If you read this blog, you probably also read Neck Pickup (and if you don’t, you should). The other night, the artist formerly known as Kinky Paprika took up the task of naming his least-favorite artists, and the pitfalls inherent in doing so. Is it fair to list a performer without knowing their whole catalog? What if someone you like has a terrible period mid-career that you dislike? Is it the performer you hate, or the whole genre? Picking the worst is a more difficult task than it seems like it should be.
Beyond all that, tastes change. As a pre-adolescent, raised on the Partridge Family, I hated Creedence Clearwater Revival, but I got over it. When I got to college, AC/DC was all the rage among my peers, but I detested them. Once I realized that Bon Scott approached the whole thing as a put-on—made even clearer by the way his replacement, Brian Johnson, failed to get the joke—I lightened up on them. Conversely, I adored Emerson Lake and Palmer when I was a teenage prog-rock fan; only now do I hear their frequent absurdity.
As a radio guy, I hear artists as makers of specific songs, and that makes it hard for me to evaluate their work across the board. A good example is Blake Shelton. He’s capable of making great records—“Honey Bee,” from a few years ago, is one of the great radio songs in any genre, and more recent hits like “God Gave Me You” and “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking” are genuine country songs that would have been popular in any era. “Boys ‘Round Here,” on the other hand, might be among the half-dozen worst records since Edison—its utter stupidity (and contempt for its presumed audience) is remarkable. So do I like Blake Shelton, or don’t I? Yes and no.
Fashions get in the way. The relentless beat-heavy nature of the Top 40 these days is exhausting, as is the modern style of production, in which records have the dynamic range of the dial tone. Listening to some of these records is like being beaten by a rubber hose. Use something like Audacity to look at their waveforms and you’ll see just how cranked up they are, all the way to the top of the waveform. This violates what anybody who works with sound used to be taught—levels should peak “in the red,” but not too far in the red, lest the sound distort. The phenomenon of hitting the top is known as “brickwalling”—and it’s not just new records that suffer from it. Many old recordings are being remastered this way, to conform to radio’s desire for and listeners’ tolerance of louder sound, thereby destroying the original dynamics. Every once in a while, the people who remaster the Casey Kasem repeats will brickwall them, and it only proves that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.
Now that I’ve drifted a great distance from this post’s original premise, I’m not sure I can get back. I don’t need to hear anything from today’s made-by-TV singers in any genre. Based on what I’ve heard on the radio, John Mayer and Coldplay have mastered the dubious art of making music devoid of any reason to care about it. Bridging the gap from contemporary to classic rock, Jon Bon Jovi is a noisy hack. John Mellencamp, apart from one magnificent album (Rain on the Scarecrow) and some scattered singles, is largely unnecessary to me. Pat Benatar is completely unnecessary. Because my disdain for Elvis Costello causes pain to some people I like, I have tried to get over it, but I just can’t. And there’s Fogelberg, of course. But for each of these artists (even John Mayer), I can name at least one song that I don’t mind. So yeah, this process is more difficult than it seems like it should be.
If you like Coldplay or Elvis Costello, or anybody else I mentioned, don’t take it personally. Enjoy ’em. There are artists you don’t like, I’m sure. And I’d like to know who they are.