Last Tuesday in the Collegian’s “Yays and Nays”, the editorial board issued a “Yay” to KCSU-FM for a successful 24-hour DJ-athon, a recent event which raised funds toward upgrading the station. Keeping with the board’s mocking spirit, they got in a jab after the praise: “Finally, their cheeky quirks and outrageous personalities served a purpose, but man their music still sucks.”
Before I continue, let it be known that I am one of two music directors for KCSU, responsible for determining what music gets spun on the station. My words are mine alone and are not representative of the station or any staff member.
With the tight-smile disclaimers out of the way, let’s “get real.”
I’ve been told the comment was just the editorial board’s way of poking fun and there’s no point in getting worked up over it. But the term “sucks” carries such authority. It’s the kind of sticker that leaves behind disgusting yellow glue when peeled away.
As friend to most of this paper’s editors, I’m entitled to speculate on what Collegian Radio would sound like and have in fact done so: Top 40 singer-songwriters, classic rock, alternative-pop-punk and maybe an indie track every so often.
Just because it’s the greatest song ever, “Bohemian Rhapsody” would be played every hour on the hour. There’d also be Sports Chat, The Opinion Show, the straight news, and each broadcast would be capped off with a five-minute “Correction” segment.
Collegian Radio is not something I would listen to, but I can’t say it would “suck.” I’m not jostling for the role of better man with that assessment; I mean it. When it comes to music, personal opinion is irrelevant. There is no “sucks” when it comes to songs.
There are essentially two arguments that say otherwise.
Argument A asserts that some music “sucks” because it simply sounds awful. But consider the central proposal of Leo Tolstoy’s book “What Is Art?”
He theorizes that an artist creates art to express specific emotions, intent on “infecting” its receivers with similar emotions. Since “Baby Beluga” makes three-year-olds smile and dance, as Raffi intended, it is a work of art.
But in this era of culture, the beauty of art is not that it’s interpreted as intended by the artist, but that it is interpreted differently by each individual. All songs, from the local group ditty to “Baba O’Riley,” will inspire some kind of reaction in any normal human being.
Sociopaths aside, it is simply not possible for people to be completely indifferent to sound. Hatred or joy or somewhere in between, if the tune affects the listener, it has succeeded in its initial mission. Bad-sounding music cannot, in a universal context, “suck.”
Tolstoy’s book is responsible for influencing the hipster’s perspective on music, leading to Argument B: Some music “sucks” because it is void of musicianship, distinctiveness or intellectual appeal. This notion picked up momentum earlier this year when a Caltech grad student analyzed Facebook data to determine the favorite musicians of a university’s student population and then aligned them with the school’s average SAT score.
With 1,352 schools analyzed, he was able to create a chart determine “smart” music. The highest scores were linked to Beethoven, Sufjan Stevens and Radiohead. The lowest: Lil’ Wayne, Beyonce and The Used.
Of course, correlation does not imply causation.
Wayne’s “Tha Carter III” received universal praise from wizened critics, including the cerebral word-gluttons at Pitchfork.com, who gave it an 8.7 and anointed it with its “Best New Music” label. It’s the only award that matters in music criticism at the end of the decade.
The Web site also declared Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” as the second best single of 2003, while Radiohead’s “There There” was deemed 13th-best.
If the opinions of elitist music Web sites mean nothing to you, consider the phenomenon of Jack Johnson. The singer-songwriter is essentially John Mayer with a cornier voice, hackneyed lyrics and a strumming dependency. But the data shows that he’s beloved at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and is the favorite artist of every major university in Colorado (except School of Mines, where Metallica literally rules).
Music aficionados can rag on popular artists with as much intensity as possible, but they will be loved by dumb and smart alike. The few are outweighed by the many and so, again in a universal context, far outside the realm of individual opinion, music does not have to be intellectual to be good. Johnson and all like him cannot “suck.”
Seems a little too win-win doesn’t it? Surely not everyone can be right. Surely some music must “suck.” If my logic seems flawed, I suggest reading it again until it makes sense. It will.
If you’re opposed to doing that, try out the too-long-didn’t-read version of this week’s column below:
Collegian: wrong. Erik: right.
Entertainment columnist Erik Myers’ column runs biweekly in the Collegian. Letter and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.