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 Everett True

There’s no good. There’s no bad. There’s music.

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Calvin and Hobbes math problem

You know me. I’m a slut for debate. Someone made a remark on Facebook that grabbed my goat full-scale by the horns. (It was via an update regarding the wonderful Sydney band Royal Headache, equals of Guided By Voices circa ’93 and Roky Erickson and Tunabunny; in their own way, of course.) Think of this as me, bucking violently for release:

Everett True
Anyone care to comment on this statement from Nic Tammens?

“I’ve always held the vague association between Royal Headache and Guided by Voices, whether it’s the upbeat, punchy pop/punk/rocknroll meets D-I-Y attitude or something else… it seems obvious to me. But on another note, I really feel the current surge of punk rock in Aus has to do with the sublimation of the Mainstream record industry with the “alternate” industry (somethig very contextual to Aus e.g Triple J), basically a lot of people are fed up with being fed shit and being told it’s cool. This has bred a stronger culture of D-I-Y in Aus and formed a solidarity with musicians/music lovers in the USA (giving Aussies better opportunities outside Aus, e.g Total Control, UV Race, Eddy Current).”

Michael Train 
Had not heard Royal Headache before. They’ve got a lot of Strokes in them, no? At least the intro, then it goes more trebly powerpop. Doesn’t really seem to me to have much to do with bands like Kitchens Floor, Eddy Current…, Slug Guts, Naked on the Vague, or Blank Realm, but I’m not in Australia. There’s also an early-80s NZ thing bubbling in Australia now: White Woods, Twerps, Dick Diver. But none of those bands are half as good as a second-tier Flying Nun band like the Alpaca Brothers. You have to start somewhere, of course, and it does feel like Australia’s been out of the game for too long, so it’s good to see activity. Have not yet heard anything recent that had me feeling anyone had bled for it, as with X, the Slugfuckers, Saints, and so on. Or anything as lovely as the Moles, Cannanes, Ampersands, etc.

Darragh Murray
Everett – I think he’s bang on.

Everett True
disagree. music like this is first and foremost about the live experience: what links these bands is the live experience (they all play the same condemned warehouses, the same living rooms). I couldn’t give a fuck about what happened in the past. what interests me is what’s happening now, and Australia – in this particular strain of rock music – has as much as any country happening now, probably for the same reasons Seattle or Detroit or Glasgow or Peru or wherever has had in the past. Ignored by all the folk at home, and only noticed when feted abroad, these bands have been forced to create their own lines of communication, their own sounds, if they want to survive. Just because Royal Headache have fucken melodies, doesn’t mean they’re no punk or unworthy somehow.

Everett True
And Michael, you probably have a preference for those “second-tier” FN bands cos you saw them live, or heard them back then. Context is really fucking important when it comes to loving music. Royal Headache are as good as GbV back when I saw them in ’93.

Michael Train
There’s no way to comment on the live scene from afar. Very often, as with the US hardcore scene in the early 80s, bands that have little to do with each other musically can end up forming a vital scene, of course. Bu you asked for a response to written text and a You Tube clip, no? So, judging from recorded music only, if from 10,000 miles away, I hear them closer to the Strokes than to Kitchen’s Floor, but for all I know they’re best buds, hang out together, and borrow amps from each other. And, by the way, I’m not nuts about Kitchen’s Floor: saying that Royal Headache don’t seem to me to be fellow travelers is not a negative criticism from me.

If you can find me a current Australian indie rock band that’s written a song as good as The Alpaca Brothers’ The Lie’, I’m all ears. I grew up in late 80s Boston, so I’ve got no dog in this fight…. But I did see Guided By Voices in the early 90s and helped produce the first long look at their music on the radio in 1994. I’m not hearing anything so great as ‘Quality of Armor’, ‘Short on Posters’ or ‘Exit Flagger’. But I’ll keep listening.

[Nice song – Ed]

Michael Train
And context is what gets in the way of actually hearing the notes being struck; it should be the least important thing, or maybe the second least important, after the lyrics….

