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Courtesy of WMG

February 11, 2019

SIMS | Learning to Love Bad Music

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When I think about what ties most of my favorite music together, one thing really sticks out — I originally thought it sucked.

I listen, mostly, to the type of indie rock that is somewhat repulsive but has an impassioned cult following. I’m always embarrassed to play it during car rides, parties or literally any place where someone else might hear it. But, you can bet that on my early morning drives out to the research forest and late-night walks back to my dorm, my ears are tuned into the whiny, dissonant voices spewing mediocre bedroom poetry.

Back in high school, I drove my the family-hand-me-down Toyota Rav4 up and down the Westchester parkways, listening primarily to my “Pop/Folk-Punk” Spotify playlist. It featured New Jersey folk-punk band The Front Bottoms, Welsh pop-punk band Neck Deep, and emo-pop idols All Time Low, even though none of which are really known for superb music making.

The Front Bottoms were my absolute favorite. My friends, on the other hand, hated them for the band’s simplistic chanting. They got more frustrated with every trip in the soccer mom-mobile marked by The Front Bottom’s characteristic loquacity about outlandishly minute details. I totally understood my friend’s resentment — I remembered that when The Front Bottoms first popped up on some internet-algorithm-created playlist, I didn’t approve of them either. But slowly but surely, I’d hear a line that I thought was funny, creative or novel.

Not just in spite of, but because of, the stupid metaphors they spin, their lyrics ended up on a constant loop in my head. They wrote about everyday life in ways that seem boring, but they approach it with a unique amount of attention and earnestness that allowed the metaphors to be lucid without falling into classic tropes.

Girlpool is similar, too. Although they have somehow achieved critical acclaim despite their music being, in my opinion, downright hard to start with. While their voices sometimes come together in stunning and relieving harmonies, bandmates Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad often sing in amateurish and conflicting tunes. When I first listened to them, I found it grating. But I felt that I owed it to the person who had recommended them to me to try it again. So I kept listening, and kept listening, and kept not liking them until at some point, I noticed the subtle genius of their turns of phrase and became endeared to the interplay of their voices.

Girlpool became one of my favorite acts, so much that when I saw them down at The Haunt last spring, I stood struck in complete awe for their whole set. I left feeling like a changed, or newly spiritual, or finally actualized person. Despite my deep appreciation for the power of the group’s music, I still feel like a public nuisance when I play even their best work out loud.

I think what I’m really seeking for in music is vulnerability, mistakes, aggression or the whining that I don’t want to express in other aspects of my life. The wretchedness of the sound provides comfort in the face of the wretchedness of the world.

Just like the experience of seeing a beautiful painting is often portrayed as a shining aesthetic experience, you can depict listening to outstanding music in the same way. But I can hardly say that’s what I’m going for when I throw in my earbuds. I want the stuff that I know, I want the run-of-the-mill, I want commiseration and validation. Great music is, well, great, but I’m not looking for a trip to The Met on my walk to class or to stroll around the Louvre at 2 a.m. Who would want that?

What does the “Mona Lisa” have to say about a terrible, no good, very bad day? Probably little, but it’s easy to tell it’s beautiful. Conversely, Picasso’s “Guernica” is harsh and grotesque, critiquing a depraved state of humans: in war, suffering the effects of bombings. Both are acclaimed paintings, but I think It’s harder to see the beauty of Guernica when placed against vibrant landscapes, realistically detailed portraits, or even shadowy paintings of tragic scenes. And while, on first sight, Guernica lacks the simple signatures of beauty that you can find in other paintings, it has a potent ability to portray the worst that is beautiful in itself.

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I’m reluctant to compare The Front Bottoms or Girlpool to Picasso, but both have made clear the value of art that isn’t all cut flowers and pretty faces, or sweet voices and cordial harmonies. And by making a more true-to-life artistic experience out of the rest of the bad, this art is comforting and kind in depicting a world that is not.

 

Katie Sims is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at ksims@cornellsun.com. Resident Bad Movie Critic runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.