Saturday, 7 May 2016

Music Taste is Irrational!

If you had known me back in 2008 you would have met a different person to the man I am today. Back then, I worked a day job but at night I had a different employment for I was also a DJ. I specialized in parties and so I was expected to play the music of the mainstream... or "dance mixes" of the same music. I played a lot of what was (and might still be) called "Funky House". Even now, in some barely touched archive, I have about 160 mixes of music that I recorded from those times. Nearly every single one of those mixes, which I made live, is at 128 beats per minute, the sweet spot for dance music if you play House Music. Every one of the mixes is an incessant "four to the floor" beat from start to finish. Most of the tracks played appear to be made in computers and use computer instruments. (You can usually tell this if the sounds made seem to be things you couldn't easily play but would be easy to draw on a computer screen in some program.) I find it almost impossible to listen to any of these mixes today. The music seems cheesy and the mixes are monotonous. I ask myself, sometimes, how I ever could have listened to it at all. But when you are a DJ you have to give the people what they want or you don't last very long. Its a scenario which breeds monotony as people want the same thing and the same style repeated every time. I would go to the same Army camp, for example, and play pretty much the same tracks every month. Its what they wanted and that's what got me the gig and the money for doing it.  

Two things happened to me last night. One, I was asked by someone to review an album they had just released so I sent a message asking them to give me a few days. I then listened to it. Two, I was followed by someone on Twitter and I clicked the link to their album in their bio and listened to it as well. The first album, the one I'd been asked to review, I completely disliked. But, nevertheless, its the reason I am writing this blog. The music was samey and formulaic. It couldn't have been more written to a template if it had been written by a robot according to programming. The formula was to start the track with a bit of speech, preferably from "the hood" and spoken by someone of black origin (the album nominally fuses rap with noise, a prospect I was actually looking forward to as something different), before segueing unceremoniously into a number of minutes of harsh noise or what is known in the noise genre of music as a "noise wall". Every track was like this and there was no variation. If you had listened to one track then you had listened to them all. This lack of variation disappointed me but I suppose the composer or composers of the album find it to be a formula they like. And that's their business not mine. 

The second album, the one I idly clicked on the link to, was altogether different. It was what I would describe as "Indie pop electronics" which probably isn't a genre but is my description for what I heard. This music was varied and interesting and I listened to every sound from start to finish. I even tweeted the person concerned who had followed me in the first place to let them know I was enjoying their album (without reply). The music of this second album allowed me to dream as I lay there in the fading light of a Spring evening and think about the sounds I was hearing and how they fit together. The music was somewhat enchanting. This was much in distinction to the album I had been asked to listen to which closed down my imagination and made me wonder why anyone would make music like this at all. Its worth saying at this point that, in both cases, I had started listening with an open mind and without any preconceptions. This is a necessary skill, not least in my DJ background, as you will often be required to listen to things you don't like. I did so here.

So what's the point of mentioning all of this? Well, firstly, I was asked to review an album, the first one mentioned here, and so I wanted to do that as asked. But, having listened to it, I knew that I had a problem. I don't like the album, as should be clear by now, and so there was and is no way I could say that I do or, in weasel words, have mealy-mouthed things to say about it to cover over this fact. So, secondly, I needed an angle if I was going to write about this album at all. We are in the fourth paragraph of this blog already and I'm not entirely sure what this angle is yet. Hopefully, I find one before the end of the blog. However, I must admit that I've clicked on a few of my old DJ mixes from 8 years ago and the monotonous beat isn't doing so much for my mood!

But then its Baby D to the rescue! It seems I mixed in one or two good tracks amidst the constant dance megamixes! (The track is "So Pure" if you're interested.) So let's talk a little about musical taste. This is surely not a static thing either from person to person or within one person from time to time. A lot of the tracks I played 8-10 years ago I actually liked back then but now you couldn't force me to listen to them. I've moved on whereas they have stayed the same. They could not travel with me. You may have a similar story to tell about some style of music or group of tracks. But what is "musical taste" in the first place? I want to argue that it is irrational and cannot be explained in terms of reason or rationality. Why do you like something? You might be able to give a retrospective reason or follow a thought process which justifies your liking something after the fact. But you can't say that this reasoning occurred prior to you liking the thing. "Why" you like the thing is altogether more mysterious than this. It has to do with a number of things too. Your identity at that point in time, how you came across it and in what connection are certainly part of these things, as is how easily you are pressured into liking something in the first place. You may be a relatively easy-going person or a person with a very strong and defined sense of what is likeable or not.

