I remember telling my friend in high school that the reason I loved the Beatles was because all of their recordings were good, there were none that I didn’t like.
Now I would change this statement to:
Some of their recordings weren’t good–
some of their recordings were great–
and some are bad.
Later, when I started listening seriously to the Grateful Dead and Leonard Cohen, I realized there were quite a few tracks I didn’t like at all. A couple examples is this copy of Stagger Lee by the Dead or this song from Leonard Cohen.
Despite these examples’ clear badness as songs, I thought they were good because I was unable to divorce the artist from their work.
There are a lot of arguments you can make about how art is a representation of the artist. To critique art is to critique the artist.
However, to truly understand the art you love, you have to realize that an artist can create a lot of duds. These artists we love are just mortals like you and I, no matter how much we deify them.
Let’s take Robert Johnson as a prime example of this effect.
Johnson had a short career. He died at age 27 in 1938 from being poisoned. If dying from poison isn’t enough proof that Johnson wasn’t a god, I don’t know what is (sorry Clapton fans).
Later rock-and-roll and blues fans claimed Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads and was given incredible musical skills. If you listen to his tunes like Me and the Devil Blues or Crossroads Blues you can see how this myth perpetuated:
In truth, Robert Johnson was just a great musician who played a lot of other styles besides blues. We even have a recording of his hokum tune They’re Red Hot. He lived a hard life, traveled around the south to play music, and then died violently. In his life he recorded 29 different songs, with 13 surviving alternate takes of these songs.
I don’t like the song They’re Red Hot, but I still think Robert Johnson was a great musician. A lot of people, who deify Robert Johnson do not accept that any of his work could possibly be bad.
To really appreciate music, we have to be able to discriminate against certain recordings and understand that they are not good. This outlook is especially important for old recordings because there wasn’t really any post processing, we got an honest view of an artist’s performance at the time.
At the same time, we can always be grateful we have these recordings to formulate these opinions.
Blind Boy Fuller is another example of a prolific artist who made some poor recordings. There a lot sociological reasons why these recordings were bad, but the point is that we can separate artists from their work.
We shouldn’t assume that because we love an artist, everything they produce is gold. Realizing this improved my own musicianship, as I became able to understand that some sounds will appeal to people for a longtime, and some sounds are relics of a time, or simply bad.
As a final comparison, check out these three songs by 12-string wizard Blind Willie Mctell. I think the first song is bad, the second song is good, and the last is great.
What songs do you think are bad, good, or great?