A good debate has been running in the comments to Cory’s post, but I’ve started a new post to encourage more readers to join the coversation. Are there really “good” and “bad” songs, or is everything personal preference? Is there a difference between “good” music, and “liking” music? Read what Mr. Furious, Cory Alan, Franz Clobberfist, and JT have written, and join in.
IF WE ASSERT THAT BEETHOVEN AND CREED are of different aesthetic value, then we must seek grounds on which to base our judgement. Most people think and act as if this assertion were; Cory writes, “I know you would probably agree with me that a band like The Beatles is objectively better than a band like Creed, regardless of how many people like either band however much.” It is in that light that I read Cory’s original post, and his comments on: originality, honesty, catchiness, and a certain self-serving quality. Conducting our examination with a clear example (like Beethoven / Creed, though the Beatles / Creed is certainly clear enough for most purposes) helps create understanding so we can talk over the finer points (Bright Eyes / Radiohead) with clarity.
This position states that an objective reality exists (i.e. is a form of “realism”), and it is within this objective realm that an aesthetic object (like a song) has its ultimate aesthetic value. It is more or less “good” in reality. Cory is a realist: “But truth and objectivity are completely independent from our PERCEPTIONS of truth and objectivity… a song’s quality is independent from whether one likes it or not.” But along comes Franz (or Kant) to rightly remind us that under no conditions can a person know or experience this objective reality – knowledge and experience is ALWAYS colored by subjectivity.
So should we give up trying to say anything meaningful about objective reality? Franz and the relativists say “Yes” – whether that reality exists or not is an open question for relativists (i.e. Beethoven = Creed people) but regardless, relativists think that no meaningful statements can be made about it. Realists (i.e. Beethoven > Creed) answer “No” – and cross the gap between subjective experience and objective reality by a variety of means including logic, conventions of language, and judging statements by standards like coherence or utilitarian value. The details cross the line of feasibility for this forum. Yet there is much at stake in this debate, more for how to live one’s life than for evaluating music. If a person accepts that some meaningful statements about an objective reality can be made, the immediate question here is finding some that deal with musical value.
Franz has anticipated this point: “Aren’t judgement calls subjective?” Yes, and no. I’ve admitted that there is a subjective aspect to any form of judgement – but that does not mean that the subjective part is the ONLY part of an evaluation. For example; Beethoven, Creed, and originality. The 9th Symphony contains more uniqueness than “With Arms Wide Open” – more intricacy in its’ harmonization, more complexity in its’ melodies, more variation in tone, rhythm, and expression. This is not my experience of the music; look at both pieces on paper, and you can see and read the difference. In terms of originality, Beethoven is good music, and Creed is not as good as Beethoven.
Notice that the act or state of “liking” this music hasn’t come into play yet. It’s an interesting question about the relationship between music’s quality and a person’s experience of it, and more so whether there is any kind of obligation to like good music and not like bad music. I won’t try to answer that today. It is this situation Cory referred to; an argument between people who have confused a discussion of good/bad music (as it exists objectively) and what sort of music they like (subjective experience). JT understands; “N’Sync has some songs that are some of my worst guilty pleasures. But that doesn’t mean it’s good, much less great.”
Very, very few people truly act like relativists (though many talk like them, saying things like “that’s just your personal like / dislike!”). From a relativist perspective, I can’t imagine why you would want to say, or hear, any statements about music at all. Even reading a review in which the author writes about their personal experiences, there is definitely a normative quality to the review. The author is suggesting a certain way of hearing the music, a “correct” way that gently excludes or de-values other ways of hearing it. In doing so, the writer asserts some normative value judgement, which necessarily appeals to an objective existence of some form. I’m convinced of the realist position. The real inquiry here is into the terms by which correct aesthetic evaluations are made; a subject which cannot be exhausted or concluded, but will generate fruitful discussion for as long as art exists.