What is Bad Music?
From my scrapbook.
First there is the innocently stupid, the insipid song; then the intentionally stupid, the song ornamented with all the stupidities that the singer takes into his head to make … Next comes the vicious song which corrupts the public and lures it into bad musical paths by the attraction of certain capricious methods of performance, brilliant but with false expression, which is revolting to both good sense and good taste. Finally we have the criminal song, the wicked song, that unites with its wickedness a bottomless pit of stupidity, which proceeds only by great howls and enjoys adding noisy melees to the long drum rolls, to the sombre dramas, to the murders, poisonings, curses, anathemas, to all the dramatic horrors that provide the occasion to show off the voice. It is this last which, I am told, reigns supreme in Italy …
HECTOR BERLIOZ C1840
Sloppy versification, sophomoric diction, clichés, maudlin sentiments and hackneyed verbiage.
LORENZ HART ON 1920S POP
If Sibelius’ music is good music, then all the categories by which musical standards can be measured … must be completely abolished.
T. W. ADORNO C1940
The Stones are fake-simple, without gift. The design of their ‘Devil’ lacks arch, the sonic element is without sensibility, much less invention, and the primary harmonies are not simple but simplistic. Neither does the melody flow anywhere, nor does its stasis invite hypnotism rather than boredom … Misfired
simplicity, then, makes this music bad. The words, too, pretend … What makes Jagger’s lyrics bad is their commercial upto-date before-the-fact intent … The vocal performance is doubly false … Jagger’s inability to revamp plagiarism into personal style because of superficial (even dishonest: he’s a white Englishman) instinct for choice (of vocal models—‘parents’) makes his performance bad …
NED ROREM 1969
It’s a contributory factor to epilepsy. It’s the biggest destructor in the history of education. It’s a jungle cult. It’s what the Watusis do to whip up a war. What I see in the discos with people jogging away is just what I’ve seen in the bush.
HARVEY WOOD, DIRECTOR GENERAL OF THE RHODESIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION, ON DISCO, 1979
No single song has done more for the pro-choice movement than this sexist piece of wretchedness.
CITATION FOR PAUL ANKA’S “(YOU’RE) HAVING MY BABY,” NUMBER 1 IN THE BOTTOM FIFTY. SONGS THAT MADE THE WHOLE WORLD CRINGE, GANNETT NEWS SERVICE, 1991
There are six main reasons why unrestrained pop music is a grave social evil. First, with very few exceptions it is artistically worthless. The intolerable amplification which is essential to projecting it, and which is one of the chief reasons for its appeal, makes musical creativity impossible. It destroys the aural perception of the children who grow up accustomed to it, makes it difficult for them to cast off its spell, and thus denies them the love of true music …
PAUL JOHNSON 1995
Kissin has been appearing in Britain for 14 years, since he was 17. His platform appearance now is just as mechanical as it has ever been—one suspects the back of his tailcoat hides the hole for a giant wind-up key—and his fingers are as stunningly accurate as ever, but all traces of spontaneity have been progressively obliterated … On Thursday he rampaged through his programme in a totally repellent and scarcely credible manner … the paeans of the final Great Gate of Kiev carried no weight or majesty because all the sound and fury that preceded them had generated no tension or excitement, except of the most primitive kind … [Kissin] started out on his career as a musical
talent of apparently limitless potential, and has turned into the biggest pianistic circus act since David Helfgott; there’s nothing there but technique.
