All of us can easily name albums, bands, and genres that suck. Even our favorite artists have released albums that at first listen seem out of place in their discography. But what do we base such value judgments on? Does some music suck or are we as listeners sometimes just having a hard time coming to terms with what we hear?
We all have opinions about music. And we like to let others know what we think of music. It’s all crucial to enjoying and – at the same time – constructing popular culture as Simon Frith has pointed out. We want others to know what we think of the new Morrissey album because we want others to listen to it and discover the stuff we think is great in it.
In the same way we have opinions about which albums in an artist’s discography are good and which suck, which ones are the classics and which ones are the odd ones out.
For instance, when Load – or already The Black Album – was released people accused Metallica of selling their metal roots short.
But what are we really talking about when we say that some albums don’t sound the way they should?
If we claim that we know what true metal is supposed to sound like, are we in fact only referring to some canonized idea of true metal? Or to what we think metal should sound like?
The notion of what something is supposed to sound like is tricky. When we think we’re talking about Metallica we are in fact talking about ourselves. We are talking about our identity that includes a certain idea of Metallica we hold dear.
And we are also – as listening to music doesn’t occur independent of music cultures – talking about a collectively canonized idea of Metallica.
Music that is somehow different from the canons or from our identifications can then be harder for us to swallow.
That’s why Load might have sounded so off to some.
For the same reason Bringing It All Back Home might have sounded off after Another Side Of Bob Dylan, Same Difference after To Ride, Shoot Straight And Speak The Truth, or This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours after Everything Must Go.
But bands and genres evolve constantly. Sometimes the shared idea of what something is supposed to sound like is circumnavigated by coming up with new labels and genres to fine-tune our identifications.
When, for instance, bands like Earth Crisis or Madball began mixing metal riffs with hardcore, they were soon described as metalcore to create a distinct identification apart from both hardcore and metal.
This kind of nichefying is of course a way to build new audiences. A process of which the corporate music industry is very much aware and part of.
Nowadays the shared idea of metalcore has shifted from metallic hardcore bands to bands mixing pop choruses with melodic death metal, or Gothenburg metal, in the vein of Killswitch Engage. Those who identify with the newer metalcore bands might call the earlier bands simply hardcore.
Similarly those who identified with early emo bands such as Dag Nasty or Rites Of Spring that took the Hüsker Dü influenced melodic punk rock and hardcore to a next level in the 80s might call contemporary emo simply pop.
The reinterpretation of genres and musical cultures – for market or for artistic purposes – can also make us reinterpret our identification. Then again, it can just as well make us resist the reinterpretations and spark an intensified identification with the old as Fabian Holt has noted.
This is also a way how the age-old disputes between the old schools and the new schools and the endless fights over which albums in an artist’s discography are classics and which suck are born or get intensified.
Still in the long run Bringing It All Back Home didn’t make Bob Dylan a pariah but a true rock icon and a spokesperson for more than just the folk movement.
Entombed needed a clear break after Nicke Andersson left the band. Same Difference was their way to challenge themselves.
This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours became the logical step for Manic Street Preachers to take on the way to Know Your Enemy, to Lifeblood, and on to being recognized as a band that can pull of everything they do.
In similar vein Metallica continued from the Load era to St. Anger and on to Death Magnetic and even Lulu proving that they kept on doing – as they like to put it – whatever the fuck they wanted. Whether we like it or not, only Metallica knows what Metallica is supposed to sound like.
But even if we acknowledge that we are influenced by collective opinions, canons, and our identifications, we are most likely still going to think that some music sucks. And others beg to differ.
In the end it might not even matter.
As Frith reminds us, debates and discussions over taste are just as essential features of (popular) culture as culture itself.
References and further reading:
Frith, Simon (1996) Performing Rites. Oxford University Press.
Holt, Fabian (2007) Genre In Popular Music. The University Of Chicago Press.