On Listening to Music that Isn't "Good"
By Chloe Woida
want to write a little meditation on the practice of listening to music that isn't “good.” First let me clarify that I'm not talking about “bad” music: the kind of music that makes you shake your head and sigh, the kind of music that makes you walk straight out of a bar you've just walked into, or the kind of music that you hide in a special folder on your desktop lest anyone discover your secret penchant for butt rock or a certain sentimental French Canadienne. I'm talking about music that trips up the whole established, accepted process of aesthetic and social classification and demands that we listen differently.
Arthur Conley asked us, in 1967, “Do you like good music?” An elucidation of some of the top names in soul music at the time (and, some would argue, ever), “Sweet Soul Music” is simultaneously an interrogation, a celebration, and an education. Conley asks, specifically, if we like good music. It's a treacherous question, but an irresistible one. It's a question the cool kid on the schoolyard asks, a question that could change your life if you answer just right. If you say yes, the follow up is “Like what?”—and then you have to show your cards. If they're the right cards, you are granted status and access to a new social dimension. If they are the wrong cards, you might just have to walk home alone.
Engagement with music isn't just something we do with our ears: it's social, sexual, cultural, and physical. Conversations about music can quickly devolve to the most facile of aesthetic assertions, erasing or ignoring implications about all the other things music does for us: having the coveted album first ramps up our status, namedropping an obscure artist gets us respect, playing DJ gets us laid, and all of this renders us grounded in some kind of cultivated sense of self. We want to pretend that we stamp certain music with our seal of approval because it, objectively, is good. But we are “interested parties” when it comes to awarding aesthetic judgments to artists and albums and while that status shouldn't stop us from opining, we may as well be honest about it.
Recorded music as we usually encounter it makes certain promises, the same kind of promises that perfume makes, or breakfast cereal, or sporty automobiles. If we buy it we are more discerning, sexier, and possessing of better taste than other consumers. The social pastimes of music appreciation are connected to a music consumer culture wherein the record itself is all but lost in the swarm of pleasurable signification that surrounds it. Even those of us consumed with the popular music of days-gone-by are, in some weird fashion, acting as a far-flung extension of defunct marketing schemes put into play by ad men who are now retired or dead. Some agent somewhere once said, “I'm gonna make you a star!” and we are still chasing the echo.
Sometimes one wants to locate an antidote, or at the very least a counterbalance to the feeling that one's ears aren't doing as much work as one's ego. Fortunately not all recorded music is so easily and automatically commodified. The earliest days of recording technology, be it visual or audio, were coincident with a burgeoning awareness that the same technological wave that brought the capacity to record culture was simultaneously changing culture irrevocably. Traditional music was something naturally occurring, like wildlife, and “specimens” could be “captured” via wax cylinders, vinyl disks, or reel-to-reel decks. (Alan Lomax is perhaps the best-known American field collector of music, and collected recordings from all around the world. He envisioned a computer-based “Global Jukebox” that would make it possible for all of his recordings of traditional music to be heard on demand, though he never lived to see this idea through to fruition. Today, however all of his recordings are available for listening through the website of the Association for Cultural Equity, an organization founded by Lomax in the mid-1980s. Meanwhile, similar databases of recorded music are being developed for academic use through numerous university libraries.)
As war, industry, and “development” scampered merrily across the continents, on their heels came nationalists, linguists, anthropologists, and others trying to record certain aspects of disappearing traditional ways of life. There are problematic aspects to the rationales given for “salvage ethnography,” which sometimes suggest that traditional ways of life were static and unchanging before colonial and industrial intervention, and discount the legitimacy and potential for beauty in the culture of post-colonial cultural transition.
But we're not talking here about the reasons for recording such music. We're talking about reasons for listening to it. I first sought out recordings of traditional Polish music as a part of my genealogical research, secretly hoping to have some experience of deep, genetic connection, while fully expecting to find something simple, folksy, and easily assimilable. Instead I found myself struggling with and marveling at the strange melodies, the distance between myself and my ancestry underscored by the music's indifference to me.
What's different about listening to music captured as a specimen rather than produced as a commodity? The production values are distinctly lacking in the kind of gloss that makes you feel like you've spent your money well. The musician whose work is being recorded as a time capsule or a specimen isn't seeking your adulation, doesn't dream about singing out to you and hundreds of others through the blinding veil of bright stage lights. The music in general is distinctly uninterested in you and your response. Whether you like it or not doesn't matter. Whether it's good or not doesn't matter. It simply stands, as a record of something that used to be commonplace but now is rare.
Chloe Woida is a freelance writer living and working in the San Francisco Bay area.