ANDREW CLEMENTS 2002
ike Nicolas Slonimsky, editor of the Lexicon of Musical Invective
, I have long been a collector of musical abuse, but I should make it clear at the beginning of this chapter that I am not going to answer my question—what is bad music?—directly.1
I did think about this: rather than prepare a chapter, I could compile a list of bad records, a guide to dreadful songs. I decided not to for two reasons. First, what intrigues me is not music I don’t like (and other people might) but music I do like (and other people don’t).2
Day-to-day bad music is music that my family and friends beg me to take off or turn down, to stop playing because it is so ugly or dull or incompetent.3
Second, there is no point in labelling something as bad music except in a context in which someone else thinks it’s good, for whatever reason. The label “bad music,” that is to say, is only interesting as part of an argument. There is no purpose (and it would be no fun) to discuss music which everyone agrees is bad (a tape of me singing in the shower, for example). And this is not an argument we can have blind. I can’t, in other words, persuade someone that the music they like is bad (and this is the most common setting for the use of the concept) unless I know their tastes, the way they make sense of their listening pleasures (which is not to say that the arguments here are just
a matter of taste).
In short, I’m more interested in examining ways of arguing about music (good versus bad) than in setting up a taxonomy, this is bad music of one sort, this is bad music of another sort. I’ll come back to this momentarily; first, an aside on taxonomies.
There are, by now, various albums (and radio and TV shows) featuring “bad music.” The first I can remember is a 1970s K-Tel anthology of the Worst Records Ever Made, selected and introduced by the British disk jockey, Kenny Everett. There are three sorts of tracks featured in such collections and shows:
• Tracks which are clearly incompetent musically; made by singers who can’t sing, players who can’t play, producers who can’t produce. Such acts (Tiny Tim springs to mind) used to be the stuff of certain sorts of television variety shows.
Tracks organized around misplaced sentiments or emotions invested heavily in a banal or ridiculous object or tune. Jess Conrad’s “My Pullover” is much anthologized in Britain, for instance.
• Tracks involving a genre confusion. The most common examples are actors or TV stars recording in the latest style: Telly Savalas sings Bob Dylan, Steven Seagal (“extending his creativity”) writes and performs his own songs.4
I’d add almost any opera singer performing almost any rock song. And, come to that, the Kiri Te Kanawa/José Carreras recording of West Side Story
Bad music here means essentially ridiculous music, and the sense of the ridiculous lies in the gap between what performers/producers think they are doing and what they actually achieve. Such recordings reflect a complete musical misunderstanding: this is bad music as naïve or foolish music (rather than immoral or corrupting music). Anthologies of bad music thus offer listeners tracks at which to laugh, to regard with affection, and above all about which to feel knowing: we, as listeners, understand this music—and what’s wrong with it—in a way in which its producers do not.
Rock critical lists of the worst records ever made, which nowadays feature routinely in the press and in books of rock ephemera, rest on a rather different approach to musical taxonomy. The tracks cited here are usually well known and commercially successful (rather than being oddities or commercial flops); the object of such lists is a critique of public taste, and the judgment involves the explicit assertion that these records are simply heard too often, as staples on classic pop or oldies radio stations, at weddings and in shopping malls.
There seem to be two sorts of tracks on these lists:
• Tracks that feature sound gimmicks that have outlived their charm or novelty (from “Disco Duck” to “The Ketchup Song” via “Bohemian Rhapsody”; Christmas and summer holiday hits generally).
• Tracks that depend on false sentiment (like Paul Anka’s “(You’re) Having My Baby”), that feature an excess of feeling molded into a radio-friendly pop song (songs about birth and death generally, in fact; most 9/11 songs, for example).
There’s still a knowingness here, but the critical contempt seems less for the recordings than for the people who like them, who take them seriously, who still find them funny or sad. And while one could imagine buying a bad record collection and playing it to friends as a camp gesture (re-framing kitsch as art), these critical lists of bad records are intentionally identifying tracks that are irredeemable. These are, it seems, records that no one could want to play who has any sense of good music at all!5
I’ll come back to this argument. What I want to do immediately, moving back from taxonomy to analysis, is to make clear the premises of what follows. First, then, I am going to assume that there is no such thing as bad music. Music only becomes bad music in an evaluative context, as part of an argument. An evaluative context is one in which an evaluative statement about a song or a record or performer is uttered communicatively, to persuade someone else of its truth, to have an effect on their actions and beliefs (the quotes that introduce this chapter are all arguments in this sense).
