I am a connoisseur of horrible songs.
However, I don’t always consider them “horrible.” Like I’ve said before, I try to look at each thing on its own merits. If it’s a discordant, off-tempo audio collage, it’s absurd to expect it to be as melodious as a Beethoven sonata; if it’s a perky pop song that’s the audio equivalent of glitter-infested cotton candy, don’t expect scathing social commentary. If you impose your expectations, or even your preferences, on any work, judging it by how closely it matches what you think it ought to be, you’re going to end up reviling everything you hear.
This puts you at risk of turning you into That Guy. You know, That Guy who only listens to Finnish black metal, because everything else is for wusses. Or That Guy who won’t shut up about Zeuhl. If you think you already know what kind of music is, objectively, The Best, and you won’t sully your ears with anything else, you might think you’re more refined, more pure. Really, you’re just missing out on a lot.
It’s easy to be like that nowadays. As with almost all media, it’s easy for people to isolate themselves musically, listening to what they want to hear, avoiding everything they don’t like. Even as mainstream media tries to be everything to everyone, churning out the same sorts of music, the same sorts of TV shows, the same sorts of music, the same sorts of video games, independent creators fill the Internet with uncategorizably weird alternatives. The Long Tail is long, and if someone loves nothing but zydeco covers of classic rock, she could not only find that music, but also affirmation in her belief that everything else is Horrible.
No matter what anyone thinks is Horrible — Christian Rap, musique concrete, children’s music, Jingle Dogs — someone out there loves it, truly and sincerely. They might acknowledge that it’s not the apex of human achievement, sure. But they’d never call it Horrible.
So, as it becomes easier to listen to and learn from anything you like; as it becomes easier to avoid anything you don’t like; as it becomes easier to indulge and affirm your obscurest tastes and to do so excluslively; but, despite that, as it becomes apparent that your interest is just one of many islands in a great archipelago of genres that stretches back to the mainstream mainland; as we immerse ourselves ever deeper in our subjectivity… Whither Horribleness?
Is it even possible to, with complete objectivity, call any song Horrible?
Fortunately for us all, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid cracked their respective knuckles and applied SCIENCE. In 1996, Komar and Melamid set up an online poll to ask readers what they liked and disliked in their music. What instruments were preferable, and which were unlistenable? What were their favorite lyrics about, and what topics could they not stand? How long is too long? How much could the pitch vary before it became repellent? How frequently could the tempo change before it became frustrating?
When all the data was crunched, David Soldier used it to guide the composition of two song. Nina Mankin crafted their lyrics. And then they were released. One was The Most Wanted Song, made only of the most wanted instruments, at the most wanted pitch, the most wanted tempo, with the most wanted lyrics. It ran just over five minutes, and was something like a jazz / R&B duet between Springsteen and Mariah Carey. It was, of course, a love song.
The second, as one might suspect, was The Most Unwanted Song. Clocking in at over twenty five minutes long, it is an amalgamation of everything the test subjects thought to be Horrible. Strange time signatures, sudden pitch shifts, accordions, banjos, bagpipes, political buzzwords shouted through a megaphone, children singing jingles about holiday shopping at Wal-Mart, and a rapping Country/Western soprano.
Despite the fact that it wasn’t a scientific study and that the whole endeavor was tongue-in-cheek — Komar and Melamid being conceptual artists who, previously, had hired actual polling companies to determine The Most and Least Wanted Paintings of eleven different countries — the results are still interesting. It’s an equally unscientific sample size, but whenever someone I know has encountered these songs for the first time, their reactions have always been the same:
“The ‘Most Wanted’ one is WAY worse.”
While The Most Unwanted Song is hard to listen to, almost everyone I’ve spoken too has called it “more interesting” than the Most Wanted Song. Is it interesting because it’s made of so many repellent components that we consider it a sort of threat, making our brains more active? Or is it just interesting because it’s unlike anything you’ve heard before? It’s a clash of instruments, genres, and even social classes that makes almost anyone with a forebrain think about why those juxtapositions are so jarring. An operatic rap about roping cows is absurd — because of what we know, or think we know, abut The Kind Of Person who sings opera, The Kind Of Person who raps, and The Kind Of Person who tends cattle. Our cultural experience tells us that these are all Different Kinds Of People — so, to hear one person embody all three is statistically unlikely, ergo Weird. And we can simply learn more from unexpected things than from the satisfaction of our expectations.
I am not a neuropsychologist, but it seems to go a little like this. We get surprised by novel information, or information that conflicts with our current mental model. We realize that the way we think about the world doesn’t prepare us to deal with the surprising thing. This is stressful, because we want to believe we understand the world around us. To resolve that conflict, we have two main options: We either change our mental model to incorporate the surprising thing, making future occurrences of that thing simply not surprising anymore — or we don’t change our mental model, we avoid the aberrant thing, and we refuse to acknowledge it as a valid thing at all until and unless it meets our expectations.
I’d joke that this is where “liberals” and “conservatives” come from, except for the fact that all humans do this sort of thing all the time, and we often don’t even know when we’re doing it or what we’re doing it about, because we’re brimful of cognitive biases. HOORAY BRAINS.
