There is no such thing as good taste, only taste. That’s what I wrote last week. And actually I believe that is true. It is complicated, though. Let me see if I can make my point.
The idea of good taste to me seems to be based on the ability to discriminate between qualities of music: there is better, and there is worse. This discrimination of quality is everywhere in music: Beethoven is better than Delius, and Henryk Szeryng plays Beethoven’s violin sonatas better than I do. The Beatles are better than Herman’s Hermits; Linda Ronstadt is better than Tammy Wynette. Some evenings I play the mandolin better than other evenings. In tune is better than out of tune. Et cetera.
Nothing wrong there. The problem is that all the statements above circle around one aspect of music: the way it sounds. I write: the way “it” sounds, and that is telling; music is a sounding “thing”. But I often quote Christopher Small who pertains that there is “nu such thing as Music” - music is not a thing, it is something people do, reason why he is not talking about music but about musicking (which includes playing, listening and many other things, like playing the air guitar, to quote Eric Clarke).
In musicking, the quality of the music is only one aspect. Musicking has many qualities besides its sounds – the place where the musicking goes on, the social relations in the musicking, the memories the musicking brings back to you, to mention the more abstract things. And all these qualities together make musicking (or music, if you want) important for people. For many, discrimination on the basis of the quality of The Sound of Music actually is not that important. If schlager music makes singing together and drinking beer at long tables possible, the intricacy of its rhythmic features are not really an issue. And of course, for those of us who think that rhythmic intricacy is one of the main points in Good Music, schlager is unbearable.
The main point is to realize that people use different ways of assessing music, and that all those different ways are equally worthwhile – even if I have my own particular way of assessing music (which I actually cannot really express; I don’t know why I like Monteverdi, Munir Bachir and Emmylou Harris). Hence taste, no good taste.
How important is all this? I think it may be more important than just a subject for a blog entry. Thinking in good taste permeates our society’s way of thinking about music. It is the dominant discourse; and as discourses do, it includes some and excludes many, decides about the asymmetrical spending of government money, and is continuously forced into our heads by our education system. This sounds a bit radical, I know, maybe too, but you guess what I am pointing at.
Recently I wrote a short article about how cultural policy makers in their research tend to look only at that part of the cultural world they are interested in – the professional, high quality, good taste, and mostly subsidized part. Thinking in circles, as it were. Now, a reply was published in which I am told that I forget that of course not every art, or music, is the same: there is music, or art, that does not question our existing world view, and there is music, or art, that does; and the latter is the better.As a reply: actually, I did not forget that, but I think it is at best only a half truth; and one to get rid of if we really want to understand and acknowledge why music is so important for nearly every one.