people argue about the value of one form of music over another. Race can play a part in it; rap music, like jazz, heralded an age where a spotlight was focussed on the social plight of black North Americans in a way that some deemed dangerous. Public Enemy using the silhouette of a black man in the crosshairs of a rifle scope as their logo was a powerful image set to a funky beat that damned The Man, despite the fact that increasingly The Man’s kids were the ones buying their albums and rapping along.

Likewise, country music reinvented itself as it absorbed and white-washed pop, becaming “New Country,” modernizing a genre often associated with the quaint and the traditional. To believe the critics, it was like a folksy wood cabin morphed into a Walmart, from gingham and dungarees to star-spangled everything through a straightening iron.

Punk was the subversive underdog, until it started filling arenas at $100 a ticket. And Lenny Kravitz got 40 seconds during the Super Bowl half time show to air-band the intro to – you guessed it – a Katy Perry song.

We often associate the quality of music with historical context. Whether a song evokes memories of a time in history or a time in your life, what that time means to you can have a bearing on how you judge the song. Unfortunately most people remember their high school years as the best of their lives. I often talk to Sloan fans about what their favourite album of ours is, and more often than not I can already tell judging by their age. Older fans will pretty much always name one of our first records, and younger fans will be less familiar with those older albums. We see it when we play shows. If we play a club, it’s usually a younger crowd and they will react strongly to newer material, stuff that has been played on the radio in recent years. When we play seated theatres, it’s usually older fans, and they will react to the older songs more strongly. There’s no reason for older fans not to know the newer stuff, and they might, but they have a fondness for the older songs, even if the band cringe at the immaturity of the writing from that time.

All music is at once worthless and vital. Songs are just chords and lyrics, generally repeating the same traditional sentiments, re-interpretted by often over-hyped, over-paid, and manufactured stars all around the world. Yet they can have an immeasurable impact on any and everyone at some point in their lives, no matter what the songs are. So it is entirely possible that a Katy Perry song can have as much resonance on a soul as a Lennon and McCartney song.

For me, despite the fact that – or maybe because – I make music for a living, I have a different relationship with it than most. “What are you listening to these days?” is something I’m asked almost every time I do an interview, and usually the answer is “Nothing really.” And it’s often true. I don’t listen to the type of music that I play and write, for the most part, in the same way that an accountant doesn’t rush home to use his calculator at the end of the day. I have spent my time learning the craft of songwriting, and found my niche, but that doesn’t mean that I am jaded, or over music. It’s just that I often want to listen to stuff that I wouldn’t make, in the same way that the accountant wants to listen to music as opposed to…people counting. That doesn’t mean that I’m a classical buff, or a fan of New Country. It just means that I see music as something of a tool, and so I don’t value it in the same way that someone who doesn’t understand the nuts and bolts of how it’s created, yet it envelops them.

Because of this relationship with music, I can see the value of even the most inane, even vilified songs. As I stated above, most pop music, when broken down, is just a basic chord structure, melody line, and lyrics. It is what the artists and producers skin it with that makes it unique, for better or worse. We see this, for instance, when a pop star covers a song deemed a classic, and the world screeches “sacrilege!”

Britney Spears covering the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” is an example. It’s the same lyrics, chords, and melody as the original, but it does not evoke the same reaction. It is how Spears and her producers present the song that makes it horrible. Mind you, the original isn’t that great either, but you get the idea. So to criticize one artist over another, while being perfectly understandable, is generally all about personal taste. And personal taste, while perhaps pliable, is something that your kids should be allowed to develop for themselves. Exposing them to music you like is fine, but restricting or discouraging them from listening to what they like doesn’t steer them towards anything but resentment, and ultimately to second guess things that they enjoy.

So when my kids ask me to turn on one of the many radio stations that I can’t stand, I don’t worry about what it is that they are listening to, I’m just glad that they want to listen at all. They will decide what they like or don’t like as they grow, as I did, as everyone does.

3 thoughts on “All music is bad, yet all music is great.

  1. We have a 2-year-old daughter, and we play a lot of music in the house. Some of it is kids music (esp. Justin Roberts — his stuff holds up well to lots of play), some of it is classics like The Beatles, and we’ve made some of our own mixes of songs we think she’ll dig (and she seems to). But in the end she’ll figure out what she likes just like me and my wife did. I hope she likes what we like, but I don’t have too much invested in it. A few years ago, I was in London to see Sparks play some of their 21 albums in 21 days shows. I met a man who was there with his wife and seven or eight-year-old daughter. She actually had a fair number of Sparks song lyrics memorized, which wasn’t so much impressive to me as scary. Maybe at one level, I want my daughter just to tolerate dad’s music.

    What I think is different is music is so much more niche now — someday, my daughter will be listening to Disney radio or something even more narrowcasted. When I was growing up, if I could convince my mom and dad to turn on the radio, it would be to Top 40 station, which would wind up playing something my parents would like too. But I certainly know enough 20-somethings who are into cool ’60s music to know that there are no barriers for the kids who will gravitate to something beyond the mainstream.

    Really good piece — it obviously struck a chord.

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  2. Great piece! I’m not a parent yet, but at times I’ve thought about the music I would expose my kids to. At the same time, it’s important to let them develop their own taste, even if it means a few years of dealing with music we can’t stand. It’s true that some people do move away from mainstream music. I say “some” because I know many people who never explore music beyond whichever songs are getting the most radio play. I definitely had my mainstream music phase, but around age 14, felt that there had to be something more out there. Eventually I found my way to music that I felt was more substantial.
    Music can be different things for different people. Some can’t live without music, while others just like it as background noise while they wash the car. Maybe we should be glad that people listen to it at all, rather than trying to steer them in one direction or another. Many people can find their own way to good music without someone pushing it onto them – though my heart hurts a little for those who never get there.

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  3. Well said, Patrick. Bravo! Good music is good music irregardless to the genre/era. It’s frustrating when someone makes a blanket statement like ” I hate all rap, country, metal etc”. Many people are myopic in what they will listen to. Its sad, but not too sad, because those kind of people also tend to be music snobs, IMO. I just discovered Sloan this year at 44. While I am one of those types who “can’t live without music”, I never had the time or energy to search out anything that wasnt playing on the radio. I feel ripped off, but better late than never. What made the difference? Spotify. Easy access to all music. My Sloan folder has a whopping 90 songs in it (and these are just my prime picks). Thank you. Love your punk ass!

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