“Where’s jazz going? I don’t know. Maybe it’s going to hell. You can’t make anything go anywhere. It just happens.”
― Thelonious Monk
I have some very good news for you. You don’t have to like anything. Sure, nailing yourself to the flaming bandwagon careering off into the abyss is a natural human impulse to conformity, but the fact that you do not like that music which the critics laud, that your peers dab to, is a good thing. Because the elitism that comes along with being “into music” is as narrow-minded as deafly consuming the latest 160 bpm tune that has hit number one.
Go on. Tell the nearest vinyl-hoarder in the room that you aren’t very keen on Rubber Soul. You will be told that first, you’re wrong, and second, that you “didn’t get it,” rather than your subversion being a simple testament to human subjectivity.
That’s the funny thing: albums regarded to be classic have this untouchable quality to them, such that the actual quality of the music/instrumentation/vocal delivery/binding concept of the record in discussion is not called into question. Admittedly, as subjectivity comes into play when we try to quantify the unquantifiable (just try and score Illmatic out of ten – it’s impossible), the “classic” label will be removed or added to every record there ever was, and we can only sceptically conclude that there is no such thing as “good taste.”
Perhaps too many of us are misusing the word “classic,” in the same way that people tend to prefix their favourite album with the word “perfect.”
A classic album has stood the test of time: the threads of its influence and relevance will be audible in albums released decades later. The really good ones will sound timeless, and you will hear the cross-pollination of their styles of instrumentation, lyricism and production reverberate in the new albums that will be released tomorrow. The best ones will have said something, something so compelling that we are still talking about it (or have plagiarised someone else’s idea so deftly that the subterfuge is too delicious to not applaud).
What’s more, album sales are unrelated to the classic status; the Ramones’ self-titled debut only shifted 6,000 copies the year it was released, and now you can get a Ramones t-shirt in any HMV store that’s still in business. This is because everyone who bought that record that year, or saw them perform in New York in 1976, formed a band to copycat that sound, to get girls, to get famous, or whatever. That delicious uneasiness and humour in their brand of rock-n-roll was irresistible, and birthed a new genre: punk. Releasing an album in the right place and the right time definitely has a lot to do with their being remembered: those albums from the godfathers of punk (the Sex Pistols and New York Dolls) are so prescient that barely any other records in that genre are called classics. This is because the audiences at that time were so bored of concept albums and eight-minute guitar solos that the fast, subversive sound of Never Mind The Bollocks was like nepenthe.
Whether you are the casual listener looking for tunes that will sound good in the car, or the lyric analyst, or that mid-level music fan who hates talking about music at parties because your interlocutors make you feel that your knowledge is inadequate, I have some more good news for you. You have a lot of agency in musical discourse. The only way you can realise this is by listening as much as you can, finding something that you click with, and, in time, being able to express why you like this music. The great thing is that you don’t have to worry about the contextual contradictions that may lie in being a fan of both Led Zeppelin and Sex Pistols, or (the horror!) Oasis and Blur. The context has changed and is changing: don’t be apologetic for your convictions.
We must also enforce the importance of curiosity. If you’ve already cultivated your taste, have a look at your favourite artists’ influences. There is a gold mine to be found, particularly if you are into hip-hop, the progression of which is so explosive from year to year that any scholarship you find on the subject is going to have many examples of refutation. Look at the tracks that Kanye West samples, and find yourself a fan of old-school Chicago house, or delve into the long list of Kendrick Lamar collaborators and soon you’ll be listening to Funkadelic’s glorious Maggot Brain.
Speaking of which, bear in mind our definition: we can’t call To Pimp a Butterfly a classic album. But we can enjoy arguing and predicting whether it will earn that description. That type of discourse is what is important, what the music is for in the end, regardless of the artists’ intentions. Once the music is released and listened to, the future of that piece of art is in our hands. We are the listeners, and we are the influenced, and we are in charge of what music will be made, and what music will be remembered. Art demands interpretation: your take on it and your arguments for that interpretation put the brakes on that flaming bandwagon we mentioned earlier.
Because that album, or those few albums, will be classic to you. When you listen to them, they will have that time machine effect, taking you backwards, forwards, round and round, taking your mind on a trip to beyond that place of catharsis that cannot be expressed in words, as words are too crude. Sure, trying to describe such a place as justification for your convictions about an album is nigh on impossible, but the personal act of listening will inspire your public opinions, or at least convince you to appreciate the rest of your day. It’s just like Thelonious Monk said: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture,” and as much as this is true, we also have to keep the conversation going, to celebrate the music of the past and present, to encourage the synthesis of new musical forms.
I am certain that there is at least one Ariana Grande fan with a vinyl of Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul mounted on their wall. Just imagine the discourse.