A Taxonomy of Music

I was asked the other day to play one of my musical guilty pleasures. I settled on “Ave Maria” by David Bisbal, because I had to play something, but after thinking about it some more I eventually decided I don’t have any guilty pleasures. This is in part due to structural cultural shifts; once hipsters made it acceptable to like things “ironically”, it became harder and harder to tell the difference between somebody with a sincere appreciation for a band and somebody who only “liked” their music, “because it’s so bad.” A good example of this was The Darkness’ “I Believe in A Thing Called Love“, which is an undeniably tight, catchy, well-written pop song (for what it’s worth, if you’re scoring at home, I love it), but because it was performed by a Brit wearing spandex and just so over the top, loads of people felt like they could only like it as a joke. Or take Diamond Nights (here with “Destination Diamonds”, and also generally part of the “arena rock revival”). They were admittedly never that big, but look at the way this album review starts:

The AOR revival rolls on with a tight, hard and tough dose of dual guitar attack, slashing riffs, soaring falsetto and the best vocal sneer since Phil LynottDiamond Nights are the band, Popsicle the album. The four dudes in the band must have been raised on a steady diet of classic rawk from the likes of Thin LizzyAC/DCJudas PriestEddie Money, and Alice Cooper. They recapture it so perfectly you know it was burned deep into their souls at a young age. Or it is all a hipster joke?

To the reviewer’s credit (one Tim Sendra), the next line is, “Either way the record is fantastic from beginning to end,” but that he would even feel compelled to include the “hipster joke” caveat shows the degree to which the “ironic like” had become pervasive in pop culture. Now, almost ten years later, I think the “ironic like” has to some degree displaced the “guilty pleasure”. Most guilty pleasure songs or artists aren’t just straight up unlistenable; the music is usually appealing in some way or another, whether because the lyrics are amusing or the melodies are incredibly catchy. So it’s pretty easy to transition the material that gets listened to under the heading of guilty pleasure to the ironic, “so bad it’s good” category.

All this means guilty pleasure is a less useful category to begin with; on top of that, it’s needlessly shame-inducing. A true guilty pleasure would be, I dunno, “Horst-Wessel-Lied”. But if you’re actively choosing to listen to a song, there must be something about it that makes it an attractive piece of music. And that’s nothing to feel bad about. Then again, it would be blasphemous to suggest that somehow Paul Simon’s Graceland is on the same level as Kesha’s Animal, even though I like them both.

To deal with this problem, I propose the following tripartite musical taxonomy: Good, Pop, and Fun. In reality, these are hardly discrete impermeable categories; imagine instead what this would look like after a beer or seven. So I offer the following as contestable examples rather than actual incarnations of each bucket’s Platonic ideal.

GoodBorn to Run, Aja, The Band, Ragged Glory. These are all albums of undeniable quality. These happen to be sonically appealing, too, but this category also includes all kinds of usefully progressive music that may not be the most intuitively pleasant to listen to but nevertheless can be recognized for the importance of its contribution to music as a whole. For example, I happen to very much enjoy Raw Power (and “Raw Power“), but I would happily argue for its inclusion in this category despite the fact that Iggy Pop does at times rather sound like what you’d get if you put a cat in a blender.

Pop: A lot of things by Lady Gaga (“Bad Romance” chief among them), this album by Ghost Beach (especially “Miracle” and “Close Enough”). These are all well-constructed pieces of popular music – catchy but not pandering, melodic but not boring, lyrically manageable but not comprehensively inane – something you could put on at a party without raising an eyebrow, but something also worth appreciating in its own right. In much of the music that populates this category there’s something a little darker going on than what is superficially discernible.

Fun: This is where to put everything you used to call a guilty pleasure, and everything you’ve liked, “but only ironically”, and anything that’s fun as hell to dance to when you’re drunk (or when you’re in the shower, or when you’re sober and bored and with access to a tall mirror…) Everything by Akcent, “Your Love is My Drug” by Kesha, this bit of Serbian pop. Is any of it actually good? I would submit that it is not. But that says nothing about whether or not it should be listened to. And if it’s fun, why not listen to it and unabashedly embrace its fun-ness?

Of course, if we’re meeting for the first time and you ask me what music I listen to, you can be sure I’ll respond with a list of artists and albums that mark me as a sophisticated consumer of quality music. “Oh, you know, Steely Dan and Roxy Music are two favorites; Assembly of Dust is another one. I think Love by The Cult is exquisite,” are things I might say. But in the spirit of this taxonomy, I might also let slip, at the end, after I’ve already impressed you with what a musical connoisseur I am, something like, “And I have to say, if I’m at a party, I love hearing “Danza Kuduro“, or Inna, or something dumb and trashy and fun to dance to.”