There is Anna Netrebko and there is Taylor Swift: there is a right or wrong answer as to which is better, though both can have their own beauty.
OK, who said that? Me? Robert Christgau? Rick Moody over at The Rumpus? Some random dude on a Bruce Springsteen fan forum?
The answer is “None of the above.” Sort of. In truth, it was some random guy at Backstreets.com, except that I altered the players. I’ll get to the original quote in a bit. First, let’s talk about Taylor Swift.
I ran across the article linked above at Salon.com, where Rick Moody wrote a piece talking about how he’d dissed Taylor Swift and was bashed for it. What he basically said was that he didn’t understand how so many established critics seemed to be bending over backwards in praise of Ms. Swift. While I’m not familiar with Swift’s work in particular (the exception being the song “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” because yack about it on the Interwebs was harder to avoid than Monday morning Downton Abbey spoilers), I kind of know that she’s a country/pop sort of artist. So it did seem odd that somebody like Christgau was on her side.
In Moody’s article he did something he said he normally avoids: he went negative. I applaud Moody’s positive outlook and get the driving philosophy: that writing about things you like makes for better writing. What he ended up writing wasn’t any nastier than the usual snark you find everywhere these days but its inherent lack of weight seemed to undermine his point, which was that he didn’t “get” the whole Taylor Swift phenomenon. And yes, the comments did flow. One that struck in particular came from a reader of the meta-article at Salon:
I dunno, pissing on a pop artist like Taylor Swift is a bit like sneaking into your little sister’s bedroom and taking a dump on her Hello Kitty sheet set because it “sucks”.
There’s got to be a better way to approach music directed at young girls. There is a level of maturity, experience, aspiration and taste that should be understood and taken into account. A little empathy for an audience that’s coming from a different place in life could go a long way toward expanding their musical tastes – without shitting all over where they’re at now.
Exactly. That gets close to how I feel about writers dumping on most forms of pop music. People listen to supposedly empty music for all sorts of reasons and those people are not you — so what’s your point?
Now how is this related to me, Bruce Springsteen, and some random dude at one of his fan sites? The discussion started with a statement (not from me), applying the old “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” to music. I agree completely. I’ve said as much before, going even further to say that the definition of music lives with the listener. You perceive something as musical and it is. But another participant in the conversation disagreed, making the above opening statement, except that the comparison was Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” to “Dogs playing poker on velvet.”
I had to disagree because I don’t think there are universal objective standards by which art is evaluated. People’s ideas about “goodness” change over time. The old masters weren’t always well-received back in their day. And if we want to modify the original example, what about “Starry Night” and oh, just about anything by Jackson Pollock? Do the supposed “standards” help us to determine which painting is “better”?
My point is that that standards (if they indeed exist) are not particularly useful. Let’s face it, if somebody likes “Dogs Playing Poker” over “Starry Night,” the two artworks’ “ratings” are completely pointless. The same thing goes for Anna Netrebko and Taylor Swift. Is Netrebko a better singer? If you’re a 16-year old kid, not an opera fan, and prefer Taylor Swift, are you “wrong”?
I don’t know a whole lot about Swift except that she’s young, has a decent voice, and writes most of her music (so rare these days). If she’s making some kids happy, then what’s the big deal? Speak Now will be my first whole album listen. Who knows, maybe it’ll make my ride to work a little more enjoyable.
And hey, maybe I’ll stop on my way home and pick up some Hello Kitty bed sheets.