The funny thing about writing about music, or any of the arts, for a living is that essentially, the arts are subjective. This means that my opinion about music, or indeed literature, or film, or TV, or anything, is no more of value than anybody else’s. Sure, I have studied the subject matter at hand, and I have 18 years of solid experience deconstructing music in particular. Examining every little detail, speaking to the artists and those behind the scenes. I sure know what I’m talking about.
But still, I firmly believe that the arts are subjective. Meaning that, if you like a song, film, show, painting, anything, then nobody has any right to tell you that you shouldn’t like it. Your feelings towards it are real, and they’re yours. I believe there are a lot of critics out there who feel it is their job to tell you what you should like, why you should like it, and why you shouldn’t like another thing. I disagree. My role, in my opinion, is to tell you what I like and why, what I don’t like and why, etc. Over time, readers develop a sense for what my tastes are, and they’ll decide for themselves whether they’re more or less likely to agree with me. In other words, I develop a relationship with the readers.
To me, this in no way cheapens my choice of career. In fact, it enhances it. I’m good at what I do. I’ve been doing it for a long time, consistently. But I detest the idea that I’m sat here like some music supremacist, with superior opinions to everyone else. Nope, I’m a guy with a gift for conveying how I feel about art. I hate Celine Dion’s music. If you like it, more power to you. You’re not wrong.
Now I have to deal with this guy?
With all of that said, something weird happened on the very day that I’m writing this, and it has me bizarrely irritated. I should be able to let it go, because it’s so dumb. You, dear readers, are my venting panel.
I was at my desk at the Culver City News office in LA, and I happened to be alone in the building, working on a feature about a local music festival. A gentleman walked in and had a query about an article the paper had run in 1992. We didn’t have any issues that old on-hand and I explained that to him, but said that I’d see what I could do if he left his information. Said gentleman proceeded to write his details down.
Detecting my English accent, he asked where I’m from and I told him. “Do you like English music?” he asked, and the question perplexed me. Does he mean renaissance-era lute tunes, I wondered? “Sure,” I said. “Although I haven’t heard it all.”
“Do you like Nick Lowe?” he asked. An odd starting point, but I dug it. He was attempting to impress the British guy with his deep knowledge of English new-wave. “Sure do,” I said.
“The Sex Pistols? How about The Damned?” he said. “Yup yup,” I replied.
Then the conversation turned dark.
“I also like The Buzzcocks and The Clash,” I said. “Big fan of first-wave English punk.”
“NO!” he said. “Don’t ever mention The Clash in the same breath as The Pistols or The Damned. The Clash is not punk. Commercial bullshit.”
“Ahhhhh,” I thought. “What we have here is a clear case of somebody speaking out of their behind.” But I also had to remind myself that, if the nameless gentleman (I’m not protecting his anonymity—I don’t know his name because I haven’t had a chance to look at the info he left yet) doesn’t like The Clash, he’s well within his rights to not like The Clash, as bonkers as that seems to me.
“We’ll have to agree to disagree,” I said, wrestling a friendly smile from somewhere.
“Don’t tell me about music,” he said. “I know music.”
I had an urge to explain to him why I know music, pointing out my experience and achievements. But I’ll be damned (no pun) if I was going to justify myself to him. So I nodded. But then I thought, “screw it.”
“The Pistols was a band manufactured by Malcolm McLaren anyway,” I said.
“Pfft, I don’t care,” he said, clearly not actually knowing about the Sex Pistols’ storied beginning.
“Do you like Cream?” he said, taking another odd left-turn.
“I like Cream just fine,” I said. “I mean, they’re rehashing the blues and I’d rather listen to Robert Johnson. But they’re good.”
The guy snorted with derision. This guy had wandered into my place of work and up to my desk, asking for my help, and was playing the “big me.” Still, I wasn’t going to join him in his game.
The encounter, while gleefully anecdotal, was rather awkward. Still, it does serve to highlight something important, and bring this column back to the top. People don’t have to be a music critic in order to feel that their opinions about music are more important than other people’s. This guy just felt an in-built sense of privilege—that all should bow down before his wealth of taste, information and, simply put, superior opinions.
And he was nearly clueless. Imagine his attitude in the head of somebody who knows a lot. That would be insufferable. This is why I always have to remind myself that, when somebody explains to me why they like Nickelback, or the music that American Idol and The Voice churns out, I’m not better because I prefer David Bowie. I just like something different and, as a critic, I can express why more eloquently.
Like what you like. You do you. Here’s some valuable advice though—print media and the internet is jam-packed with people writing about music. Hunt somebody down who can string a few sentences together, and also has similar tastes to you. Then find another who has polar-opposite opinions. With those two writers at your disposal, with the “relationships” developed, you’re better placed to find music that you’re likely to like, while ignoring what you’re not. This is how it should work.
“Callwood at the Cooler” is a bi-weekly column which will see me waxing lyrical about events in the news, pop culture and the etc. Sometimes it’ll be light, other times not-so when the rant/monolog demands. The subject matter will vary dramatically so expect anything and keep coming back.