Notice here that I am not using a vocabulary of good or bad. Indeed, I'm consciously avoiding it. There is no such thing as good or bad music. There is just sound. When you say something is good or bad all you mean is that you like it or you don't. It is your own personal and non-transferable stamp of approval or disapproval. So, therefore, whilst I can say that the album of "rap noise" that I heard did not find my own personal stamp of approval I cannot say it is either good or bad. I can talk about it (as I have above) and say what I liked or did not like about it but this never transfers into a binding description of it. I can't even tell you that if I listen to it again next week that I won't, at that time and place, then decide I like it! This phenomenon sometimes occurs with my own music. I make my music quite fast and in an improvised way. Often (very often) its a matter of snap judgments and I never really know if I like the finished piece because I haven't really had the chance to sit back and make that decision. Its only in the following days and weeks, when I do that sitting back and listening, that I can then hear what I have actually made in context. It is only then that I come to appreciate the sonic relationships between the things I recorded. Or not.

So I think that music taste is both irrational (or emotional) and personal. Its not anything anyone should get too over-excited about in terms of its importance. People like stuff and they don't. This is subject to change from person to person and from time to time. This is all fine. No need to call the Culture Cops or the Music Police. If you want to make or listen to songs that are a portion of rap and then 8 minutes of harsh noise then do it. I wish you well with it because I think that the vital thing in music and culture is variety. Ironically, to my mind, this is variety even where all the songs on the album are the same. Yes, its true I would see more scope for variation in the particular album I'm talking about here. (I still think that a more varied mash up of rap and noise would be a great idea for an album.) I make electronic albums with sound and noise too. But I need my sounds and noise to be more varied and more subtle. This binds no one else to do the same. Its just my personal choice. But, taking an overall view, it is good that this rap noise album exists. It offers another choice and its one that someone else may like. All tastes are equal so that's fair enough. There is no overarching catalog of tastes which ranks some as better and others as worse and neither is the democracy of the public a binding guide either. Because some song is Number 1 does not make it good or bind you to like it. 

I imagine that this was not the kind of album review that I was being asked for and, I have to say, its true that I used to do album reviews on a previous blog but stopped doing them because one over-sensitive soul took my honest review of his work very personally and decided I had slated his work when, in fact, all I had done was said what I liked and disliked about it (liking it overall). But there is no point doing a review unless it is honest. Like Aslan, I am not a tame lion. And this is not the music press here. I'm not here to show you what a pretentious writer I am and pontificate about what "great taste" I have using all the twirly prose I can muster. Indeed, if you've read this far you know that I think the concept "great taste" would make zero sense. There is just taste, a sense we all have, for very complicated reasons, of what we all each like and don't like. That's all it is and that's as far as it goes. All I can say about taste is that you should push the boundaries of yours and see how far they can stretch. I guarantee you will surprise yourself and these little surprises are what keep life interesting. (I've now hit some of my old mixes that are more underground and I'm tapping my toes!) For me music and culture is a matter of variety, of nuance and of bricolage. Sticking to one thing and repeating it would be the only "sin of taste" that I could criticize. 

For reference I will give you the details of the two albums I mentioned here:

The album I didn't like and was asked to review was "For Tha Dead Homiez" by Hood Cannibal on Harsh Noise Movement Records and can be heard HERE! 

The album I did like was "The Diet For Life (Eat Less)" by Z Lovecraft Presents DJ Thigh Gap and it can be heard HERE! 

Of course, my personal opinions are absolutely not relevant for you since your tastes will be completely different to mine. This is just one reason I think reviews are largely useless, a tool for the lazy based on some supposed authority or honor you give to the person giving the review. But I've never yet come across a reviewer who I admire so much that I give him or her the position of deciding what I will like. And neither should you!

PS As I finish up this blog I'm listening to a dance remix of Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby"!!

PPS Since writing the blog I've received the following communication from Harsh Noise Movement Records which I quote word for word for sake of completeness: "Glad you like it! "... Dead Homiez" is a Harsh Noise album not a crossover. Its rap theme is purely a piss take. Nothing more."

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