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  • Good music and the other kind

    Declaring one's favorite music can be like choosing sides
  • Music is a strange deal. It's one of the few activities I can think of in which you don't have to be particularly good to be effective. Picture a singer and songwriter who only knows two chords but who writes beautiful songs and sings them in a weak voice that somehow manages to give you chills. The inverse is also true. Ther...
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  • Music is a strange deal. It's one of the few activities I can think of in which you don't have to be particularly good to be effective.
    Picture a singer and songwriter who knows only two chords but who writes beautiful songs and sings them in a weak voice that somehow manages to give you chills. The inverse is also true. There are plenty of mind-bogglingly good musicians out there who, for any number of reasons, play music that not many people enjoy listening to.
    Similarly, lots of players are much better than they think they are, while others aren't close to as good as they claim to be. The beauty is that, unlike the work of a commercial pilot or civil engineer, very little is actually at stake when a musician plies his trade. No one's safety is put at risk by the act of incompetent guitar playing.
    What's more, professional musicians represent but a fraction of the music in the world. I assume (confidently) that people have been making music for as long as there have been people. Record contracts, on the other hand, date to approximately when my grandparents were born.
    I love hearing truly great professional musicians play, just like I love watching big-leaguers play baseball. I also love Little League and the astounding fact that the complex of artificial-turf softball fields you can see from I-5 is filled year-round with people participating in recreational adult leagues.
    One year when I was in college, I rented a room in a house that had two yard-sale banjos in the living room instead of a television. They were both missing a few strings and were not, by banjo standards, all that playable. A lot of people lived in this house, and there was an awful lot of traffic through the front door. Over the course of the year, it seemed to me that almost everyone who sat down in that living room for any length of time eventually picked up one of those crummy banjos and plunked around on it for awhile.
    Folks who knew a little guitar would try to tune them like a guitar and other folks didn't try to tune them at all. Some people only played a few timid notes, while others attacked the strings like they had a point to make. I understand that what I have just described lies somewhere between a nightmare scenario and a deeply annoying performance art installation. All the same, I enjoyed it. It was as if some crucial layer of musical brand loyalty was stripped away and people were reduced to making it themselves.
    As much as music often seems to be a positive force in the world, it also seems to make people mad. That musical brand loyalty can have a level of vitriol reminiscent of larger culture wars. Lots of folks hate certain kinds of music with a level of energy ordinarily reserved for politics or sectarian religious squabbles. I wish I had a dime for every time in my life I've heard someone say some version of, "I like every kind of music except country and rap."
    I remember the moment I realized that not all people like the same music. I was in the third grade and a fourth-grader asked me to name my favorite singer. I was taken aback. I thought it must be a trick question. I honestly didn't understand that it was an issue to which some measure of individual choice applied. This was 1983. There was only one answer.
    "Michael Jackson," I said, incredulous.
    "I hate Michael Jackson," said the fourth-grader, and walked away. The outside world has not felt to me like the same place since.
    Thirty-odd years later, I understand that declaring one's favorite music can feel like choosing sides. For this reason, genre titles pose a variety of problems. When I have interviewed musicians, I have found that the most reliably uncomfortable responses are to the seemingly obvious question: "What kind of music do you play?" I hate to answer it myself, particularly in casual conversation with well-meaning people who are genuinely interested in the answer.
    Why this should be I do not know, but I have heard myself say things like, "Well, you know, a little of this and a little of that."
    It may be wisest to fall back on the old Duke Ellington quote about there being only two kinds of music: "good music and the other kind."
    Reach musician and freelance writer Jef Fretwell at jeffretwell@yahoo.com
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