Enough rambling introduction!
Good vs. Bad music. Similar to the eternal God vs. Satan, cat vs. dog, green vs. black tea, splenda vs. equal vs. sweet and low debates, there really is no way to define what is "good" or "bad" musically. Everyone has their own preference, and music is a naturally neutral subject. This has already been established in many debates and countless journals including the journal of SpHaeR's. However, this fact alone does not stop people, whether self-proclaimed music connoisseurs, certified music critics with a degree, or 13 year old internet trolls from placing the "Good" and "Bad" labels on music.
I propose that it is more interesting to discuss what aspects of the performance make a particular piece of music "Good" or "Bad", than whether the piece IS "Good" or "Bad". The point of this journal is not to define "Good" and "Bad", but rather define the means by which music is labeled "Good" or "Bad", and to get the reader to think more deeply about his or her own tastes, and be able to articulate the "Why".
Disclaimer: For purposes of debate and clarity of point, I will use mainstream/common examples and stereotype to a degree. Please do not get caught up in WHO I am describing or critiquing, it is irrelevant. Each group or person here could be replaced by many others. Also keep in mind that I am using my own personal views and tastes as a focus for this journal, because I know my personal tastes and have more experience with my own genres, not because I'm being a "closed-minded elitist". Feel free to disagree, but keep in mind that if you leave flames as comments with something like "*insert artist here* suxx0rZ U hav no tast3 in musik all ur musik iz BAD, u elitist" or "You didn't mention *insert artist here*, whyyyy?", you are missing the point of this journal and will be ignored. That being said, on with the entry...
How does one determine what music is "Good" and what is "Bad", anyway? Why does this person have charts that reflect all the music I dislike, and why does that person dislike every band on my charts? Generally speaking, it breaks down into only a few aspects of the composition.
1. Lyrical/Ideological Content
2. The place of the Instruments and Vocals in the Composition
3. "Catchiness" and "Connection"
SpHaeR covered Lyrical and Ideological content very well in his journal, as well as some key aspects of Image, so this journal will focus primarily on aspect number 2 -- The place of Instruments and Vocals in the Composition, number 3 -- "Catchiness" and "Connection", and 5 -- Feel/Atmosphere.
Let's use some of the American Pop Scene juxtaposed with Metal to look at number 2.
My mom is heavily into the television show American Idol. She has followed every season, and loyally follows the careers of her favorite Idols. Recently, Kelly Clarkson released a VERY popular single Since U Been Gone. My mom claims this song is "Good", I claim it is "Bad".
I regularly play extreme metal in the car, lets use Vader's's Whisper and Dismember's Dismembered in this example, since both tracks have 30 second samples. My mom calls this "Bad" music, I call it "Good".
Why do we differ?
We have different preferences in placement and emphasis of instrumentation and vocals. Many of the current "popular" music emphasizes VOCALS. Listen closely to Since U Been Gone's sample, and pick out the instruments. Follow the Bass Guitar, follow the Drums, follow the Lead Guitar. Musically, this song is simple, and not particularly stimulating (for me at least). However, now follow the Vocal line. The vocal line IS the song! If you like to hear a talented vocalist, if you like to hear the lyrics, then you're more likely to enjoy a song in a style such as Since U Been Gone, where the vocals are clear and prominent in the mix. If you're more interested in the INSTRUMENTS or the overall level of talent you will not likely be impressed by Since U Been Gone, because let's face it, even I could play that drum line, and I don't play drums.
Now when you look at the samples of Vader and Dismember I provided, you'll notice a vastly different mix (vocal style aside). The Vader track contains prominent vocals, BUT the guitar and drum is just as prominent as the vocals in the mix. Nothing is taken from the instruments and given to the vocalist. Instead of a vocal solo, it becomes synthesis where vocals are just another instrument. I like this, I consider this good, and balanced. The mainstream musical society places too much value on vocalists in my opinion. For example, think of several "big names" in the mainstream Pop scene (even if you don't like them): the obligatory Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, Hillary Duff, Ashlee Simpson, Kelly Clarkson, etc. or even the boy bands Backstreet Boys, Hanson, NSYNC... You can say plenty about the vocalists, but what can you say about their background bands? Yes, some have better background bands than others, but most of you actually had to check to see what you thought.
That is my take on where vocals should be in the music: along side a strong instrumental lineup, not as a solo. For me, "Good" music is able to maintain this balance and utilize the strength of ALL members, not just ride on the strength and talent of the front (wo)man. However, some people like their front (wo)man, and don't care if the band behind her/him/them is tearing up the stage, doing cartwheels, generally sucking, or even playing at all. That's fine for those listeners, but they must at least acknowledge that there is more to "music" than vocals!
In addition to this, there are many people who like instrumental music and soundtracks, such as John Williams, Gustav Holst, Louis Armstrong, 20.SV, Sephiroth and similar dark ambient, where there are NO vocals. I've seen charts almost completely devoid of vocals! Music does not NEED vocals to be "Good", and there are countless examples of this... so my (rhetorical) question would be, why do we worship vocalists so much in this modern musical society?
It is important to determine where you stand on the placement of vocals and instruments, and why. I prefer my balanced to bottom-heavy mix because I don't just listen to music, I analyze, study, and on occasion, create it. I find a balanced, intricate mix to be the most stimulating and interesting. Other people I know who consider themselves "musicians" or "music junkies" find themselves listening FOR something specific, be it guitar lines, drums, saxophones, keyboard, a specific type of dance beat, heavy bass, or even accordions. Even if you are listening FOR vocals or lyrics, then be able to define what you are listening for, and why. Everyone is listening for something, but surprisingly few people know what they are listening for.
