“If It Sounds Bad It Is Bad”

One of the critical ideas I’ve found most interesting of late is a seeming contradiction: Just because it sounds like bad music doesn’t mean it is bad music. “Just because it reads like a bad novel doesn’t mean it’s a bad novel” is also sort of true, but a bit more complicated.

The tenability of the first statement, of course, is the result of specific parameters for what it means to sound bad versus be bad. Specifically, the phrasing of “sounding like bad music” is key: it opens the possibility, when X track sounds like bad music Y, that the sonic trappings and features which X shares with Y music are not in themselves bad; that the “bad music” in question is ineffective or unpleasant for reasons separate from its overlap with track X.

If “A” is the trait which both X and Y musics share, then let’s term all qualities of X but not Y “B,” and all traits of Y but not X “C.” Asterisks signify modification:

A * C = Y

A * B = X

Though we might know Y is bad music, a negative product, this doesn’t necessitate a negative identity for X. Indeed, if “C” is the negative variable, and not “A,” then there’s no reason from its association with Y to believe X is negative (or “bad art”) as well.

Once the difference between being and sounding (or appearing) bad is cleared up, the observation seems so obvious so as to be worthless. Imagine you’ve never seen a picture of John Wilkes Booth, nor a photo of your second cousin Ed. You do, however, know that the two look a lot alike, and you know that J.W.B. is a bad man. On what grounds would it be rational to conclude that either Ed must be a bad man as well, or that both of them are physically unattractive? We can deduce nothing for certain about either A or X from Y: The aesthetic similarities John Wilkes Booth and your cousin share have nothing to do with the value judgment American culture has passed regarding the former.

Despite how obviously fallacious such deductions appear, cultural evaluation falls constantly victim to this thinking in which trappings and harness are confused. Bob Dylan at the Newport Festival, 1965, is a good example: Hailed by folk fans for his socially motivated lyrics and artistic authenticity at his 1963 Newport performance, he is (purportedly) booed in his 1965 return when he “plugs in” and plays electric. Overnight, critical and popular impressions of Dylan shift: folk fans who disdained rock’n’roll for its superficiality or culture, who saw folk as lyrically and artistically elevated, responded antagonistically to Dylan’s new material. And yet Dylan’s lyrical quality and artistic sophistication — the grounds upon which the critical distinction between genres had been made — had not declined. The artist had merely adopted the trappings of a genre (which folk fans perceived as being) less lyrically or artistically sophisticated.

It might be useful to employ Gabriel Duquette’s separation of “chords” and “maps”; though similar to the trappings/harness contrast, it’s a more specific distinction: Chords are the aesthetic qualities of something, which resonate on aesthetic levels. Maps capture reality in some accurate or meaningful way. Folk fans in the 1960s often found rock songs to be ineffective or poor maps: generic, sentimental, trite, tired (or else aimed at adolescents, which is a separate issue). But, through association, these fans’ disdain for rock’n’roll songs’ maps quickly became a disdain for rock’n’roll songs’ chords, and even a “good map” (by folk standards) such as Dylan’s 1965 Newport performance became confused for a “bad map” when it featured a bad map’s chords:

Mapbad * Chordvariable = Artbad

Mapgood * Chordvariable != Artbad