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Finding true shame or just ineptness
I WAS TICKLED TO READ THAT AT LAST month’s Mainx24 festival, apparently AVA (Association for Visual Arts) presented its Bad Art Contest, bringing together “truly awful” artwork and culminating in a “cleansing” bonfire.
Although I was unable to attend this, it sounded like a fun idea, finding humor in failure without being too pointedly mean-spirited, and I have fond memories of a one-time “Festival of Bad Music” event that I organized many years ago, full of excruciating music.
But in art and music, what exactly is “bad”?
First of all, the notion of a “guilty pleasure” is dubious, because if something brings pleasure, you shouldn’t feel guilty. Let me amend this statement by excluding the cruel, despicable and/or illegal—maybe something like an unironic song called “Pol Pot Had The Right Idea.” I have no qualms to admitting owning more than a few bubblegum pop and disco records, from the likes of Ohio Express (of “Yummy Yummy Yummy” fame) and Village People.
Let’s be clear that guilty pleasures are simply easy targets, for whatever reasons. Similarly, film critic Pauline Kael wrote in her 1969 essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” that “...movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.” Very little music truly aspires to be high art, but that’s OK, as long as it brings enjoyment.
In popular music criticism, it isn’t easy to find a satisfying assessment of “bad.” A quick look at new release listings on the Metacritic website, which creates a critical consensus pulling from many sources, shows an overwhelming flood of music albums rated “green” (“generally favorable reviews” to “universal acclaim”) with a few albums rated “yellow” (mixed reviews) and none rated “red.” Almost everything is pretty good! Gold star for everyone!
The usefulness of this is rightfully questioned. On the other hand, critics occasionally dish out gratuitously harsh criticism, ostensibly to make a point or get some attention; Pitchfork published, then retracted, a review that gave Zaireeka by The Flaming Lips (a fine album, in my estimation) a rating of 0.0 out of 10.0 and called it “completely useless.”
A simple assessment is to determine whether or not something fulfills the artist’s intention, but this has its shortcomings. For example, the dreadful “The Christmas Shoes” by NewSong, about a mother’s dying wish for shoes so she can look presentable to Jesus, accomplishes what it sets out to do—deliver an incredibly shamelessly emotionally manipulative song. For me, badness in music evokes unintentional shame—not an expression of shame, but actual shame.
However, the “artist’s intention” test can be a useful test, and indeed, it identifies some of the worst performances I have witnessed in town. One solo musician had the unfortunate combination of being ill and not knowing the material, thus being unable to finish songs without interruption. In this case, the musician was aware that it was a poor performance.
However, more problematic is the case where an artist is unaware that the target is being missed; what one performer may consider to be novel or edgy or interesting turns out not to be for the audience, which delivers the polite golf clap nevertheless. Missing the mark could mean not fully understanding the target, but it could also mean setting the bar too high.
While an artist could aim low and hit the target for an entire career, that’s a boring way to do things. Admirable failures are much more interesting and educational. To musicians: if a piece of music doesn’t turn out as expected and is unsalvageable, don’t burn it, and don’t forget it. Keep it to yourself as a reminder in your practice room, because to know what’s good, you have to try to understand what’s bad.