The following are my opinions. That's why they are on a blog and not on Encarta or World Book.
Like the taste you taste with your tongue, musical taste is the taste you taste with your ears. Take pop, for instance—as in soda pop and pop music. Both are acquired tastes that require a matured palette to enjoy fully. Sweet sugary soda may taste good as a kid, but you might enjoy a more sophisticated soda like Orangina as you get older. The same is true with pop music. It's pretty much like candy and that's why kids love the hell out of it. Of course, you don't stop loving candy when you're an adult, but you just might prefer dark chocolate or Toblerone better—that pretty much describes Paul Simon or Paul McCartney. Or how about some Sour Patch Kids, like Katy Perry? That's the kind of candy you hide in your backpack or in a special drawer so nobody will find it. Am I right?
The point of all this is that we all want to have great taste in music. We can't control how good we look or how smart we are, but we can control the music we listen to—and that music is often the thing that makes us cool. I don't know the psychology behind it, but I'm sure there's some awesome chemistry—a change in endorphins or whatever—that makes us feel cool whenever we listen to something "out there." I don't know how else there would be a hipster subculture if we didn't feel a warmth or receive a message that told us to continue listening to music that is very esoteric. Something pleasurable has to happen in our bodies when we hear something that few people have heard. Nobody wants their musical reputations sullied by uncool music.
For some reason, I keep on remembering the best education I received, in and out of the classroom, at The New School in New York City. The school was the beacon of hipsters who desperately wanted (or even needed) to be artists. One of those "artists" smugly stated "I try my best to never listen to any tonal music." As a naive 18 year old, he taught me exactly who I didn't want to be. "Have fun listening to the air conditioner all day," I laughed. In response, he called me a dirty word that rhymes with "hunt." True story. I ironically learned the most from the least pretentious students. They were the dudes and the chicks who liked the artsy stuff, but weren't shy on digging the hottest number one single either.
Anyway, I remember taking music theory in college and having my first introduction to extremely dissonant music through the compositions of a dude named Milton Babbitt. Our professor studied under him and she was very cool. She sung well and was a somewhat gifted composer herself, who played damn good piano (though she claimed it was "total shit"). She was the intellectually honest type, who pretty much admitted that "Babbitt is important and I think he's a genius, but anybody who thinks the dissonance is actually beautiful is bullshitting and lying to themselves." Now, this wouldn't be The New School if somebody didn't pipe up and say "I think it's beautiful." To nobody's surprise, somebody said just that. The professor rolled her eyes and said in confident disbelief, "okay, I don't believe you."
To this day, I still don't know where I stand on this issue. I was proud of the student for calling the music "beautiful" and I was just as proud of our Professor for calling "bullshit" on him. Is "beautiful" really the right word to describe his music? You decide.
I'll repeat the question: Is "beautiful" really the right word to describe this kind of music? Listening to it, I don't want to say "yes" but I have a lot of trouble saying "no." I've determined that the word "beautiful" complicates things in a really unnecessary way. So, let's simplify it. Do you enjoy Milton Babbit's music? I'm going to take a guess and say if you do enjoy it, you're probably liking it less in your gut and more in your head. You know what I'm saying?
If you don't enjoy it—on any level, at least—I think it's important to figure out a way to. Why? Because you will find yourself liking a lot more music. Musicians often learn how to play faster than they ever need to play because it makes them better on their instruments. In the same way, learning to like music you'll never listen to can help you open your mind to other inaccessible music and art in general. If you want to enter the music business in any capacity, its important to figure out a way to enjoy something, even when it seems you can't.
The key to enjoying music you're not used to listening to—or not used to liking—is acceptance and tolerance. There is a justifiable reason for why any music is released on a reputable label. The artist has to be talented in some capacity to get to the point of having a record deal. Figure out what that talent—that "it" factor—is from a label's perspective. And always remember...it's all in the material.
- You don't like Randy Newman's voice. Well, that's the voice he has. What about the music?
- You hate the synthesizer in this 80's song. Well, that's the way it was recorded. You can't do anything about it. What's good about the song or the performance despite it?
- This jazz feels very disorganized. Maybe it is. But is the disorganization completely random? What emotions does this particular note choice or sequence make you feel? Furthermore, can you make disorganized music that sounds better?
- The song had three chords. Does it need more? Is the progression deceptively simple?
- You don't like Bob Dylan's voice. But what about his phrasing? What about the way he emotes?
- This record has too much echo and reverb. Try getting used to it and then judge it on different terms.
- These lyrics are really weird. That's the universe that the music lives in.
- RULE OF THUMB: If you find yourself getting lost in a groove, the artist is doing something right.
Finally, I want to remind you of something and this is very important. "Honesty" and "authenticity" are total myths. You weren't at the session and you aren't the artist. Either all music is honest and authentic or no music is honest and authentic. It's just music. Enjoy it.