Everett True
absolutely 100 per cent disagree. you’re assuming here that there’s such a thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music. WRONG WRONG WRONG

Michael Train
You’re admitting here that you can’t tell the difference? Of course there’s good and bad music, and people with ears usually know very quickly which is which.

Everett True
It’s subjective. Of course it is. And that depends on the context you listen to the music in. Of course it does. To pretend otherwise is thoughtless indeed. Are you telling me that you’ve loved every single song you’ve ever loved at exactly the same level your entire life? That you’ve hated every single song you’ve ever hated at exactly the same level your entire life? Wow.

Everett True
Example. We could argue all day whether Coldplay write ‘good’ songs or not, but what would be the point … except for entertainment value? (And let’s not dismiss that lightly.) You either believe they do, or you don’t. You can pull forward arguments from anywhere to support either view. Bangs alive … you think pop music is JUST about the music? Fuck, I thought even 2-yr-olds knew that wasn’t the case.

Everett True
Imagine you’re listening to some music without knowing the context it first appeared in – where it came from, what the band/artist look like, which country, what age, when, etc etc. Your judgment is still tempered by whether that music reminds you of other music you’ve heard, favourably or unfavourably. CONTEXT. Good and bad don’t actually come into it. Plus, your judgement is also tempered by what the weather is like outside, whether you’ve just drunk some coffee, had a row, played sports, if you’re in the bath, got headphones on, etc etc. CONTEXT. All these affect your judgement. Not whether you hold to some weird ideal (that doesn’t actually exist) of whether a piece of music is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

For example:

Or, as Nic Tammens rather more concisely puts it: “Art is subjective due to culture.”

ADDENDA (the conversation continued on Facebook)

Lucy Gulland ‎
“Of course there’s good and bad music, and people with ears usually know very quickly which is which.”

AAAARGH!

The assumptions in that statement are breathtaking! Apart from all the stuff about subjective experience/context etc. that ET has already articulated, what about the terms themselves? What on earth does “good” or “bad” mean? There’s no moral dimension to musical notes so why use THOSE particular words?

What about these “people”: which people have these ears that can tell the difference between good and bad music? Are they people like you? Do they share your cultural heritage? Your gender? Your sexual orientation? Your economic status? Your social status? Your race? I suspect that when you say “people” you mean a particular subset of the Earth’s population and you’re closing your own ears to the experiences and judgements of the rest. If you don’t realise you’re making those assumptions when you’re listening to music your ears are missing a huge amount.

Michael Train
You seem to like to change your terms along the way. You used “context” originally to talk about my having seen or not seen the Alpaca Brothers in their native, live setting, not to talk about the ability of any listener to contextualize them. Given that most of us will not see most bands in their original context, this second sense is essential, yes, of course. And then it was you who introduced the absolute terms “good” and “bad,” without gradations in between. I only said that there is good and bad music, not that any piece of music can be utterly slotted into one of those categories. There is a vast continuum between those poles, and yes, the taste to place music on it is subjective, but it’s all we’ve got.

Michael Train
In some sense, the musical side of the discussion is beside your point? You seem more interested in the sheer existence of a surging Australian scene. Which we’re all excited about; it’s been a while, or at least it feels like that to someone on the other side of the world—I’ve almost certainly missed things that someone on the ground would have caught. But that feels more like sociology and politics to me. With a little boosterism mixed in…. A vital first step from which good things should come. I haven’t heard yet that piece of music out of the current Australian underground scene that knocks me back a step or two. I’d like to flatter myself that I’ll know it when I hear it, but it’s always possible I’ve missed it.

Michael Train
Ah, common ground. Well here’s to a good year for new Aussie music. And old: I’m in the middle of trying to put together a Sunday Painters–Wollongong, early 80s–compilation. May this be the year for that, too.

