On sucking

Dot writes: this is a response to Stephen Scott’s post Does Your Taste in Music Suck?. I wrote a long self-indulgent comment that probably demonstrated the answer in my case is yes, and which also recapped in many ways this post from May last year. But here I want to be a little more analytical and break down some of the questions raised by Stephen.

Since Stephen and I came across each other online by being Gotye fans, it’s appropriate to start with this nice article that uses the ubiquity of his big hit, and its consequent uncoolness, to demonstrate how our tastes are shaped by our self-presentation versus what we actually enjoy. A Venn diagram from the article:
tastevenn2-e54a1ea5fa7e760f448757756b470ec1d6b9bb4e-s800-c85
What underlies this is a dual concept of taste – what we personally respond to, and what we perceive as being good in the eyes of the wider group. And I guess what Stephen is doing is pointing out that we shouldn’t worry too much about the wider group, because our responses are all individual, the product of our personal histories in learning the love of music.

(Here, by the way, is a wonderful article from Aeon magazine on how we learn to perceive and respond to music, focusing on the underlying ability of almost all humans to recognise the musical relationships and patterns salient in their own culture.)

But I think it’s more complicated than that. We can distinguish:

– bad taste (1). Most of us when we worry about having bad taste in art are concerned with social positioning – the choices that relate us, in ways that constantly confusingly change, to being ‘in’ with the ‘cool’ people, or (not always the same) that project the kind of person we want ourselves to be seen as. This is what Stephen and the Venn diagram are talking about.

– bad taste (2). But if we can use our choices in art to relate ourselves to others in terms of what they like, we can also do it in terms of what they don’t like, or even what hurts or offends them. Art can be offensive and painful. It can marginalise people, or perpetuate prejudice. Music can do this, though more through lyrics, videos and performance styles than through notes and rhythms; I’d say there is music that is in poor taste in a way I’d actively disapprove of, for example if it is misogynistic. A kindly relativism about cultural formation should not blind us to this, though on the other hand offensive messages themselves depend on the ways people interpret things, which may vary.

– bad art. Now I’m not an expert in aesthetics, but I’d argue that some art just is bad. As a medievalist I make an automatic mental caveat over originality as the core of excellence in art, but artists aim, I think, to do something that’s an effective use of their medium, whether a beautiful realisation of existing forms or something that pushes into the new, and the best art makes the world bigger for us. Some art just lamely and limply fails to do that. And it’s bad. Sometimes it’s enjoyable anyway, if it’s funny or energetic or something, but it’s still bad.

Now for the controversial part: name something you consider not bad taste but actually bad art. I’ll go first with a band I was very into for a bit – Oasis. Their third album was dreadful…

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2 thoughts on “On sucking

  1. Ah, originality or lack thereof. The source of all good and bad taste. I can see we’re going to be bouncing off each other for some time young lady.

    Insightful article with lots of extra reading. I’m going to have to mull over this before I respond…

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