I have a confession. I used to be a music snob.
In fact, I used to be snob about a lot of things, but music fandom and criticism was my main snobbishness outlet.
It turns out that there are a lot of awful bands out there, and there’s no shortage of opportunities to be snobbish about them. I spent a great many hours scoffing at the latest popular trends in music, from the absurdly over-the-top and formulaic bro-country-rap to faux-British-accented-pop-folk to brainless pop dance club music.
It was so satisfying. My ego was validated every time I looked down my nose at the people who played this stuff. I was more intelligent. My music was more sophisticated. I was more in touch with the real complexities of the human experience, or some nonsense like that.
Then I actually tried playing music I liked.
It turns out that music is hard. I’m pretty bad at it. I’ve played guitar for several years and have tried singing for about as long. My vocal and instrumental skills wouldn’t buy me 10 seconds on a stage. An 11-year-old YouTuber might have better audio engineering skills than me.
Weirdly enough, even this wasn’t enough to make me drop my snobbishness about music. I had it bad, folks. To stop being a snob about music (and about creative work in general) I had to get a real grown-up job first.
Then I found that making anything happen creatively is quite difficult. Keeping a team together, getting the resources you need, learning new skills, delegating tasks you’re not familiar with, budgeting your time and funds, managing time with multiple balls in the air – this stuff is hard.
The process of recording and producing and promoting an album of music – let alone getting to a place where you can record – takes all of these skills and more. It takes playing music well enough to get gigs, it takes playing well to crowds, and it takes business savvy as well as technical and music savvy.
The twist is this: even the world’s most hated (often rightfully so) albums of music all had to meet those conditions. The world’s most hated musicians had the guts, ingenuity, and skill to convince a record label and millions of fans to pay to hear their music.
Can we take a second to admit how remarkable that is? Let me make it real for you.
I mean, these two (three?) absurd dudebros did it.
The Internet’s favorite early-2000s douche-rock meme Smash Mouth did it.
(Yes, I did forever ruin my YouTube recommendations doing research for this blog post. You’re welcome, Internet.)
I don’t understand why these groups succeeded. Yes, this music is bad. In the case of the bands highlighted above, absurdly bad. And sexist, to boot.
I’m the last person to deny that bad work deserves to be criticized. People do sell out. People do phone it in. Sometimes people rely on stereotypes or create to a formula or just coast on fame. They have their reward, and it’s a small one. What they’re doing will catch up to them.
But for every insincerely bad artist out there, there are some sincerely mediocre ones. Sometimes you can’t tell the difference. Sometimes bands are both, depending on when you catch them. Yes, we should criticize their work, but maybe we should take time out now and then to grudgingly tip our hats to them. Why?
Not because they’re good. Because they’re going for it.
They’ll never win Grammys, they’ll constantly be ignored or become the butt of jokes, and they’ll never get a rave review from anyone except their cult following of fans. They still get up out of bed every day and make their damn music. They ignore legions of critics on the internet to do that. They’ve probably been ignoring legions of critics since they first picked up musical instruments.
They actually make some people happy. They’re probably having an insane amount of fun. They’re probably learning and getting better, in their own weird, still-objectively-horrible way. We must imagine Nickelback to be happy.
For all of my pontificating about music, I haven’t done that. Compared to every band the internet loves to hate, I haven’t done s***.
If I’m going to do s***, I’d better lay aside my snobbery about music and about anything I haven’t done s*** about – movies, books, businesses, social groups, art, etc. I’d better be willing to have other people look down their noses at my work. I’d better be willing to find sparks of creative ambition and work I can respect just about anywhere.
So next time I hear easily hateable bands on the radio, I’ll be giving them that grudging nod of respect – in honor of their work, and in recognition of what it takes to make even the worst music:
Then I’ll turn the damn stuff off.