Everett True
I’ll run these comments alongside the others on the blog entry. Only fair. I do have plenty of other observations to make – for example your deliberate choice of an obscure FN track from the 80s as a benchmark for ‘good’ music of this kind: a song that won’t mean anything to anyone beyond the handful of devotees who (presumably) loved it at the time, same way most of the present-day Aus bands under discussion won’t mean anything to anyone beyond the handful of devotees … but, well. The points have been made. I do wonder whether it’s possible you might have – in your own words – missed it, this time around.

Everett True
And for the record, I ain’t seen Royal Headache live. I’d react this way if I heard a record this good if was new to me and it came from 2012 or 1978 (e.g. that recent great reissue of Disco Zombies)

10 Responses to There’s no good. There’s no bad. There’s music.

  1. Wild Eye January 9, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    Surely you’re both right? But of the two Ts it is MT who is the more right…

    Music is only first and foremost about the live experience if it is too derivative / average to spread across the world and stand the test of time (whether in a mainstream or cult way). Also a lot of modern music is electronic and sounds much worse in a live context.

    Context is vital, but cream does over time rise to the top.

    Nowadays I have got to the point of categorising bands into two categories – ones I love and ones I love seeing live. The latter are generally new, often unsigned bands who play pubs and small clubs around London. Hopefully some will become great, but many / most will not, but that does not mean that they are not well worth seeing live.

    The bands I love include –

    Bands I loved as a teenager / early 20s.
    Universally acclaimed ‘Greats’ like Roky / Stooges who I read about and my favourite bands were talking about when i was a teenager.
    Universally acclaimed ‘Greats’ that I discovered later (I was 10 when Black Flag and Husker Du were at their peak, and somehow never explored them until 20 years later)
    The odd band that has deeply impressed me recently (These New Puritans, Future of The Left).

    The reasons that I loved these bands in the first place varied massively, but what they all have in common is that they have made records that I loved, still love, that I would justify to anyne anywhere, and in most cases I would not need to because they are universally regarded because they made great music.

    It is probably true that context has an important role, because I fall in love with bands a lot less often nowadays. Or is it just that I have less space in my life for new bands because my life is quite full of them already, or is it that bands have to do a lot more to impress me now because I know just how great music can be?

    I know that context is a big part of it. I genuinely believe the Telescopes, Mega City 4, Snuff and Senseless Things to be great bands who deserve to be held up alongside the likes of Husker Du and Black Flag as greats. But part of me knows that I am a little bit wrong, because if they were that good they would be feted already. The world has made a mistake in not rating them much higher, but my absolute adoration is also wrong as I have allowed context to over-ride the more detached good / bad thing (this does not make me enjoy them any less).

    But I also know that context is not everything because other bands like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Levitation who I had phases of absolutely loving I now dislike intensely. They are shit. They were shit, though I concede that in the right context they had the power to give great pleasure. Context can make you love a shit band, but it cannot make you love a shit band indefinitely. If a band is truly dreadful then the truth will out, likewise if a band is truly great the truth will out and it will gain mainstream success or a dedicated cult following.

    Royal Headache… Live they may be great, live if you are a naive teenager (and ALL teenagers are naive, even the great Wild Eye was naive once) they may be greater. But stripped of the first hand context, to an outsider, they are an OK band who have listened to far too many Strokes records. They will never get anywhere because the only context they work in is if you have been within 10 yards of them; to the rest of the world the context is that they are not that good compared to the vast canon of music history to choose from, and derivative as hell to boot. I hope that if they read this they use it as inspiration to write better songs and become more original. If they don’t then ET will look back on them in 10 years time (maybe 6 months) and admit that they were shit. But them being shit does not mean that they are not well worth watching now if you live 15 minutes from where they play.

    Or something.

  2. Everett True January 9, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    Context is vital, but cream does over time rise to the top.

    I fucking HATE this statement. IT’S SUCH BULLSHIT! No. It doesn’t. Think about it for a second. History is defined by culture: so whatever is in vogue at that point in time will be deemed ‘good’. That goes for whether it’s in five years time, 10 years, 40 years, 100 years … and so on.

