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Some thoughts on Quality
6.1.2001 by Sean


Have you ever kicked yourself in the head because you like a song that you don't want to like? If so, you're like me. I'm still bleeding from kicking myself for enjoying the Treble Charger's "American Psycho" too much. It's both frustrating and embarassing to be forced to sacrifice your role as "Music Snob" in order to sing along with "the Scatman". What is it that makes Wide Mouth Mason's "Sugarcane" so eminently great? It's certainly not that it's a vastly high-quality song... and yet, riding in a car, its an almost blissful aural experience. It obviously doesn't hold a candle to Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe". Obviously. Right?

But y'see, the problem is, I don't much enjoy "Hey Joe". In fact, I just can't fully dig Jimi or his Experience. I mean, I'm aware that it's great stuff, and my ear can recognize the inherent quality of his work, but... well, it's not "Sugarcane".

I know! It's embarassing!

The dilemma of 'what makes a song good' is deep and enigmatic. I've discussed it with several people, most of whom disagree with me (as usual), but eventually I came to a conclusion I am fairly satisfied with.

Music should be measured on two scales. The objective Quality scale, and the subjective Entertainment scale. Both extend from one to ten, 1 being terrible, 10 being Supreme. An awareness for the Quality scale (QS) requires some knowledge of music in general, that is, some degree of exploration beyond the Top 40, and into musical history. The QS is something any good critic, music lover or musician should be able to recognize. It's pretty undefinable, ungraspable; an experienced listener just knows if it's particularly prominent.

The Entertainment scale (ES), on the other hand, is something that is almost utterly subjective, and something any dummy can appreciate. You hear a song and you like it? Almost certainly, it's ES is high (in your opinion). It can be the shittiest N*Sync number, or the grooviest Beatles song, but if it entertains you, the ES skyrockets. Catchy songs are often a marker of a potentially high ES, but this isn't necessarily the case. Some people are highly entertained by Autechre's minimalist techno, or find pearls of joy in Korn's angry shouts. That a song has a high ES don't mean it doesn't have a high QS, but neither does the former necessitate the latter.

So, the tricky question - who determines what has a high QS? Well, as I said, informed people. People who have had a chance to really sample the waters, and who have come to understand the subtleties of the genre. I am in no position to presume that I know what is truly Quality in the bluegrass world. I do feel, however, I have the know-how (and snobby superiority) to make judgments about pop bands. The existence of a QS explains why critics so often agree about the Really Great Albums, why musicians often cite the same influences. Sure, any high-school saxophonist can play "Girl from Ipanema", but are they going to measure the same on the QS as did Stan Getz? Probably not, and an experienced jazz listener will recognize this.

Now, let me throw some of my personal QS/ES rankings into the pot:
"American Psycho" (Treble Charger) / ES: 8 / QS: 4
"Black Dog" (Led Zeppelin) / ES: 6 / QS: 7.5
"Michelle" (The Beatles) / ES: 9 / QS: 8
"Backstreet's Back" (The Backstreet Boys) / ES: 1 / QS: 1

And there you have it. Think this system's got any merit? Most people don't, but I am stubborn, so I stick by it. Hooray for belligerence!




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