“This makes the pop song an indispensable mirror: The way in which a listener imposes himself upon the text, or transforms the text from generic to specific, shows that listener something about himself. He learns his yearnings, his sadnesses, his loves; he recognizes an emotional life which is otherwise elusive, and solidifies in time an emotional state which is otherwise ephemeral.”
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.
Camera Obscura’s breakthrough Let’s Get Out of This Country was released ten years ago this June. Had I known of the record at the time, it would likely have been relegated to the category of guilty pleasure: something to be listened to but not shared; something enjoyable but not worthy. Rock music, especially after a nineties-alt makeover, was still seen as one of the few genres worthy of critical seriousness. Let’s Get Out of This Country was a hybrid pop record low on existential angst, with a penchant for cute sentimentality in place of masculine affect.
Except it’s currently 2016, the so-called poptimist war waged and won, and some part of me still feels the same way as I would have then: reticent to endorse this album, conscious of social judgments against it. It is, today, entirely acceptable within circles of music snobbery to commend the merits of Beyoncé, Britney, and Bieber; positive reviews by traditional tastemakers from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork asserts as much. Cheesiness, cheeriness, and the cliché (if ironically attended to) are in vogue, and fandom of pop acts serves as a signifier of democratic discernment, of unbiased and open-minded opinions. As Lindsay Zoladz writes in her self-introduction as music editor to Vulture,
“I’ve recently started to suspect that bragging about cultural omnivorousness has become its own form of snobbery, and that the new face of music-nerd elitism is not the High Fidelity bro but instead the Twitter user who would very much like you to applaud him for listening to Ke$ha and Sunn O))) and Florida Georgia Line and Gucci Mane and …”