I’ve listened to a lot of music I don’t like in my time. Heck, I listen to music I don’t like every time Liz suggests putting her 90’s pop playlist on while we’re playing a game. And while I have no problems informing people when I don’t like what I hear, I’m usually careful to not to say “this sucks!” because me not liking something and something being bad are two very different things.
See, to be considered truly bad, I think music has to get certain fundamental things wrong. It would need to be out of tune, poorly performed, played by a band that can’t keep in time, or sung by a singer who just couldn’t hit the notes he/she was aiming for. Or it would have to be terribly produced/recorded so that you couldn’t hear it properly or it just sounded flat out awful. Appreciation of music is subjective, of course, but in order to be worthy of consideration it has to tick a few basic boxes.
And most bad music, music that fails to tick these basic boxes, just doesn’t enter into the lives of the majority of people. It doesn’t get circulated online or talked about in conversation. It certainly doesn’t make it onto the radio. This means that a lot of people never hear music that fails at the few objective criteria of being music. So they call music they dislike “bad” because they mistake the two things for being synonymous. Without a frame of reference as to what genuinely bad sounds like, all you can do is assume that if you don’t enjoy listening to something it must be crap.
Me? I’ve heard some bad music in my time. I was a reviewer for Cross Rhythms, a major Christian radio station (and I’ve already shared my opinion on Christian music), who apparently had no filter on the music submitted to them before sending it on to reviewers. I got sent some shockingly amateur recordings from bands who sounded like they were playing their instruments for the first time and had no concept of things like “tuning” and “rhythm”. In my early freelance days I had to listen to some pretty dire local bands and give them positive write-ups for $5 a pop.
I was also part of the student band scene at Warwick University, so heard my share of lousy music being played very badly at various Battle of the Bands heats and in dingy clubs around Coventry. I’ve also spent a lot of time pissing around on blogs and review sites so every now and then I spot the genuinely awful releases that somehow make it onto otherwise respectable sites. I have stared into the abyss of lousy music and it has given me a new respect for the stuff that most people consider bad.
I’m not going to name names of band’s I’ve seen/reviewed. That’d just be mean. I will, however, offer up a couple of examples of fundamentally flawed (and that’s putting it kindly) music at the end of the post for you to use as reference points next time you think of calling the latest teen pop sensation “the worst thing you’ve ever heard”.
By “Bad Music” You Mean…
But first let’s look at what most people actually mean when they say “this music is bad”.
This is not to my tastes
This is easily the most common category. 90% of the time people say that something is bad simply because it doesn’t match their tastes in music. “It was terrible! The singer just sounded like he was screaming and the drums and guitar were deafening!” Congrats, you have just successfully described death metal. As in, listed its features. “It was awful! It was just some guy rapping over a drum beat!” …Yeah, it probably was. You can’t criticise something by simply listing things about it. It’s like saying that a particular car is terrible because it’s blue and has wheels.
What you are actually saying is that this particular musical style does nothing for you. And that’s totally fine- people are allowed to like whatever they want. But implying that it is therefore bad because it’s not to your liking is presumptuous and actually rather arrogant, when you think about it.
This is boring or generic
Most people I know who dislike “mainstream” pop music say they dislike it because it is boring, lacking in complexity, generic, manufactured, unimaginative, and so on. And in some cases that’s true- the latest single from Katy Perry or Rihanna or whoever the kids are listening to these days might stick to a pretty well established formula… but that’s a long, long way from making their music BAD.
Quite apart from the incredible vocal talent these singers have, and the amazing production that goes into their songs, pop music is deceptively smart. I’ve often heard people scoff that they could write a pop song, to which my response is… try it. Try and come up with something half as catchy as what’s on the radio. Try and make something that millions of people will buy while sticking within the very rigid confines of pop music. It’s way harder than you’d think. So yes, pop music can be a little samey, even a little dull at times. But that doesn’t make it bad music, nor does it make you a more refined person for preferring so-called alternative music. You massive hipster ponce.
This is dated
I’m guilty of this one. I really don’t get along with old music- anything from the 60’s back just sounds totally flat and dull to my ears. I know…sacrilege. I know that Hendrix and the Stones and Cash and Springsteen and all the rest of them were the epitome of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion in their day but to my impertinent 90’s kid ears they couldn’t sound more tame and bland.
…But that’s not their fault. That’s not because old music=bad music. It’s because it was written in a context and a time that I was born several decades too late to understand. So yeah, the golden oldies pass me by, but I would never claim they were bad because of it. The fault here is with the listener, not the artist.
This is cheesy
Similar to something sounding old, some stuff sounds cheesy and cringe-worthy to modern ears. Basically anything that came out of the 80’s. And again, that’s not always the musician’s fault. Some stuff just doesn’t age well.
Then again, for a lot of glam rock bands “cheesy” was exactly what they were going for. So you might be trying to criticise a band by calling them cheesier than a baked camembert but you’re actually paying them a complement.
You Want Genuinely Bad?
Now that you have seen the error of your ways and bowed to my superior wisdom in this matter, let me show you a couple of acts you would be justified in calling BAD. Let me guide you into the oozing cesspool that is genuinely, fundamentally shoddy music so that you may bask in its putrid, lurid obscenity. Buckle up.
No, your speakers aren’t broken. That’s genuinely what Indian black-noise act Tetragrammacide sound like. Their EP Typhonian Wormholes: Indecipherable Antistructural Formulae genuinely sounds like that, all the way though, earning the honour of being one of only two bands to score a 0.0 out of 5 on AngryMetalGuy.com. You think the latest club or dubstep tune is just “noise”? Tetragrammacide beg to differ. I assume they think there’s some kind of clever anti-establishment point to be made in releasing such offensively abrasive, terribly recorded music, or perhaps they are just awful people who wanted to offend the ears of their listeners in the worst way possible. In which case they succeeded admirably. Bra-freaking-vo.
I was bloody hacked off by The Residents, because I was reliably informed they were some kind of clever avant-garde experimental progressive rock collective who all the plebs wouldn’t get but real music connoisseurs would appreciate. Back in my University days I considered myself a real music connoisseur and so I listened to their sodding albums over and over again, hoping that the utter crap I was subjecting myself to would somehow turn into halfway-decent music if I listened to it enough times.
Grating. Grating is the best word to describe the sounds committed to these records. Offensive, pretentious, incomprehensible, out of tune garbage that grates on my nerves like nothing else in music. I’m not one for hyperbole but I can honestly say I have never listened to any music I hate more than this. And the worst thing it that it has become totally ingrained into my brain because I listened to it so damn often. And yet somehow this detestable sludge gets labelled as forward thinking, interesting music for people who like to think outside the box. I mean, I guess I will concede that it genuinely sounds like nothing else out there- a fact for which I am very thankful. The Residents are proof that “unique” does not mean “good” anymore than “generic” means “bad”, and a testament to just how BAD music can be.
There’s Bad Music and there’s Bad Music
Here you have two examples of what I consider to be as close to objectively bad music as you can get. Hopefully this gives you a bit of perspective next time you want to call some predictable mediocre pop song “awful”. Anything you hear on the radio never gets anywhere near “awful”- the worst you’ll get is “boring”. Unless My Humps by the Black Eyed Peas is on.
I’m sure you could find worse music out there, especially stuff being released on an amateur level, but naming and shaming those sorts of bands seems rather spiteful. Anyway I hope you think twice before calling something bad just because you don’t like it. If you disagree with anything I’ve said please let me know in the comments and I will patiently explain to you why you are wrong. And share you own examples of objectively crap music!