Posted on May 18, 2014

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Jet is, objectively, a horrible band. For their album Shine On, the indie music sages at Pitchfork gave them a 0.0 and posted a video of a chimpanzee pissing into its own mouth in place of a written review. Therefore Jet is an objectively horrible band. Except they aren’t and I should shut my fat mouth about Jet because I’m a pretentious hipster jerk (PHJ) and Pitchfork is just a bunch of PHJs writing about their PHJ opinions on PHJ bands which are then cited by PHJs like me to make us all feel superior in our little PHJ world.

Jet has millions of fans and have made millions of dollars. Their success and adoration means they can’t be bad. In fact, it means they are an objectively good band. Look at those numbers! Jet has sold over 6.5 million albums! The band My Bloody Valentine, in comparison, has only sold around 2 million albums. That means Jet is, objectively, over 3 times as good as My Bloody Valentine. Obviously.

"Three times as bad as Jet"

Except I’m an idiot and everything I just said is wrong. Because Jet is both subjectively good and subjectively horrible. And My Bloody Valentine is both subjectively amazing and subjectively slightly not as amazing. Because aesthetics aren’t universal and stuff. And that’s the truth, subjectively. So then how do we even discuss music quality with all the varying tastes and aesthetic perspectives out there? Personally, I prefer my fists if they are talking shit about My Bloody Valentine, but I am also a psychopath and wanted criminal across three continents. If you prefer to not define yourself as a psychopath and/or do not wish to be a prospective wanted criminal across three continents, I guess you’ll have to stick to talking or something.

The number one most important thing you have to remember is that we’re really just a bunch of chemicals that are affected by internal and external stimuli. Now I can hear your brain saying, “Wait a minute dude! This is about art! Cut out all that science malarkey!” and also, “Should I go out tonight or stay in and study?” (You should go out, though that opinion is subjective), as well as a bunch of weird/creepy stuff I don’t really want to talk about in public. But get help soon. To your sick and diseased brain I say, “Science is important!” If we know we are each made from unique chemical mixtures and music affects those chemicals in different ways, I think it is a little easier to picture how or why people react dissimilarly to varying types of music.

Basically my chemicals can, by the chance of my genes or birth or whatever, be attuned to release more endorphins and dopamine and all the good-time, woohoo chemicals of the body while listening to ambient-drone music than your body. Which means I can listen to a band like Boris and run into your room and be like, “Oh my god you have to hear this!”, hand my headphones to you, force you to listen by interrupting your work on your thesis or something unimportant like that, and then have you look at me like I’m nuts and tell me to stop bothering you because your PhD defense is tomorrow (just a really general example). And it’s all okay and totally natural and explainable by science! It also means I hope you don’t call me names for liking strange stuff (but I kind of understand if you do). However, just remember I was born that way and it’s not my fault you procrastinated on your PhD defense.

"You mean to say this isn't going to be heard on Top 40 radio?"

However, let’s not get overly biologically deterministic. We are adaptable creatures and totally have a capacity to learn! We could start talking about fuzzy dendrites and how they get fuzzier or something when neurons pass through certain pathways over and over (repetition and practice), but I don’t really know what I’m talking about. So I hope you will trust me when I say I read somewhere this one time by this one person who is really smart that Science thinks we can learn stuff. And because we can learn, we can also develop our musical taste and knowledge.

We have to be careful here. Just because a person might know a lot about the technical aspects of music or listen to gobs and gobs of experimental genres does not give them any edge in objectivity. That’s where a lot of people, including myself, get in trouble. We think because we listen to a guy pluck a single chord every ten minutes on a self-made instrument, and have brains we have conditioned to enjoy it, that we have some special super secret squirrel insight into the objective quality of music. But the fact is we are no more qualified to judge music objectively than the Belieberiest of Justin Bieber Beliebers (I do, however, reserve the right to make an objective judgment as to the quality of their existence and a cost/benefit analysis of launching a rocket containing their idol into the center of the Sun (Because, seriously, fuck that shit))

And “learning” music is not some linear curve where listening to the math rock of Battles with it’s complicated time signatures or the deafening experimentation of Odaeri is at the high end of musical understanding. Because of our chemical differences, people will develop their tastes in all sorts of directions, which is frustrating but cool. Diversity is something to be celebrated, even if it makes talking to people with a strong preference for other types of music difficult. Different types of music inspire creativity in a scene, allowing genres to meld, intersect, play off of one another, and all sorts of other neat tricks that continually rejuvenate the imaginations of artists.

I hear people claiming they “love” music, people who live in a music scene stuffed with talent like Seoul; celebrate like they have found an oasis in the desert when some international band comes to town. To me, that is the most egregious misunderstanding of music a listener could possibly make. They have separated “good music” from “bad music” in their head using the supposedly objective measures of popularity, nation of origin, critical praise, or their prior knowledge of a band. It’s sad to see people who claim to be such experts in music not know anything about the music scene around them. If they got rid of their preconceived notions and understood the true subjectivity of aesthetics, with millions of little factors leading to the release of those coveted endorphins in their brains, they could start exploring their local music scene with open eyes and fresh ears.

Then what about critics and award shows? That seems like a tough concept in light of all these chemicals and neurons and imaginations. Well, right, it is. Award shows and end of the year lists counting down the top ten albums are blatant cases of subjectivity masquerading as objectivity. Have the voters for the Korean Music Awards listened to every single album from every single artist released in the past year enough times to have a substantial and educated opinion about each one? Have critics compiling their lists done the same? I’m not saying these award shows and lists shouldn’t exist, rather they can exist as celebrations of music, saying, “Here are some of the albums we heard about and personally liked. We want to share them and promote these bands.” Because when we get down to it, that’s really all it is. Their chemicals were tickled in a certain way and now they want to share the catalyst of their tickling in the hope that your chemicals are similarly tickled. Why is a certain album number one on the list and another number two? Unless that critic measured the levels of the chemicals released by their brain while they were listening, they have no basis for this separation. It’s all music politics, image management for their personal taste, the desire to promote an artist they feel deserves it or whose career they want to “make”, or a million other reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the music.

Taste is not a zero-sum game. Someone liking a band you hate doesn’t take away from your ability to enjoy a band you love. In fact, spending time hating music seems like a pretty big waste of time to me. I’ve been to plenty of shows where I really did not enjoy listening to the band, where my brain was drier than the Mojave in terms of feel-good chemical release. But if I looked around, other people would be really into it. Instead of feeling separated from those people thinking I’m different/superior/inferior or whatever our brains tend to do when we see people who like something we don’t, I can still feel connected to them by knowing they are enjoying music in the exact same way I enjoy music. Their chemicals react when they experience music they like in the exact same way my chemicals react when I hear music I like. And that, despite my PHJ tendencies, is a beautiful thought.

Judging aesthetics is a rough business. We continually want to rank, codify, and order everything in our lives; so it is understandable we have developed this tendency to do the same with our aesthetic preferences.  But we don’t have to. If we accept our musical taste as entirely subjective it opens us up to the idea that subjectively good music can come from anywhere and anyone. When we use music to decorate and label ourselves in an attempt to appear more sophisticated or cultured, we lose the true joy of experiencing art. Music exists to enhance our lives, but for that to work we have to let ourselves enjoy what we are hearing. Hopefully your chemicals are up to the challenge.

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Written By: Alex Ameter

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