Now point number 3 -- "Catchiness" and "Connection".
It is undeniable that many people enjoy listening to an artist simply because they "connect" with the band. This can hail back to the ideology debate, but that base has already been covered, so I speak on a purely audio-aesthetic level. Many songs I listen to and enjoy for no other reason than they stir up a part of me that likes to be stirred up. The same can be said perhaps of an acquaintance of mine from high school, who listened to certain music because the sound of the vocalist and the message she sings embody her current emotional state. She could empathize with the message and felt as though the song was written about her life (The song was Alanis Morissette's Ironic for those curious). Some people don't care about the technicalities of the music, just that for them, listening to "Good" music is similar to looking into a mirror. Again, I say, good for these people! But, instead of making up reasons or just saying "because I do", be consciously aware of the connection you have with the artist's compositions. That way, when someone asks you "why?", you actually CAN tell them why and not look like an idiot.
The second bit of this, Catchiness, goes along with connection, since many people find themselves Connected to something that is Catchy (alliteration overload!). For example, many people like The Beatles without really knowing why, and one of those reasons they don't acknowledge is that the music is so catchy it should be illegal. Similarly, there are catchy choruses and guitar lines in all kinds of bands. Think of a few. Chances are, the ones that came to your mind were either things you classified as "Good" music, Happy Birthday, or Beatles because I just mentioned them. However, this is an aspect of music people need to acknowledge more when asked why they like something.
There is no algorithm to determine how catchy a piece of music is, its all subjective. For example I had Necrophobic's album Hrimthursum stuck in my head for days, but I know people who could never get a metal track stuck in their head, regardless of the artist. The only way to determine how you value catchiness, and what you consider catchy is to think about it and define it for yourself. "Catchiness" is not negative, just another aspect of music. Know your views on this, and what you "Connect" with, and be able to communicate this in a way that does not belittle those who think otherwise. You don't have to have a deep, analytical reason for liking music if its due to one of these two factors.
And the final point I will touch on is Feel/Atmosphere. The feel and atmosphere of a piece is closely connected to both the points mentioned above, especially synthesizing my closing point of #2; "Everyone is listening FOR something" and the aspect of connectedness. The genre of dark ambient is a great example of a genre where the music itself based around creating atmosphere and feel, but Ambient is not an exclusive genre with a "Feel". Feel and Atmosphere are partially created by Style, though note that feel and atmosphere are not the same.
I dislike country, but that is partially because I do not enjoy the "feel" of the genre, and the style of guitar playing. However, I can revel in the soundscapes painted by raw minimalist atmospheric black metal, while the country fans dislike every second of it. As people enjoy different settings for vacation, they will enjoy different feels in their music. My mom likes the beach, I like the mountains. The question is, what type of feel do you find your home in?
Another thing to note is that technicality of playing seems to be overvalued, and a band is commonly deemed "Good" if they are fast and technical. This does not mean I do not value technicality or skill in music, I value it very highly; but rather I dislike music based primarily on technicality for technicality's sake (look at how fast my fingers go on a Bb Concert Scale!!1!). My experience is that these bands do not do much in the way of Atmosphere. Yes, their music has a feel, but not an atmosphere. This is similar to the Kelly Clarkson/Pop example from earlier. An "atmosphere" is one step beyond a "feel", where the listener is completely immersed in audio imagery. The reason overly technical music and vocal solos tend to have less of an atmosphere is that they focus on relatively small aspects of the composition. Again, not that this is bad, music does not NEED an "atmosphere" to be labeled "good", some people just prefer it.
However, to get a definition of atmosphere: imagine standing on a mountain with a sweeping panoramic view, full of vivid flora and fauna, perhaps with a majestic waterfall. You can see the glory of untouched nature for miles. The sky is nearly crystal clear, but it is not too bright, a few fluffy clouds break up the monotony of blue. Flying creatures play amidst them. Each second brings exhilaration. This is my image of a particular part of a piece of music, in this case an excerpt from Gustav Holst's Jupiter (just because that's what I'm listening to now :D). The entire piece (Jupiter) has an atmosphere. Now lets take the holistic piece and make it a technical trumpet solo. The other instruments fade away in the background, and the atmosphere is lessened. Suddenly instead of the full image I just described to you, we zoom in on the majestic waterfall. Closer and closer, until the water fall is all we can see. While magnificent in its' own right, a waterfall up close has significantly less Atmosphere than a full setting, verging on very little. While you CAN envision such things while listening to music based around technicality or strictly solos, atmosphere is more about the overall image, not one facet of it. This is why I do not like certain types of music, and why it is possible to say that certian types of music does not have "atmosphere". I much prefer my waterfall as a part of a larger setting.
Again, look at the music you consider "Good". What types of Feels and Atmospheres do you prefer? Do you even value atmosphere at all? Its ok if you don't, just as long as you know you don't and can articulate it.
In conclusion, I can tell you what I prefer, and why I label what I do as "Good" or "Bad". I am interested to see what others value in music and how they define "Good" and "Bad"... and the WHY. Not necessarily the WHO. (no pun intended) I'm tired of people being unable to define definitively why they do or don't like something.