    It’s also such a weird way to define your own personal taste: by taking solace in numbers. How many people do you reckon have bought Coldplay albums? 10, million, 100 million, 200 million, more? Does that make them ‘better’ than (my own favourites) This Heat or Royal Headache? Ah, but “the cream does over time rise to the top”. Bullfuckingshit.

    Bands I hated in my 20s/30s – Stooges. Levitation. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. Black Flag.
    Bands I hate as a 50-year-old (if I could be bothered to think about them – Stooges. Levitation. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. Black Flag.

    Bands I hated as a teenager – Queen, 10cc, ELO
    Bands I think are quite fun as a 50-year-old – Queen, 10cc, ELO

    What does that prove? The bands haven’t suddenly got bad or good. What’s changed is me, and the context I’m hearing them in. I’m aware that millions of other people like Queen, 10cc, ELO, Stooges … perhaps not Neds. Does that make me like them more or less, or doubt my own personal taste? No, of course it fucking doesn’t. Otherwise everyone would shut the fuck up about American Idol and admit it contains the greatest music ever known to humankind, this side of ‘Happy Birthday’. If you love Snuff, Mega City 4 etc etc … then, what the fuck? They’re not great because other people say so.

    That is so wrong.

    You liked Neds and Levitation once. You dislike them now. You’ve changed. Not them. You.

    Royal Headache… Live they may be great, live if you are a naive teenager (and ALL teenagers are naive, even the great Wild Eye was naive once) they may be greater. But stripped of the first hand context, to an outsider, they are an OK band who have listened to far too many Strokes records.

    That’s your opinion, and you’ve offered an argument to support it. Good on you. I completely disagree, though – and the rest is patronising bullshit, unfortunately.

  3. Niall January 10, 2012 at 8:31 am

    Context has a lot to do with why I hate jazz – namely the stuck-up and stuck-in-the-past bores who claim it is the best music in the world.

    But then it was only when I removed Abba from the context of my mum dancing at a wedding that I truly appreciated their super awesomeness.

    Context – it’s complex.

  4. Brian John Mitchell January 10, 2012 at 8:33 am

    I get into this all the time. Not just about music, but also about books & movies. I like some stuff that most people thing is good & like some stuff that most people think is crap. Some stuff other people are into I can’t conceive anyone liking. It doesn’t make me a better person than them. It makes me a different person than them.

  5. Craig B January 10, 2012 at 8:50 am

    John Peel used to say that he felt that his inability to like a band or a track was a failure on his part rather than the band’s, which is an interesting point of view. I have to say that I side with Everett on this – I know for a fact that the 20-year-old me would despise Girls Aloud on principle, but now 15-odd years on, I love some of their singles, so what does that say about music generally other than it’s all relative. Than may be a cop out of sorts, but it’s accurate: I love The Stooges, Queen, Husker Du etc etc, none of whom I came to in one go, finding about their relative merits one at the time over the years.
    Certainly, there is stuff out there I can’t see myself ever getting to grips with, but there are others that I’ve found to my surprise that I now listen to more than anything else – I’ve happened on a vast amount of electro, dubstep and house music in recent years purely because it’s interesting and forward thinking. Is that so wrong? Nah, because to hem yourself from any genre or niche is to lose out. Just as in the early 90s Everett introduced me to the delights of the Birthday Party – a band I had never heard of, or even knew what they sounded like, but on his recommendation in a Melody Maker review I bought Hits and in doing so set me on a completely different musical direction, one that I’m still on today – I’m glad I had no hard or fast rules about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ music, otherwise I’d probably bored to death by now. Fact.

  6. Wild Eye January 10, 2012 at 9:41 am

    I am trying to understand what your point is on this whole page, to avoid two people typing pages of shit at cross purposes. It seems to me that your points are –

    (1) Now is all that matters. What is best now, where is the action?

    (2) Context is very important.

    (3) There is no such thing as good and bad music, or rather it is purely subjective – when you say a band is good all you are saying is that you like them.

    (4) A person’s opinions change because of context.

    (5) Pop music is about more than just the music.