Humans are always tripping over their own shoelaces as we ride the Hedonic Treadmill. We like novelty, but we like the familiar. We like to feel independent, but we like to feel validated. We think we know what we like, but we don’t. We think we know what we want, but we don’t. We think we know what we think, but we don’t.
So, again: we can ask what makes a song Horrible, but that’s treating Horribleness like a big box into which all sorts of things can, or should, be deposited. Which leads to confusion when two people look at the same thing, but only one of them wants to put it in the Horrible Box. Instead, Horrible is more like plastic wrap: it’s a term we can wrap around whatever we find distasteful, in hopes of smothering it. Two people can still disagree on whether something should be called Horrible, but instead of arguing about where that thing should be put, one of them can just slap on a layer of Horrible Wrap while the other one doesn’t. Some things end up covered in a lot of layers of Horrible Wrap from a lot of different people. Some things are covered so thickly that you see the layers of judgment before you see the actual thing inside — like when you hear about how awful a new song is long before you actually hear the tune. And it’s hard, incredibly hard, to make yourself see through all the layers to judge the thing for itself. I’m not about to suggest that I can do so any better than anyone else. Once again, as is ultimately the point of this whole series of prompts, the answer is subjective.
So, let’s get down to the nitty and/or gritty: what kinds of music do I think are Horrible, by any measure? What do I see so many layers of Horrible Wrap upon that I feel socially compelled to add my own? And, to distinguish this from Day 28, what song do I enjoy despite recognizing its lack of merits — as opposed to a song that, despite public opinion to the contrary, I DO find merit in and believe to be unfairly maligned? (Which, of course, means that this post’s objective blather would probably be better off in that future post instead, but: meh.)
Three are so many things that I initially found repellent, but later found more complexity in, more depth in, or liked better when I tried to stop being jaded. I really do think there’s more to everything if you listen closely, that everything has some meaning, that everything says something about the culture that created it. As long as it gives me something interesting to think about, I don’t readily call anything “horrible.” This means I’ll stand in defense of all sorts of things. I will tease the hidden substructures from audio collage, and embrace its recontextualizations. That part of me which is a perpetual adolescent will forever rally to the bombastic pathos of power rock. Gladly will I headbang to cheesy hair metal. I will advocate the most unlikely mashups as musical koans, brain-breakers that crack apart your cultural assumptions and open you up to seeing the similarities in even the most seemingly-disparate music. And, since what we scorn and mock says as much about our culture as what we love and believe; since only ephemera can truly encapsulate a cultural moment, having been designed to be disposed of long before the next shift; since there is always a bitter core of honesty in humor; and since, all overanalysis aside, it’s valuable to just enjoy the absurd once in a while; for all these reasons and more, you can have my Dr. Demento albums and novelty songs when you pry them from my cold, dead hands. I’ll also remember that it’s valid to enjoy something for personal reasons: for happy associations, for in-jokes with friends, and for knee-jerk nostalgia that makes me so vividly visualize my world as it used to be, as seen from a few feet closer to the ground.
But, sometimes, what music says — about culture, about the industry, about its own fans — is really godsbedamned depressing. It reminds you just what we value, what we find aspirational, what we reward, and how incredibly unworthy they are to be glorified. Sometimes, it’s just a great big shiny celebration of all the Suck in the world.
So it’s a long way around to end up at no big surprise, but the genre of music I find most meritless, yet most enjoyable, without even the slightest hope of defending it, would have to be pop music. Because pop music exists to be popular. It exists to be approachable to everyone, innocuous, unthreatening — and it exists to make an unholy riot of money, usually at the expense of the tweenaged patsy of the day. Pop music is catchy as a fishhook: baited with something that isn’t even food, just manufactured, glittery plastic — but damned if we’re not compelled to bite.
But what’s my favorite of the worst? What do I recognize as such crap that it’s not even compost — yet still, doglike, feel compelled to roll in? For what songs do I have absolutely no excuse?
Yes indeed, Jefferson Starship’s “We Built This City.” Why? WHY?! I don’t know! It does have a strong association with a high school play I was in, and anything that reminds me of my old theatre days is always wonderful. But I’m pretty sure I had heard it and liked it even before then — but not due to childhood nostalgia! The lyrics are ridiculous — nobody calls a radio a “Marconi,” Marconi wasn’t fit to lick Tesla’s bootheels, and the “mamba” is a snake, not a dance. I’d like to believe it’s saying “mambo,” but the horrible hacky slant-rhyme of “mamba” / “rememba'” and “radio” / “rock and ro'” make it impossible to give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s ostensibly an ode to rock and roll, but there is simply no rock to be found. Lyrics about “corporation games,” “police have got the choke-hold,” and asking “who counts the money” are tepid attempts at rebellion, tired and incoherent, like a half-asleep toddler refusing to take a nap. It’s generic-brand Caffeine-Free Diet Rock. It’s audio aspartame. It is as catchy as syphilis, and squiggles little holes into your brainmeats just as well.
But some stupid part of my reptilian brain likes it. It likes something about the beat. It likes something about the harmony in the chorus. There’s no justification whatsoever. There’s no excuse. But it’s true.