In which I try to define serious art and alienate Firely and Megadeth fans
My quest as a writer, and to a larger extent as a reviewer, reader, and participant in aesthetic culture, is mostly consumed with figuring out what distinguishes one work from another in terms of a very hard-to-define quality. Whether I am socializing around music, science, or science fiction, there are certain qualities that distinguish one fan from another and the reflection of those qualities in the works that we socialize around. There is some criterion by which I look at music, movies, television shows, short stories, and novels, that reflects its quality better than anything else, yet this criterion is not specifically related to execution of the story or music. It’s often not a matter of skill, but of choices made by the artist of what to talk about, or what to take seriously. It’s very hard to place, but I think I have arrived at calling it “taste.”
Definitions drive me crazy. I got really pissed off at my college philosophy teacher (not professor, I think he was a graduate student) because he wouldn’t define evil for me. He wanted to talk about evil all the time, and a large portion of the class focused on evil, but all he would say when I asked him to define evil was “I think we can all agree that Hitler was evil.” Sure, but we couldn’t all agree on whether abortion was evil, which I suppose was why we were still in class and he still had a job. I had just come from declaring a major in mathematics and I wanted rock-hard definitions, but often the most difficult, interesting, or useful criteria are very hard to define and best sought through examples.
But before I get to alienating everyone by pointing out artists who I think have no taste, let me clarify with two rules.
- Taste is not subjective. I looked up “what is good taste” on Google (a fount of useful information! #sarcasm) and right away came up with the answer that “it means you have the same taste in music as the person who said you have good taste in music.” That is nonsense. Agreement isn’t the best criterion, but just as we can all agree that Hitler was evil, we can mostly agree that Madonna was superior to Britney Spears. You may not like Lady Gaga, but I’ll bet you agree she is easier to take seriously as an artist than Katy Perry. Taste is related to qualities that are subjective, like preferences with respect to genre and style, but it is not the same as genre or style, or quality of execution. There is bad music in every genre, and there is good music in most.
- Taste is not ethical. Taste is an aesthetic choice, not about right or wrong. I don’t think there’s anything ethically wrong with having bad taste, nor do I think it reflects on a person’s moral character. If you want to like Firefly, that is up to you (but I probably won’t try to have any serious discussions with you).
- There’s a difference between bad taste and in poor taste. Plenty of works are done by people with no taste, but that doesn’t mean they’re offensive. I am artistically offended by Firefly, but it’s not offensive in the sense that sandals with socks are offensive.
Now that I’ve gotten rid of those pesky Firefly devotees, let me give you a more in-depth example of what I mean by taste. And just so you know that this is not about me having good taste, and you liking Phish, I will discuss below why having good taste can be redemptive, and why all artists should therefore strive for it.
I first heard heavy metal music when I was a kid in the eighties, but in 1986 I heard of the sub-genre of speed metal, of which there were two great bands, Metallica and Megadeth (there were two other groups that dominated the genre, Anthrax and Slayer, who I will only briefly mention because I only briefly listened to them). In 1989 I heard what many of you will remember as the watershed moment in the breakout of speed metal from an underground, mostly European subgenre to a mainstream, if still scary, type of music in heavy rotation on MTV.
Metallica’s video for “One” was a huge hit that paved the way for the coming grunge wave two years later, and consider why: subject matter. MTV in 1989 was a wasteland of what we now call “hair metal,” and bad pop music that no one remembers. I mean I really can’t remember any of the pop music, but I remember at least the aesthetic of the hair metal, which no one would consider “metal” today. A few weeks ago I watched Wayne’s World with my boys, and I love that movie, but if you want to remember what music was like before Nirvana and Metallica’s Black Album, watch that movie. It’s totally forgettable, and only a few bands on the soundtrack made it through to 1992.
So in 1989, music was mostly fluff, and then Metallica came out with a video about a young man who’s had his arms and legs blown off by a landmine and can only communicate by nodding his head in morse code. The video incorporated footage from the film Johnny Got His Gun starring Jason Robards, and was over seven minutes long, something usually reserved for re-airings of “Thriller.” And it was pure speed metal. “One” is not a power ballad, it’s not even “Fade to Black,” which is a power ballad. “One” builds up to a thundering bridge with heavily-distorted layered power chords over a double bass roll that extends into over three minutes (the length of a typical video at the time) of thrashing guitar solos while we watch the subject of the video begging to die. “Kill me,” he nods. “Please kill me.”
A lot of people took the easiest message, which was anti-war, and I’m not denying that it is, as much of Metallica’s music was broadly anti-war, but not from a liberal/hippy perspective that war is evil because of moral relativism. Metallica wasn’t above moral relativism, but the deeper philosophical issue that they brought up in this video was of a man trapped in his own body: what is communication? What does it mean to relate to another human being? Can you do that without speaking? What would you ask for if you were in that situation? We take it for granted that everyone wants to go on living, but woul dyou want to if you were locked in your body with no way out? I was ten years old, and Metallica–a frickin’ heavy metal band–got me thinking about these questions.
