I Don’t Know What I Don’t Like

I just came back from my third trip in so many days to Footlight Records in the East Village. Presumably until the seemingly endless piles of LPs and CDs become manageable enough for Footlight to close its doors and transform itself into an online-only retailer, they are offering a 75%-off sale on vinyl and a 20%-off sale on CDs.

For 30 years, Footlight has been the No. 1 store in New York City, if not the rest of the country and the world, for folks interested in Broadway original cast albums and film soundtracks as well as crooners and other vocal icons from a bygone era. While some of this music is of immense interest to me—I’m a Sondheim and Loesser fanatic—most of it has remained on the periphery of my musical diet and some of it I even blatantly dislike. Yet for three days I’ve been shoveling piles of it home and probably will go back there again tomorrow.

Why?

Because for years my response to encountering music I don’t like has been to keep listening to it and the best way to do that is to buy a record of it.

I usually blame the “tastelessness” of my record collection and subsequent listening time on the influence of John Cage, although he would undoubtedly have been horrified by much of what I keep on my walls. (Indeed, he was horrified of recorded music in the first place despite the myriad compact discs of his music that are now available for public consumption.) But Cage’s full emancipation of all sound as potential music must mean that if everything is music, so is “bad music.”

As a John Cage-loving young composer turned Columbia ethnomusicology graduate student in the late 1980s, I was already prepared to be swayed by William Brooks’s 1982 essay “On Being Tasteless” (Popular Music 2, Cambridge University Press) and John Blacking’s 1985 book A Commonsense View of All Music, texts which argued that we would understand music better if we objectively analysed it as a universal human phenomenon rather than constantly trying to evaluate it based on something as precarious and egocentric as personal opinion. For the last twenty years, these texts became the Little Red Books of my own still-ongoing personal cultural revolution.

I still remember hating the not-quite-in-tune and horribly mannered sounds made by many rock vocalists, which can be as jarring to someone unversed in the genre as bel canto operatic vibrato to folks who aren’t Met subscribers. Yet now I can think of few experiences more intense than listening to Johnny Rotten in his prime. Through being tasteless, I’ve opened my mind to hip-hop, country-western, Frank Sinatra, and a good deal of so-called contemporary classical music since we’re probably even more guilty of exclusion within the genre than we are outside it.

How can you possibly have your mind open to a brand new piece of music if the only music you’ll allow into your life is music that you already like?

Yesterday I bought a couple of records worth of music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, whom I have never liked. And today I picked up an album featuring Teresa Brewer, a singer I only remember as one annoying voice passing by among many others on a TV commercial for an oldies collection I saw some 30 years ago. To this day, I still haven’t come to terms with Billy Joel, Elton John, or most so-called soft rock but every now and then I keep trying. Maybe tomorrow.

4 thoughts on “I Don’t Know What I Don’t Like

  1. rajordahl

    tastelessness
    A great article, Frank. I’m sure that many of us feel the way you do, but it’s so painful ll to make yourself listen to music (? ) you can’t stand! I’ll admit to loathing hiphop, soul, country, and most of all, rap.- but then, think of all the people who hate classical music.

    Reply
  2. glennfreeman

    John Cage, LPs & CDs
    Due to some of Cage’s earlier writings and works, there is a romantic viewpoint that Cage did not like recordings. Cage disliked LPs during the period in which they existed and thrived. However, Cage continued to compose until 1992 and changed the way he viewed recordings a few years after the CD was introduced, in 1984. Four4 was composed for CD and One6 and One10 were designed to fit on one CD … these works were designed/composed for release on single CDs, as commercially available recordings. There is a very good chance the unfinished One8 and One13 pairing was viewed in a similar way. It can be documented that Cage viewed several of his late works as recording projects intended for the CD medium.

    Reply
  3. jefoster

    “Cage’s full emancipation of all sound as potential music must mean that if everything is music, so is “bad music.”

    I’d like to add that if it’s especially bad music, it can be even better than good music.

    Take for example Michael Bolton rasping his way through “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot. Gems like these fill me with glee; the guffaws and belly laughs they induce put a new twist on the concept of “the healing power of music”.

    Always in search of music-gone-wrong, I recently discovered a Swiss singer who’s taken the time to post a collection of perfectly awful music on the web. Try badmusic.nathansheets.com.
    There are some side-splitting stinkers in the archives.

    Reply
  4. astoltz

    Great topic!

    Having spent a lot of time as a working musician playing and singing in clubs etc…I’ve come to appreciate many genres of music I would have otherwise ignored. I would contend that in order to gain an understanding and awareness of nuance and meaning, one needs to actually perform the music. This happened to me with early music. I found it astonishingly boring when I was an undergrad but when as a graduate student I signed up to sing in an early music group to get needed ensemble credits, I realized that the music was full of emotion, meaning and killer technique.

    I also think that there are different qualities to appreciate in different genres. For instance, pop music (r&b, hip hop-, rap, dance etc…) usually have amazing production value. The engineers and producers are at the top of their games. The process by which the music is put together is very team oriented. So much so that the artist as an individual personality is often reduced to nothing more than a face (kind of like a news anchor). What many find compelling about classical music, is the sophistication of formal elements, the virtuosity of the performer and the complexity of techniques used by the composer. With Cage it was the “concept” or the “idea”.

    All genres have their great artists surrounded by masses of average and below average artists. Sometimes it’s just a matter of performing the music (even if the performance is bad) to gain more appreciation.

    Andrew Stoltz

    p.s. the badmusic website is hilarious!!!!

    Reply

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