by Neil Slade
What is good music? Who is a good musician? What makes "Musician A" great, and "Musician B" merely adequate? These are questions which both casual listeners and consumers, as well as professional critics must accurately answer with consistency. Why? Music costs energy and money, as well as time. If one spends energy and time living with mediocre music, when one could be dining on fabulous music of all types, it is like eating all your meals at McDonalds; a ridiculous use of time, money, and ultimately bad for you. A steady diet of greasy hamburgers will rot your stomach. A steady diet of junk music will rot your brain.
What this brief report will do is: 1) show how most consumers come to perceive commercial popular music, and 2) outline what exactly good, bad, and great music is, using a simple rating system. The rating system and its definitions of each category will allow you to make a more accurate appraisal of the value of the music you are hearing, and what you can expect in terms of "musical nutrition" from the artist and music over time.
How We Perceive Music
Accurate musical appreciation and perception is a valuable skill. This is because as much as ever, our perception of music is not based upon real musical worth, but based and manipulated by heavy commercial marketing, and often misleading critical evaluation of music in print, radio, and television media sources.
For example, we see and hear "The Giant Banana Clones" on the cover of Rolling Stone, and Spin magazines; we see them on David Letterman, MTV, and Saturday Night Live; we hear their songs on our car radio; and finally we encounter life-size cardboard replicas and multimedia exhibitions of "The Giant Banana Clones" at our local music store. We are conveniently offered a large portion of "Banana Clones" through music and information sources we habitually turn to.
Mass marketing and production gets certain music RIGHT IN OUR FACE. More often than not, this sheer repetition of exposure produces the false notion that "The Giant Banana Clones" are a great group, or at least, very good and deserving of all the attention they are getting. If a musician or group is good enough to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, or on Saturday Night Live we automatically assume "They must be among the best". Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth, and quite the opposite is true. Most record buying consumers make the easy mistake of confusing popular and well-advertised music with what is truly good in music.
Also see "What is "Brain Music?"
Who Is Popular In Music and Why
These days, unlike the era when even groups like the Grateful Dead and The Mothers of Invention got exposure and record deals, almost all music groups that achieve widespread exposure in major media and become "popular" and sell millions of records do so adhering to two UNBENDING RULES OF POPULARITY:
POPULARITY RULE #1) Popularity is BOUGHT. Musicians BUY their way into the hearts and minds of the public, in exactly the same way politicians buy their voluntarily elected political positions: with tons of money. In the case of music, this is done with the artist's record company's enormous capital investment, which of course the artist must pay back out of record royalties or they are dropped like a hot potato. As in politics, the general public's ability to discriminate between baloney and substance is not very great. If the ads and image look good, the public can be sold almost anything. Whoever spends the enough money, will likely get elected "King of Music".
Record companies go to extraordinary measures to lobby for their groups' exposure. The groups and musicians that get the most money are the ones whom the record company feels best fit the criteria of what is currently "The Big Thing". First, the companies must invest very large amounts of money producing a material product that will be available on shelves in thousands of music stores across the nation. Second, they invest tens of thousands of dollars, or much more in the case of "major" artists, producing television music videos (really commercials). Then the companies spend more money in shmoozing and contacting radio stations so that their artist will be heard and seen on the airwaves and in print. Finally, huge in store displays and other advertisements are created as a last front line assault on the consumer.
What the record
company is hoping for is market saturation, and a musical
chain reaction, so
that everybody is talking about their group. Then, when 5
million people walk into
Blookbuster Music with $15 to spend, they walk out with
"The Giant Banana Clones Eat Chicago" CD. Not because
it is particularly good music, but because it is a safe
for the consumer. The record company has
brainwashed the consumer's taste and perception of music
with money. The consumer's brain automatically registers:
Chances are 99 to 1 that the "Banana Clones" are merely mediocre. Why?
POPULARITY RULE #2) POPULAR GROUPS ARE AS A GENERAL RULE NOT VERY ORIGINAL OR INNOVATIVE. This is simple to understand. Vanilla ice cream is the most popular. The lowest common denominator is bland. Everyone likes plain water.
