The Fallacy of Good Taste

The Grammy Awards are this Sunday, when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences will reveal which of the past year’s musical compositions we should have listened to.

After a year of waiting, it will be such a relief to finally find out which music from 2012 was good and which was bad.  I’ve been stumbling around in the dark this whole time, spinning my iPod wheel like Russian Roulette, hoping it lands on something decent.

But no more after Sunday.  As everyone knows, the word of the Grammy music gods is final.

This being February, as per tradition, we are being inundated by awards shows of every size and shape.  ‘Tis the season when America engages in one of its greatest mass conspiracies:  Pretending that every popular art form contains a group of philosopher kings whose tastes reign supreme, and whose judgment carries far greater weight than that of us mere mortals.

One of the crucial lessons I gleaned from college film classes is that, when it comes to popular culture, no one’s opinions are any better than anyone else’s.  Everything is a matter of taste, and taste, by definition, cannot be qualitatively measured in any objective way.

Everybody knows this to be true at one level or another, yet we continue to invest ourselves in this season of golden statuettes as if they mean something.

They don’t.

Later this month, when and if a plurality of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences proclaims Lincoln the best movie of 2012, it will signal precisely one thing:  That a plurality of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences marked Lincoln for “best movie” on its Oscar ballots.  That’s about it.

All awards shows are meaningless, but the Grammys really take the cake.

I don’t know about you, but my taste in music changes by the hour.  I have an “official” favorite song, but after that it’s about a 200-way tie for second place.

It all depends on the mood.  What hits the spot as I’m careening down the highway might not necessarily work as I’m sitting quietly at my computer.  Some days I prefer hard rock; other days I surrender to Top 40.

My musical preferences are protean, entirely a function of how I feel at the moment.  Is there anyone for whom this is not the case?

If not, how could we possibly presume to pick “the best” that the recording industry has to offer?  For an art form that is so personal, based on the ever-changing emotions of its listeners—indeed, whose very purpose is either to complement or counteract those emotions—what exactly does it mean to be “the best” anyway?

To partially answer my own question, I think the explanation of awards shows’ enduring popularity can be traced to the American tendency toward consensus, including in subjects that do not require or would necessarily be enhanced by such a thing.

To wit:  The most useful article I have found about Beyoncé’s performance at last Sunday’s Super Bowl is from Jay Caspian Kang of the blog Grantland, who writes, “[Beyoncé] is popular because she’s easy to like and she’s something everyone has decided to agree upon across race, class, and creed.”

I like Beyoncé, but the point is taken and worth pondering in broader terms.  Facile is the artist who is accessible to all audiences at all times.  Where is the edge?  Where is the danger?  On the subject of movies, Roger Ebert makes a related critique, writing, “What does it say about you if you only want to see what everybody else is seeing?”

None of this is to say the Grammys cannot be enjoyed as an entertaining television event.  The Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has certainly taken greater steps than the Motion Picture Academy in making its program watchable.

But Grammy voters should not be mistaken for objective arbiters of musical quality.  They are not, for no such persons exist.

There is no reason there should, for it misses the whole point about the purpose of music.

You like what you like, and that’s just how I like it.

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