    (6) Cream does not rise to the top. ‘Good’ is defined by what is in vogue.

    (7) Taking solace is numbers is weird and ill-advised.

    I will reply in a different order –

    (5) Of course pop is about more than just the music.

    (2) and (4) Of course context is very important and can change your view over time.

    (1) I disagree – now is all that matters in live music only; I love live music therefore I want to know where the best live music (the music I will enjoy experiencing most) is near me. But when I am at home I want to listen to the best records, the records that I love the most. Basically the best records ever made. The action is listening to Land Speed Record, not some sub-standard, slower, less intelligent, less original version made 30 years later.

    (3) and (7) All that matters when I decide what to listen to is how much I like it. Personal opinion. But there is good and bad. Beyonce is better than Royal Headache because more people like her. Husker Du are better than Mega City 4 because the critics all agree and they sold more records and influenced (many) more bands. My good and bad (entirely subjective) is the only truly important thing to me, but to deny that the aggregate of numerous people’s opinions is not helpful in coming to my subjective opinion is a little bizarre. Numbers count whether simple sales or ‘informed opinion’ (writers, opinion formers, other musicians).

    Where this is important is

    (i) Context, say youthful snobbery, can cause a hip young thing to overlook Abba and SAW, only for time and the sheer weight of public opinion, combined with a change in context, to a realisation, appreciation and mucho pleasure.

    (ii) Context, say ignorance or an underdeveloped musical palette, can cause a hip young thing to overlook Husker Du and Sonic Youth. The sheer weight of critical acclaim eventually forced me to listen to and fall in love with Husker Du who I would have otherwise completely missed out on. I loved Goo, but didn’t like Daydream Nation and never really pursued the band – again the sheer weight of critical acclaim forced me to keep revisiting until, eventually, in my early 30s I realised that I actually love it all.

    At the end of the day the definitive Wild Eye godlike opinion is all that counts, but even minor deities can be guided by the voices of critics or the sheer numbers a pop record sells. Ultimately I forge my own path and 99% of the time I am completely right. The Telescopes are my second favourite band of all time. No-one likes them, everyone is wrong. All the critics love Radiohead and they sell millions – the critics are wrong, the public are wrong. [Incidentally is it just me or is it true that Blur and Radiohead have one thing in common… the only time they made half decent music was when they were ripping off Nirvana?] But it is a lot safer to dismiss a band who sell nothing or no critics likes than it is to dismiss one who sell millions or critics love.

    (6) Cream does rise to the top, not always but often. The Velvet Underground were ignored at the time, but have sold numerous records since and become a critics favourite. They might go in and out of fashion; as time passes they are likely to become less important (almost by definition as every year there will be more competition); but they will always be an important band because what was in vogue in ’66 has been superceded by what is good taking a much more long term and balanced view. Fashion overlooked them – but musicianship, songwriting, vocal talents, song-writing abilities meant that the cream rose.

    Conclusion –

    What differentiates Royal Headache from better punk bands is that better punk bands had better songs, better vocalists, more emotional attachment in the lyrics, more energy… although actually saying that perhaps the biggest difference was the context; the better punk bands can probably be defined more by the fact that the context in which they worked was a bigger one; the context of the time they released reconrds meant that the impact was over more people over a wider area. In fact Black Flag are probably still inspiring more young kids to get out there and do their thing, whatever that thing is, than Royal Headache are.

    The thing that I am forgetting of course is that you are not interested in promoting bands. You know that words about music are irrelevant and pointless. When you say that Royal Headache are brilliant you don’t want people to travel to Aus to see them and you don’t give a shit if they sell any records. You pretend to write about music but you actually write about life. It is the joy that you feel that you care about; it is inspiring others to write, play, think, live and love that you care about, not some shitty punk band. And they are shitty. And talking about Shitty punk bands you should check out Shitty Limits if you haven’t before. Maybe it’s just context, but maybe it’s the fact they’re faster (another word for better), have a better singer… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIXohP1WBk8&feature=related

  7. Everett True January 10, 2012 at 10:00 am

    I like the fact you replied out of order.