As we recognize, millions of records are sold not because of innate talent or creativity, but because they are heavily advertised. So if you are a record company executive with millions of dollars to potentially lose, are you going to gamble all that money on something nobody has heard before that goes against the grain? Are you going to spend a $50,000 on a music video for a group of weird looking guys who play lyrics and scales that nobody is used to hearing?
Almost always, no. The record company will go with a safe bet. They will spend their money on a group of pretty and attractive guys and gals who look good from any angle, who appeal to consumers the same way that the guys and gals on Baywatch appeal to TV viewers. And/or they will give a half million dollar advance to the group the looks and sounds just like the last success story. Thus, for the past five years we have been listening to "Nirvana #2" and "Nirvana #3", and #4, #5, up through "Nirvana #1,658". A common variation recently has been "Nirvana With Pretty Girls". The amount of musical sameness that is being mass marketed in 1996 is at a higher level than ever. Consumers are being sold and listening to an alarming number of twentyish something non-musical fashion models (whatever the current "look" is) with guitars. The black rap and music market is no better in it's lack of variety and invention. It is frightening.
The Billboard Charts are filled with group after group after group of CLONES. Originality is as rare as the original Nirvana. When original expression does happen, and it does once every ten years or so, it does so because the record buying public has become so totally bored with the regurgitated slop the music industry has fed it for so long that people demand a change of menu out of starvation. Unfortunately, record company executives are not so much accurate judges of musical value as they are practical businessmen. As Frank Zappa has said "Most people wouldn't know good music if it bit them on the ass." This may be especially true of record industry businessmen who have large sums of money at risk.
Original, stimulating, and thought provoking musicians do exist, and a very few, by sheer determination or plain luck do manage to break the barriers and are recognized by the masses. But this is sadly a very rare exception. The Beatles were literally turned down and rejected by every single record company in England before educated music arranger George Martin heard them and gave them a chance. Once they showed how big they could be, it spawned "The British Invasion" and hundreds of Beatles clones were the result, the vast majority of which we have long since forgotten.
So, after examining "popularity" we can safely conclude that it is generally only an indicator of heavy advertising and average musical expression. Truly exceptional, inspiring, and innovative popular musical artists are exceedingly rare by the very nature and methods by which musicians now become popularly accepted.
One final question: Must a musician in fact offer something new and original to qualify as a "good" musician? Absolutely. There is certainly room for "classic" tunes and familiar styles, old friends we know and love. But music is like air. It must change or it becomes stale, and you suffocate. If you don't replace your body's old cells and grow, you die. If you keep playing and listening to the same old thing over and over again, your ears will eventually fall off.
What Is Worth Listening To?
Once you finally begin to ignore the overwhelming barrage of mass marketed mediocre music, you can begin to listen and evaluate music on a more honest and aware level. This is infinitely more rewarding and exciting than blindly following the latest trend.
Every type of music has its intrinsic value. The elementary school band concert with its out of tune clarinets and out of time drums can be appreciated in its own context. We don't expect to have exciting shivers run up and down our spine at such a performance. And we don't expect the perfect beauty of refined musical technique. It's just a bunch of kids having fun, and it can be a good time for all. But it is BAD music.
Similarly, the most repetitive Top 10 popular hit can also be appreciated in its place, perhaps like a large order of greasy and indigestible but yummy musical French fries. It has a beat and maybe you can dance to it.
However, the rarified air of inspired GREAT music is an acquired taste, and for the most part the guardian angel of appreciation will only let those pass who can discriminate between a few crucial parameters of aural content.
This is not about style. Punk rock is not automatically good or bad. Classical music is not automatically good or bad. The ultimate true perception of music and extracting the most from it, regardless of style, depends on knowing what is what, and what to expect from what.
BAD music can be compared to junk food; good only in small doses, not much there to keep you alive. GOOD music can be compared to real whole foods; it gives you lots of energy and power, and keeps you going for a long time.
The ability to accurately hear musical energy and utilize it well is a skill dedicated musicians acquire with thousands and thousands of hours of musical practice. The following guide and rating system will easily help a non-musician and beginning musician discriminate between different levels of music in the same way. The result: you have more fun listening to music, because you know what to expect, when to stay put, and when to get up and leave.
Do You use ANY Inkjet Printer?
