About a year ago, maybe more, our friend Rich pressed me to articulate the grounds for my music snobbery. ‘If,’ he reasoned, ‘you are going to sneer at my taste, you at least owe me an account of why your taste is better.’ [Editorial note for the sake of Truth: Rich did not say that, nor did I actually sneer at his taste. I just don’t share his fondness for most of ELO’s or the Eagles’ oeuvre, and I did perhaps eyeroll or arch a brow at his playlist. OK, that’s the rough equivalent of a sneer. I’m sorry.]
Rich suggested that I might like or dislike music in an inverse proportion to its popularity, but that’s not it. I like plenty of popular artists, and haven’t acquired a taste for lots of acquired tastes.
At the time, I felt sure that I must be able to sketch some criteria for my taste, but every time a candidate occurred to me, I thought it sounded hollow, and I tallied a number of counterexamples from among my favourites. I decided to let the matter rest for a while, and as time passed and I compiled a list of grounds for admiring a particular selection, the composite list looked more reputable. It is not rigidly consistent; some songs hit one particular characteristic brilliantly, but only that one characteristic; others combine several characteristics, though none extraordinarily. And none really hit all the different points I’ve thought up, in part because some of my desiderata are contradictory.
But it’s time for me to begin speaking out in public about what makes music good (as far as I’m concerned, and that’s not just a pro forma qualification — though I think I have good taste, mostly, I really firmly believe that other people, you for instance, may have strong grounds for reaching different conclusions than I). So with that, I’ll being by stating the obvious: Good music can be identified, most of the time, by good musicianship. Skill, technique, precision, virtuosity, all contribute to a performance I might admire.
OK, counterexamples first: Much punk rock, and a lot of old-timey music (to name just two genres) place little emphasis on technical musicianship. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ as performed by John McLaughlin and Buddy Rich would… lack something. They might bring something else to it, but I’m not saving my farthings for their cover version.
But at the same time, the cult of the great guitarist (or the ‘general admiration for other musicians’) symptomatises something pertinent to my theme. When Eric Clapton and Duane Allman dial in to the same musical wavelength on Layla, something happens that you just don’t mess with. Intuitive musical gifts are not antithetical to technical musicianship; some extremely gifted musicians intensify the quality of their work with trained musicianship (though others rely principally on their casual understanding of music, to very great effect, and some attain greatness from sheer diligent determination). OK, now I’m just sounding pedantic and dull — but you take my point.
So, some moments where stunning musicianship carries the day? I suspect that most of what sustained the brief incandescence of jazz-rock fusion was musicianship*; certainly the roster of noteworthy performers associated with fusion included some breath-taking musicians. The Jeff Beck albums Blow By Blow and Wired have a lot going for them, but musicianship might be the albums’ leading quality. Whatever else one might say about Frank Zappa, he upheld the very highest standards of musicianship for his bands. Mark Knopfler’s work in Dire Straits really stood out for its distinctive, right, guitar lines (even when the other bits didn’t interest me so much). Carlos Santana’s work, especially his early work, demonstrates stunning musicianship, sometimes overshadowed by the distinctiveness of his Latin-rock synthesis. I’m a big admirer of Phil Manzanera’s solo albums, again exemplifying fine technical performance. Josiah reminds me to include the Roots, to which point I assent though without feeling that I really have lived into their recordings enough to say so on the strength of my own observations (though when we saw them in New York a few years ago, the musicianship in their performance was staggering). Andrew Bird, maybe?
One of the besetting problems of musicianship in popular music is the sense of formality, sterility, that sometimes attend it. One of the afflictions of popular music in the 70’s came from the sense that rock musicians were trying so hard to prove their worthiness that many of them adopted painfully over-serious, over-technical styles that just didn’t rock (and often didn’t satisfy the serious audiences they were trying to impress). Musicianship blends over to ‘professionalism’ (in the pejorative sense) and commercialism, too. When Rich caught me out for disliking music for being ‘popular’, much of what he was right about involved my lack of interest in bands that struck me as so professional that I didn’t feel especially drawn to them. ‘Commercial’ generally tastes bad to me.
That’s plenty as a starting point; I’ll put up another criterion sometime, and eventually develop it out into a whole series. There are lots of characteristics of the music I love, so it’ll take time to get more than a narrow slice of them written out. But now I’m at least beginning to pay the world hat I owe for my snobbery, and now to listen to the feedback from friends who know their stuff better than I do, or who remember artists and compositions I’ve neglected.
* And jazz, and ‘classical’ music, of course. They’re not the focus of my inquiry, perhaps as much for reasons of my taste and the limitations of my understanding as for any other reason, but I’m just not going to think first of Mingus Ah Um when I write on this topic even though I love that album.