    Regarding this statement:

    (3) and (7) All that matters when I decide what to listen to is how much I like it. Personal opinion. But there is good and bad. Beyonce is better than Royal Headache because more people like her. Husker Du are better than Mega City 4 because the critics all agree and they sold more records and influenced (many) more bands. My good and bad (entirely subjective) is the only truly important thing to me, but to deny that the aggregate of numerous people’s opinions is not helpful in coming to my subjective opinion is a little bizarre. Numbers count whether simple sales or ‘informed opinion’ (writers, opinion formers, other musicians).

    For over 10 years, I and a handful of other people championed Daniel Johnston – mostly to constant ridicule. Other critics just laughed at the very mention of him. If I’d taken your assertion above to be true I’d have given up on him years back. Now, it seems, everyone – or at least more people – love him. What does that prove? Nothing.

    And … yes… American/Australian/UK Idol. Are you telling me this is the greatest that music has to offer simply because of sales? Absolute fucking bullshit. All it proves is that more people have heard this music.

    Of course now is what matters. I constantly listen to music from all years, starting – but not necessarily – from around 100 years back. All is equally as valid to me. Of course. More important is the context of YOU existing in the NOW.

    Regarding this:

    (6) Cream does rise to the top, not always but often.

    So does shit. And far more often. It’s entirely dependent on culture and your own personal perspective of what is good and what is shit. Hard to believe I know, but some folk talk the popularity of Radiohead as a sign that not all is lost within the alt. music world. (You’re right about Radiohead and Nirvana, btw.)

    The Telescopes were a fine band. Still are. I think you’d probably find a fair few supporters right here at CB. Just because they’re now ignored doesn’t change that fact.

    You don’t like RH so much. I do/. I’ve already stated several reasons why. So’ve you. You’re going to need to accept that in this case (my world), you’re wrong and I – as ever, I am Everett motherfucking True after all – am right. RH’s singer actually has an incredible voice (like a young Rod Stewart, as someone else already stated), and they have an incredible sound (like The Distractions, as I already stated), and incredible tunes and energy … but dude. Wait. I’m arguing with a former Mega City Four fan? Whoa. Hold on there, Nellie…

    Thanks for taking the time to argue your side. Very much appreciated.

  8. Everett True January 11, 2012 at 10:49 am

    (from Facebook)

    White Hotel
    oooh, lemme get my teeth in here.

    even given that we can’t agree a set of objective criteria (pace Godel, Escher, Bach) by which to measure the quality of music, thus rendering the kind of alt-canonification that the Wire engages in moot, there’s the way that genre can render critics and listeners cloth-eared. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to defend, say, Sade, from critics with rock ears, or Girls Aloud from people with punk ears. and of course I have my own biases – thanks to overexposure by a jazz-buff dad, I am clinically incapable of enjoying Miles Davis, clearly a gigantically influential musician. but what really irks me is that certain genres (specifically, pop, R&B and – to a certain extent – hip-hop) are thought of as trivial, and no matter how often you point out the dazzling wordplay in 212, people won’t see past that obnoxious honk of a beat she’s got going under it.

    White Hotel
    and I guess that’s another reason why having a diverse set of critics matters; it’s important that when you set up a non genre based music-critical endeavour, whether a website, a magazine, a blog or whatever – when you do that, it’s so important that not all the critics have rock ears.

  9. Princess Stomper January 12, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    You liked Neds and Levitation once. You dislike them now. You’ve changed. Not them. You.

    Total bullshit, ET. I still love Levitation and have the same “it’s quite fun” opinion of ‘Kill Your Television’ by Neds. Levitation were unequivocably, indisputably a good band. Good music. Anyone who thinks otherwise is Wrong.

    I still think Huggy Bear were shit. You still love them. Hate to tell you this, Ed, but you’re Wrong.

  10. Pingback: Music for the Masses: Pop and Cultural Elitism | Minor Scratches

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