The Real Music Five Star Rating System
* One Star (Really Bad)
One star musicians and their music is the least complex, with no hidden musical vitamins to speak of. You can listen to one star music for the briefest amount of time (unless you are learning how to play music yourself). The longer you listen to it, the more annoying it becomes, usually within a matter of minutes or even seconds. Examples would be a 4th grade beginning saxophone student playing a solo on "Back To School Night". Or a twelve year old guitarist doing a bad rendition of "Stairway To Heaven".
Many music hobbyists fall into this category, people who practice their instrument five minutes a week during the commercials of their favorite TV show. One star musicians are nice to listen to no more frequently than once every six months, and then, only if you've had a couple of drinks first. Then it is funny.
** Two Stars (Pretty Bad)
Two star musicians are not nearly as common as one star musicians, but unfortunately, they are a lot more visible. These people have begun to accumulate a "repertoire" of sorts, they know a few tunes by heart. You can find two star musicians all over the place, more than you care to. Two star musicians frequent music stores trying out new music gear. The will play the two or three songs they can remember, pretending to the clerk that they may actually be interested in buying that new $1,200 Gibson guitar. Two star musicians can be seen in many open stages at bars and clubs around town. Their timing and pitch is not very good. They write tedious and boring songs devoid of melody. They "jam" a lot.
Occasionally, more advanced two star musicians learn up to ten songs and then they form a band. They then will play at your local bar and turn their amplifiers up, and you can't tell how bad they really are because all you can hear is your ears ringing. They may Xerox flyers and post them up outside record sores on telephone poles, and pretend they are really hot stuff.
If they have a really big allowance or a steady job, two star musicians may even produce their very own CD that even looks like a real record. But upon hearing, you immediately realize that they still have bad timing, no pitch recognition, no melodic sense, and absolutely nothing original to say.
Again, two star music can be tolerated for periods longer than one minute ONLY if: 1) you are in some way moderately intoxicated; 2) you are having a conversation with a very attractive member of the opposite sex, or; 3) you are friends with somebody in the band.
All two star musicians imagine themselves as famous if they only get a good break.
*** Three Stars (Stuffing)
Three star musicians make up the bulk of popular music as we know it today. They create the most often consumed, attention getting music in western American culture. The Billboard Charts, and practically every other rating scale/chart/poll/award consist 99% of three star musicians and their music. These musicians have achieved the ability to sing in tune most of the time, and to keep a steady beat... as long as it is 4/4 time. They are great mimics, and can emulate other musicians with uncanny accuracy. They hallucinate that they are being unique. They may want to be like the best artists, but deep down, their interest in their art is equaled or surpassed by their interest in being popular and making money.
Three star musicians take someone else's idea and juggle it around just a little, like making a milkshake; Take known safe ingredients, mix and pour. Take guitar, drums, bass, 4/4 time, add some lyrics that fit the mold, record at a fancy studio, and VOILA!.....a predictable three star musical milkshake.
Three star musicians play the same song with minor variations over and over again, until everyone gets bored. Then they have to look for a real job.
Many three star musicians get a hit record, the fodder of the music industry. This is the result of a fluke mutation of their habitual musical patterns that causes people to temporarily pay attention to this unusual sound. They may accidentally create a decent piece of music in this way. With proper marketing, this song becomes a "hit". This hit is immediately followed by endless attempts to clone this one song into more hits. Unfortunately, the record company and the three star musician are completely unaware of the accidental nature of the songs' composition, and they are unable to recreate the initial excitement of the first accident. After several more hit songs of diminishing quality, the three star musician fades away only to return fifteen years later on a reunion tour.
Again, three star musicians can only regurgitate mild variations of other more creative musicians work. The sure sign to tell if you are listening to common three star music is if you can answer the question "Where have I heard this before?" in three seconds or less.
Three star music makes fine background music for when you are driving and cannot be too distracted that you run over a dog with your truck. It is good to listen to when you are cleaning your bathroom. It is good music when you don't want to offend anybody. Sometimes it is better than silence, but other times it IS NOT. Three star music makes a good present for someone you don't know very well, or as a present for a lawyer. Examples of three star music: Yanni, The Dave Clark Five, Blur and about a million other groups.