There are more or less appropriate circumstances for musical evaluation, but probably the most significant (significant in that evaluations here have the most effect materially) involve music making rather than music listening: the judgments made at the piano or the keyboard, in rehearsal rooms and recording studios, at run throughs and sound checks.6
Musicians, interestingly, are more likely to use the term “wrong” than the term “bad”: “that’s the wrong chord, the wrong tempo, the wrong sound, the wrong mix.” One question that arise here is what is the relation, if any, between wrongness
Second, I am going to assume that even if bad music doesn’t exist, “bad music” is a necessary concept for musical pleasure, for musical aesthetics. To put this another way, even if as a popular music scholar I can’t point authoritatively to bad music (my authority will undoubtedly be rejected), as a popular music fan I do so all the time. This is a necessary part of fandom. A self-proclaimed rock or rap or opera fan who never dismissed anything as bad would be considered as not really a fan at all. And what interests me here is what we are doing when we make such judgments and why it is that we need to make them. My question, in short, is not what is bad music but what is “bad music”?
The first analytic problem is to clarify the discursive basis of this concept. Conceptually, that is to say, most judgments
of bad music are
of bad music: the judgment is the explanation, the explanation is the judgment (and people’s musical judgments often, in fact, combine or confuse explanations, or move imperceptibly from one sort of explanation to another). In very broad terms (making an artificial separation for analytic purposes), the most common discourses in popular music judgment refer either to how the music was produced or to its effects, and we can therefore note immediately that although it is music that is here being judged “bad,” the explanation is not musical but sociological. What’s going on, in other words, is a displaced judgment: “bad music” describes a bad system of production (capitalism) or bad behavior (sex and violence). The apparent judgment of the music is a judgment of something else altogether, the social institutions or social behavior for which the music simply acts as a sign.
I can clarify this by going through the most common arguments in a little more detail. First, in arguments about production there are two familiar positions.
Music is judged bad in the context of or by reference to a critique of mass production. Bad music (in the argument made most influentially by T. W. Adorno) is “standardized” or “formulaic” music. The implicit contrast is with “original” or “autonomous’ or “unique” music, and the explanation built into the judgment depends on the familiar Marxist/Romantic distinction between serial production, production to commercial order, to meet a market, and artistic creativity, production determined only by individual intention, by formal and technical rules and possibilities.
Among other things, this means that “formula” or “standard” production that is not commercial is not, in this discursive context, usually judged bad: the fact that all disco numbers in the late 1970s “sounded the same” is a mark of unhealthy (commercial) formulaic production; the fact that all folk songs collected in Norfolk or Virginia in the late 1870s sounded the same is a sign of their healthy (non-commercial) roots in a collective history. More generally, one could say that such formula criticism tends to be genre-dependent: minor variations in boy band music are taken to be insignificant; minor variations in rural blues guitar tunings or madrigal polyphonics are of great aesthetic importance.
A second sort of criticism, which refers to production but without a Marxist edge, equates bad music with imitative
music. Again, the implicit contrast is with “original” or, perhaps, “individual” sounds,
and I am sure that every music listener has sometime dismissed a record or artist for sounding just like someone else (or, indeed, for sounding just like themselves), for “cashing in” on a successful musical formula.
There are many variations on this sort of argument. Take, for example, shifting attitudes to the “cover version,” British imitations of U.S. hits. When I first started arguing about pop, in the mid-1960s, rock fan orthodoxy was that the cover version was necessarily inferior to the original. This was obviously true of white pop versions of black r&b songs (Pat Boone’s “Tutti Frutti” is probably the nearest thing to a consensual bad record in popular music history), but was soon applied in playground argument to the Beatles’ versions of Chuck Berry songs (which we actually heard afterward), and I can admit now that the logic of the argument didn’t alw...