Imagine that you are a judge at a baby beauty contest. Thousands of babies are brought out in front of you for you to inspect, and it’s up to you to decide which ones the public at large would want to see.
Every baby that you see is wonderful: full of life, full of curiosity, energy, enthusiasm and its own kind of perfect integrity and even beauty. In that sense, they are all exactly the same, equally open, curious, and ready to engage. Every one of them deserves the same chances as every other.
At the same time, though, you have to admit to yourself that some of the babies are certainly easier to look at than others (and now that you’re on the subject, some of them – bless their little hearts – just look pretty undercooked).
That’s what it’s like to make judgments about music.
It’s clearly true that some music works better than others. Popularity and critical acclaim, both immediate and enduring, attest to that. And yet it’s also true that all artists, no matter how effective, popular, or acclaimed their music, feel that they are special, and deserving of peoples’ attention.
This is a situation where, when looked at through one eye, all music is exactly equal, and looked at through the other, some music is, as Orwell put it, “more equal than others.”
It’s not by accident that I reference Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” because I think some of our deepest ideas about these things are rooted in a conflict between ideology and biology.
The idea that all music is equal and deserves equal rights is somehow fundamentally a democratic idea; as is the corresponding idea that the public, and not some small cadre of experts, is the best judge of musical quality.
But the fact that some music not only attracts more listeners, but also seems to mean more to more people over a longer period of time, indicates that there is actually something fundamentally unequal about music as well. And if you really think about this, it’s doubtful that any two records are really ever of the exact same level of quality. After all, different people can’t have identical experiences of the same piece of music, can they? And in fact, a single person can’t even have the exact same experience of a piece of music even if they listen to it twice in a row. Fascinating…
And so we have a paradox, which for those of us who have to make value judgments about music, is a constant challenge to negotiate. Like any good challenge, it’s also endlessly absorbing in its own way.
I’d like to understand it better, so if you will, imagine once again that you’re judging that baby contest, and tell me: what are you thinking? How are you going to decide? And then extend those ideas to music if you dare.