**** Four Stars (Pretty Good)
This is a small group of musicians and their music. Several superstars of musicdom fall into this category, although many more superstars are simply three star musicians with a big advertising budget, and a willingly hypnotic audience. Example: Madonna is a three star musician who dances hard in front of four star stage sets. True four star musicians are mostly dedicated to the narrow field of music. They have either: A) unusually well developed technique on their chosen instrument, or: B) a superior sense of form and construction of elements.
Four star musicians and their legions of fans may think there is nothing better than the music they make. But there is a fair amount of nearsightedness in this perception, encouraged by the amount of media and critical hype many three and four star artists command. Four star musicians retain a certain amount of conservatism, and do not really push the boundaries of their art, though they may be experts at what they do. They are not particularly creative or innovative composers, a requirement to be considered a five star musician.
Fame is no indicator of four star music. In fact, many four star musicians gain no public recognition at all. These unknown-in-their-lifetime artists may not have the ability or the desire to promote themselves much. They may not live in Los Angeles. They may play instrumental music, in which case they are almost guaranteed obscurity and only death will likely bring them widespread acceptance. And then, only among a small group of educated listeners to which the music has slowly filtered down to after many years.
Four star musicians care more about their music than marketing. They would play no matter what. In contrast, three star musicians quit when the wife gets pregnant and there are no more hit records on the horizon.
Many outstanding classical, or world musicians belong in this group, people who have devoted entire lives to perfecting their craft. You can name many of them, but there are many, many more you will never know even exist unless you get up off your lazy ass and look.
***** Five Stars (Genius Great)
This is the rare of the rare, the cream of the cream of the crop. Extra extra extra virgin organic olive oil fresh from the olive press. We only see a few of these people alive in any one of our lifetimes. The music these people create is a reward to those who have bothered to awaken from the stupor of conventional wisdom and taste. Five star musicians only very rarely make it through the filter of mass acceptance unless their specialty is rock and roll, and even that is a very rare occurrence. Inevitably, the music of five star musicians survives long after they themselves are gone. They can be pioneering innovators, or the highest masters of their chosen style.
Often, only an extremely well trained ear can tell the difference between a more common four star artist and a true five star musician at work. Five star musicians are frequently ahead of their time. Their work is so brazenly brilliant, that it goes completely unnoticed by most, like an alien formula for perpetual motion.
In art and science we easily name Van Gogh, Picasso, and Einstein as representative of this class. In music, most all admit Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Stravinsky as examples of the very finest. They are almost all the anti-thesis of popularity. Van Gogh sold one painting in his entire life. Bach was considered "old fashioned" and was unknown 100 miles from his home during his lifetime. Both Einstein and Beethoven were told their work was "impossible". But today, with time and perspective, we see that these five star individuals laid the very foundations upon which we rest our current notions of reality, of what is good.
How often have we heard the easily tossed about comparison of a contemporary artist with one of the greats? "The Giant Banana Clones are the next Beatles!" Or, "Wangwee Balmstead is the next Hendrix!" What is the criteria? Is the music as solid as a granite boulder? Are we still listening after five years with the same fascination as before? Will we listen at all after twenty, fifty or one hundred years? Has the artist left a totally unique footprint, like Louis Armstrong, George Gershwin, Charlie Parker? Most people really haven't got a clue because their reference of comparison is so limited. All they know is what is sold by big corporations on TV with elaborate and colorful exhibitions.
Five star artists take the nice cushy chair you are sleeping in and yank it out from under you. "Try this on for size." They dare you. Charles Ives, Captain Beefheart, Kate Bush. They say "think or sink". They don't remind you of hardly anybody. Their voice is unique. They sit on the edge of the grand canyon and yell "Look at THAT view!"
Five star musicians are in the front car of a roller coaster. Up is down and down is up, twist and turns, they lead you places you don't expect, you've never been. Do you like this or not? They are the lead party on the trip to Mars.
The music of five star musicians continues to evolve. They keep exploring and demand that you keep up. Miles Davis, John McLaughlin. Nothing grows mold. Five star music is like clouds. It doesn't stay the same for very long. It is not revisited. You don't buy "The Greatest Hits" album because you have to move along with it as well, transforming and exploring. It is unbelievably deep, you can listen for hours, and days, and weeks, and still find something new.
Five star music DEMANDS that you move on and grow.
The pale three star music which is the steady diet of most Americans wants you to sit down and grow barnacles.