Have you ever had a person tell you that your taste in music is bad or that an artist you like is trash? Although pretentious, this person could be right. Now wait a second, this article won’t be mean and attack your favorite artists, all we’re going to do is point out the difference between music that is good and music that people like. Realizing this difference is vital for critics and allows you to be secure in your musical choice.
Music is fantastically popular. There is more music being consumed and created in 2021 than ever before and this music is coming from increasingly diverse sources, with K-Pop, Afro-pop, and Musica Latina gaining huge followings. Even within established genres, like rock or pop, there are some crazy new sounds appearing every day (Billie Eilish for example). Even more excitingly, music is being formed using different ways of thinking, writing, and recording than that of the western-art-music dominated industry. Considering different genres, sounds, cultures, languages, recording and harmonic practices, philosophies of music, and ways of thinking, how can someone who only knows a small portion this industry pass judgement on all music? How can someone who is totally different from you tell you that the music you like is objectively bad?
In all types of music, and especially North American music, there are several ways-to-judge (referred to as “metrics”) by which you can evaluate a musical project objectively. Keep in mind that while the metrics themselves can be objective people can’t be. This can be seen time and again in reviews. For example, the music critic giant Pitchfork’s review of artsy indie music (their recent Grouper review) is almost always high but their review of trap hip-hop (every Gucci Mane review) is generally lower.
The first thing that sets apart good and bad music is the most quantifiable, production. Production is the process of taking raw recorded music and modifying it in the way that the producer and musician want via effects (distortion, autotune, etc..), synthetic sounds (beats, sounds, etc…), and mixing (balancing the volume and tone of different recorded segments). Some genres feature producers in a major way (rap) while in others the producer’s role is minor (jazz or acoustic). Whatever the producer’s particular role, it’s clear when the production on a track is bad when you listen for it. For example, the production on John Mayer’s 2021 album Sob Rock or The Beatles’ Abbey Road is amazing; every instrument is mixed perfectly and consistently with uniform and blended feel that fits the tone of the album. On the flip side, the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Californication is poorly produced with tinny sounds and badly mixed tracks that unintentionally take away from what’s important in the song. This isn’t a judgement on either album’s content, they’re both good, but the production clearly is good and bad.
Another clear area when determining good and bad music is vocals. Vocals are the core of most music and, generally, when the artist’s vocal performance is different from what they were attempting it is considered bad. For example, Prince’s voice is strange but it does what he wants it to, and clearly nails it on all his tracks, so he is considered a good vocalist. Although a fantastic rapper, Lil Wayne’s singing is clearly trying one thing whilst doing another and mostly does not land on his songs, which means this is a bad vocal performance. But what about people who sing bad on purpose? Bob Dylan, for example, sings dreadfully but that’s what he means to do so it isn’t considered bad. It’s the same with instrumentals. Poor instrumental performances are those that do not mean what the artist intended whilst good instrumental performances are those that accomplish what intended. By this method you can have good instrumentals that sound terrible to most people, Lingua Ignota’s Sinner Get Ready, and bad instrumentals that sound good, Dream Theater’s Falling into Infinity. All in all, the thing that matters most with performance is what was meant to happen.
It’s a similar, but more complex, process with songwriting (the music). Good songs are when what the artist meant to happen is accomplished, cohesive, and effective and bad songs are when what happens is not meant to happen. What is sometimes difficult to fenagle is what the artist meant. Take, for example, Stevie Wonder’s song As. It may seem, at first glance, that this song is bloated, at 7 minutes long, and that it’s structure is weak, with a massive outro, but what if that’s what Stevie wanted? The song is about how long he will be loving the person of his affection so wouldn’t he write a really long song? At the same time, many Motown songs have notoriously long outros and this could be him relying on a poor compositional tool. As you can see, it can be really difficult to see what artists mean to do when writing a song but there are some ways to evaluate regardless; songs shouldn’t be too long, they should be unified and/or focused somehow, they shouldn’t rely on cliches or cheap techniques, and they should hold the listener’s attention somehow. By these indicators, songs like Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe are poorly written while songs like The Thrill is Gone by B.B. King is well written (although today considered cliché). There are exceptions and mini-indicators (absence of a bridge) that are effective as well but between what the artist meant and generally-considered good and bad songwriting practices we have good criteria to evaluate most songs.
Lyrics are slightly easier; forced rhymes, trite wording, bad rhythm, weak flow (in rap), poor imagery, cliché expressions, and over redundancy, are some ways to determine if a song is bad or not. The pop-rock band Train has many bad lyrics but their song Play That Song is terribly written throughout, it is cliché, trite, with poor rhyming and rhythm throughout (its almost funny how bad it is). The song, Hurt, by Nine Inch Nails has amazing lyrics that use vivid imagery, aren’t trite, and are immensely effective. As with instrumentals and songwriting, it is important to consider what the songwriter meant with the lyrics (which is, as in songwriting, is difficult to work out). For example, Kanye West’s I’m In It is a disgusting song, and is largely trite with bad imagery and rhyming, but that is what Kanye meant to do with his Yeezus album and so it would not be considered bad lyrically.
The final two areas to evaluate are the most contentious: correctness/content and feel. First, although correctness is largely culturally determined, there are many things that people generally agree on as bad to promote. Songs that are clearly exploiting or appropriating a culture, for example Walk Like an Egyptian by the Bangles, or racist by default, like David Bowie’s China Girl, are considered bad for that reason. Songs that are sexist or sexualize young people, like Baby its Cold Outside by Frank Loesser and Fucking Young by Tyler the Creator, are also considered bad based on their content as are songs that clearly support poor social practices (domestic violence or objectification) and/or discriminate based on gender or other identities. There are limits to this method of evaluation, as some music is “edgy” or is about a problem without endorsing a problematic viewpoint. Obviously, as well, many people don’t agree on what is considered a make-or-break in content.
Related to correctness and songwriting is “feel.” Although a naturally subjective word, “feel” is largely objective and refers to the vibe or general atmosphere of a song, with a particular nod to new sounds and ideas. This isn’t a universal criteria because most songs are middle of the road in their vibe, but some songs are amazing or bad largely because of the feel of them. For example, Billie Eilish’s bury a friend is decently written and well produced but the exciting thing about it is the novel vibe it gives off and what it does that’s new, for this reason, you could consider it good. On the other hand, a song like Charlie Puth and Elton John’s After All has a bland and unoriginal vibe, almost like it was uninspired.
These seven criteria, production, vocals, instrumentals, songwriting, lyrics, correctness, and feel, are the main ways that critics and listeners evaluate music. Largely, as you can see, these categories are relatively objective, but there are three things that you should keep in mind when using them. First, music is mostly objective but people are not. Most music is entirely evaluated based on the feel of it, even by professional “music critics!” In addition, this framework works best with Western Music and there are many cultures and sub-cultures (jazz and Indian traditional for example) where these metrics do not work. Secondly, just because music is bad doesn’t mean you shouldn’t like it. As a true confession, I like listening to the rappers 21 Savage and RMR, even though they’re generally considered bad artists, and I don’t like listening to Radiohead, even though I agree that they are one of the best rock bands of our time. Like what you like and be secure, even though you know that it may not be good. Finally, sometimes people are just jerks and there is nothing wrong with your tastes. Even if someone does know a lot about music there is no need for rudeness; they should be supporting someone getting into the thing that they love. Keep this in mind as you listen and share, people can like bad music and its ok (!) and you can hate music even if its good, but the enjoyment of some kind of music is what matters.
photocreds (in order): Los angeles magazine, the industry observer, ICMP,