Yes, Metallica, who weren’t above mooning the audience and whose lead singer had “Eet fuk” written on his BC Rich guitar, got young people thinking. They also got me interested in literature, including the Bible. I’m not the only one. I was substitute teaching in Wellesley, Massachussetts a few years back, and the high school put on a production of “Johnny Got His Gun.” Walking back from the auditorium, I heard a couple of teachers saying what a good performance it was. “Have you read the book?” asked the guy on the right. “No, but I’ve seen that Metallica video” was the response.
Yes, they were mooning the audience (that was the drummer, of course), and swilling beer, and throwing their hair all over the place, but only the most superficial of fans didn’t ask what those songs were about. Especially with a video like “One” where the meaning was obvious, people were eager to find out more about what the lyrics were about (which can’t be separated effectively from the music as a whole, see below about Megadeth).
Let’s remember this was 1989 and if eighty percent of the people in that crowd weren’t regular church-goers at the time of the concert, they were as little kids. They knew the story of Exodus. In the crowd-participation-focused bridge of “Creeping Death,” when the crowd is shouting “Die! Die! Die! Motherfucker!” even I have faith that most people know what they’re shouting about, and it’s really deep stuff, at the very least it’s something from classic literature. And all of Metallica’s material in the 1980s was of this caliber: they wrote songs about the death penalty, and the rape of lady justice, and suicide, and war, and nuclear war, and drug addiction, and war, H.P. Lovecraft, and insanity, and war, religious hypocrisy, and The Bible (of all things).
And that brings me to “The Four Horsemen,” another Biblically-themed song. As you can guess, it’s about the apocalypse, death, famine, pestilence, and time. And it kicks ass. For those of you who don’t know the story, upon getting a record contract Metallica replaced their lead guitarist Dave Mustaine, the writer of many of the songs on their first album, with Kirk Hammett, who is still with the band after eighty-seven years. Rhythm guitarist James Hetfield took over as the major writer of lyrics and, with drummer Lars Ulrich’s help, gave us all the deep themes I mention above. Before “The Four Horsemen” was rewritten, it was called “The Mechanics,” and it was about … car mechanics. A friend of mine surprised me in high school with an elusive demo of this song before it acquired its Biblical subject matter, and it was incredibly stupid to listen to. The positively dumb subject matter completely eroded the song’s ass-kicking qualities by interrupting the mood with superficial values and immature lyrics. It was no better than AC/DC, when most of us held Metallica to be the artistic equal of Richard Wagner (the composer, not the guitarist).
This brings me to Megadeth: when Mustaine was fired by Metallica, he quickly formed another band, which was held by many to be second only to Metallica. The reason they were second to Metallica ought to be clear from Megadeth’s poor choices of subject matter. Dave Mustaine had no taste. Let’s take “Wake Up Dead” as an example.
I know Megadeth tried, with Peace Sells…but Who’s Buying? and so on, but they couldn’t pull it off. Whereas Metallica were accused of being the alcoholic, devil-worshipping aggressive fantasy of post-pubescent boys, Megadeth actually was, and not much more. You could say that Megadeth effected an aesthetic, whereas Metallica’s songs were actually deep, and there’s an element of execution in that: notice how Dave Mustaine doesn’t really sing, he sort of groans and croaks until the next guitar solo. I don’t believe they really mean it, the same way the people on Firefly looked like they were taking part in a big joke. Megadeth did an impression of writing songs about deep topics, and Metallica actually pulled it off. Even when Metallica decided to be a hard rock band instead of a heavy metal band, they were still writing about heavy topics.
And this is the distinguishing characteristic of good taste that I’ve been able to extract so far: art done with good taste touches on themes that are central to the human condition, or it at least asks questions that are relevant to universal human experience. Heavy metal music, to be done in good taste, cannot simply thrash; literature and drama cannot simply be people running for their lives. It has to ask questions or talk about subjects that everyone understands or can think about, and do it in a serious way, even when surrounded by jokes (as on Twin Peaks, even in Shakespeare). It cannot be a joke. Even comedy done in good taste, like Seinfeld, is done in a certain way that is sincere.
Bad literature and drama often tries hard, but doesn’t quite make it. Some don’t even try. I think Game of Thrones tries to have good taste, but it doesn’t. Vikings, with just as much sex and violence, on the other hand, is done in a way that I can take it seriously, and that redeems it.
Another rock band I listened to an awful lot of was The Grateful Dead, who I can’t decide were a good band or not. They were good at times and they really sucked at other times. After reading Phil Lesh’s memoir of the band, it became clear that they were often stressed out, intoxicated, and complacent, not willing to do what they should have done with the band: they made most of their money through touring and weren’t willing to look for other ways to make their income. This may have led to them having more bad nights than other bands, since they simply had more nights. People who toured with them tell me that every third night or so they were amazing, and so listening to tapes of their shows is a little misleading, but what’s clear to me is that through it all, despite all their laziness, they were never artistically lazy. In other words, especially through their songwriting and their choice of songs to play, they redeemed themselves. Even when they were having an off night, they were playing good songs that were approached from the right place.
Robert Jordan is another example: he was at his best in The Great Hunt, The Shadow Rising, and Lord of Chaos, but even at his worst, he didn’t degenerate into just telling stories about magic, or sex, or naked women, although there was a lot of that. His Conan books are not great, his Conan has more to do with Schwarzenegger than Robert E. Howard, but he is still approaching it from a sincere place. Robert Jordan had good taste and it showed.