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Problems With Deciphering What's Good and What's Bad In Music Criticism

March 25, 2014

There is a theory that believes the initial “hook” that a band possesses disappears after they become rich and famous because the mindset and creative environment in which the band wrote their “classic” hits are no longer present. It’s hard to revert back to the music that came from the mindset of a poor, starving artist with goals, when they have become rich and successful artists that have reached their goals. It begs the question, does success kill good music?

After fame, is good, original music no longer in reach? What about the bands that never change their sound? People tend to not like their second album because nothing is new, yet when artists create something new, it becomes too different, or people claim that the band has changed their style to fit in with the mainstream…they have been bought out, so to speak. Is there ever a happy medium, or can people only take so much of an artist, regardless of what they do? Is there only a certain place and time for certain bands? And what about the bands whose first album was a complete flop, or is often forgotten? Pink Floyd's The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn album from 1967 never reached the commercial success that Darkside Of The Moon (1973) or The Wall (1979) reached. I’m talking of course, from a non-crazy-fan point of view. Many Pink Floyd fans are quite aware of these early works, and cherish them for the unique artistry that they bring to the ear of the listener. I personally admire and respect the musicality that was reached upon albums like Ummagumma (1969), Obscured By Clouds (1972), and my personal favourite Pink Floyd album that features the mind-blowing masterpiece "Echoes", Meddle (1971).

Another thought is, how much is left to interpretation and generation gap? If a newer generation has access to thirty years of music as opposed to a chronological discography that takes years to unfold, does that make a difference in understanding an artist? For example, David Bowie was always changing his style. The people who were first introduced to Bowie through the Ziggy Stardust era, obviously had negative connotations towards his disco-soul White Duke phase, as it was not the Ziggy everyone initially got into. Does it matter at what point you enter an artist’s career path? What if people entered Rush’s career during the 80s synth period, and can’t stand the early drug-like heavy-metal progressive style found on albums like Rush (1974), Caress of Steel, Fly By Night (both from 1975), or even Hemispheres (1978), that initially set the band apart from others? Rush is an excellent example of a band that changes with the times. They never stay dormant in style; their skills and musicality are continuously growing as professional musicians.

With someone being exposed to an artist’s career after it has happened, or near the end of it, that person is able to take that music at face value, and understand and respect what that artist was trying to do, as they can step back and look at the music from that career as a whole. I’m not necessarily suggesting that a newer generation, or someone listening to an artist collaboration will be detached, but that they will be more likely be able to respect and like all of the music represented, because there is not an expectation attached on all of the music because of the original pieces that that band had produced. For hardcore fans of the early works of certain artists, it is hard for them to like the newest album of their favourite artist, as it often doesn't emulate the qualities the fan first fell for. However, for people who have been able to embrace all of the artist’s work and analyze their creative process, (where that artist has come from, and what direction that artist is going), it is easier to understand and relate to what that artist is doing.

That being said, I’m not necessarily stating that all new albums are good. I believe that sometimes artists try to copy their original music, and fail horrendously, leaving a cheesy taste in one's mouth, but for the artist that is trying to be new and creative like Rush, David Bowie, David Gilmour, Robert Plant, Peter Frampton, Yes, and even Van Halen (to a certain extent...I say this because their latest album A Different Kind Of Truth (2012) featured several cuts from the seventies that were not good enough at the time to include on their iconic VH I & II albums), I feel that it is unfair to judge everything an artist does today on material from thirty or forty years ago. Everyone evolves, grows, and changes, and it is important to sometimes take things at face value, rather than what it could have been, or once was.

An album’s music might not necessarily be terrible music, but in fact no longer gel with your current tastes in music, as the listener's tastes change as well, and the music suddenly appears terrible. Another thing to consider is, would you still find certain music terrible if it had been produced by someone else, or would you actually like it because it could allude to the style of the actual artist who wrote it? For example, people could dislike the latest Black Sabbath album 13 (2013), for they may find that it attempts to exemplify earlier musical styles of Black Sabbath but for them, it fails. Meanwhile, if another band had written the exact same material, Black Sabbath fans might gravitate towards it because it reminds them of Black Sabbath. It almost becomes a psychological thing, ultimately coming down to personal tastes and interpretations.

It is important to take a moment to discuss the possible reasons for why people feel a certain way about some music and not others. Is it truly a psychological element where the actual musical elements take a back seat, or is it something more? As a musician myself, I often wonder why critics write what they do. What are they basing their opinions on? Are they taking a psychological approach to grading music, or are they musicians themselves, and looking at the music in a theoretical and practical perspective? How do you decipher what you like and don't like? Is it all a means of comparing one artist to the next, or even comparing an artist to an earlier version of themselves, and as critics, is that really what we should be doing?

Please feel free to post your experiences and thoughts on the matter in the comments below.

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