Why The Subjectivity of Art Doesn’t Mean Quite What You Think it Does, or, Why Your Opinions on Music Can Be Wrong

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Words by Joe Gilbertson · Having fun meme: Memes that make you go “what the heck”

Music, like all forms of art, is a largely subjective experience. What one person gets from a piece of music can be worlds away from what another person gets from it. For me, this is a good thing. I hated subjects like maths and chemistry in school, because a list of questions with definitive answers (and worse, definitive ways to come up with said answers), about things I fundamentally don’t care about, is boring as fuck. That’s why I vastly preferred subjects like English literature, and would have probably enjoyed music more if music was taught in a generally less terrible way in schools.

In English literature, students are taught an incredibly important lesson: that your opinions can never be wrong, as long as they are backed up with reasoning, evidence from the text, and supported by comparisons to other texts and context. One thing they do not teach in English literature, is that your opinion that the novelisation of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is a fantastic book because you thoroughly enjoyed reading it, is really valid at all. While that’s not a statement likely to be seen as controversial, say that someone’s favourite band or album is shit, and you’ll be called a music snob, or a cunt. Why? Because it’s a matter of opinion, and when it comes to music, people rarely want to have a discussion that involves any of their opinions being actually challenged.

Believe it or not, I’m not trying to be a snob. I’m not saying the music you like is shit simply because it’s not to my tastes, or that you shouldn’t like it. It’s just that as an art form, I like to think about music critically, and I like to discuss it critically. If you don’t, that’s fine, but I personally can’t imagine how fucking boring it must be to love music without ever wanting to even have an intelligent discussion on it.

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The biggest mistake people seem to make when discussing music is confusing their taste with their opinion. In fact, most people don’t even seem to consider that there may be a difference between these things. A person’s taste in music, like their taste in anything, is entirely based on personal preference – it’s the sounds that, for whatever reason, appeal to you. You might absolutely love One Direction, for example – and you’re perfectly allowed to love One Direction without having much respect for them as artists. You might hate Thom Yorke’s voice and just not really enjoy Radiohead, again, fine – but if you say that you think Radiohead are shit, you’re no longer discussing your taste. You’ve moved into the realms of opinion, and unless you’ve got an actual argument that says OK Computer isn’t one of the greatest albums of all time, I will fight you goddamn it I will fight you right now.

This is because opinions are not based on personal enjoyment, they’re based on rational thoughts. They’re things we believe to be true, and although they’re often not based on hard facts – this is music – you are expected to be able to justify your opinion with points, comparisons and context. Where your taste can never be right or wrong, opinions only carry the weight of the arguments behind them. For example, it cannot be “wrong” to enjoy the album That’s The Spirit by Bring Me the Horizon. However, Rock Sound calling it the “most important album of the decade” can be all but nullified simply when considering that said album had no political or social relevance besides’ Oli Sykes’ struggle with depression, and essentially consisted of decade-old Linkin Park re-hashes updated with equally cliche but more 2015-flavoured lyrics (being angry isn’t that cool anymore, being sad is) and production (nu-metal isn’t that cool anymore, indie/electronic pop is). Sure, there’s a lot more to be discussed than that – and I’d love to discuss it with you. Just don’t call me a snob and say that it’s “just my opinion”. Because unless you’re going to offer your opinion, and allow people to challenge your opinion – then it’s easiest for you to remain in the realms of taste. Nobody is allowed to argue with you, and you don’t even have to think about the art you’re consuming. Like a pig, in a cage, on antibiotics.

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