Music taste is not subjective
Matthew Kellenberg | Friday, January 17, 2020
Music critics tend to disagree. However, when they do so, they tend to agree on why: Music taste is subjective. That is, when it comes to judging music, we are individual subjects making independent judgments.
To a certain extent, our judgments of music are determined by the cultures in which we live and our social identities within those cultures. I, for example, am a white man living in the United States. And though I do not listen to the same music as every white American male (thank goodness), certain songs do appeal to me on the basis of that social identity.
If an artist were to write a song for an intended audience of white American males, and if I could not help but like that song because of that social identity, that song would be objectively good. There would be no subjective division within the intended audience, who would all enjoy the song by virtue of being white American males. Furthermore, those outside the intended audience would be invalid subjects, and their criticisms would bear no weight.
For an example of a song comprising objectively good elements, one can turn to Bruce Springsteen’s hit 1975 song “Born to Run.” The song’s lyrics and production have an immediate and inescapable appeal for Springsteen’s intended audience: Americans. As an American, one cannot help but appreciate the elements at play in “Born to Run”; as someone from a foreign country, on the other hand, that appeal might be tenuous.
“’Cause tramps like us,” Springsteen belts out in the song’s chorus, “baby we were born to run.” His lyrics evoke the American mythology of the open road: automobile advertisements, cowboys riding west into the sunset, Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.” The belief that prosperity lies at the end of the open road is the essence of the American Dream. Springsteen seeks to uplift in “Born to Run”; appealing to this beloved pillar of American identity, he does just that.
Yet, to listeners outside Springsteen’s audience, the lyrics on “Born to Run” would not have the same effect. A listener raised in a feudalistic society, for example, would simply not understand Springsteen’s desire to hit the freeway. The implicit appeal to the American Dream would not be clear, and the uplifting impact of this appeal would not be immediately felt. One’s appreciation of Springsteen’s lyrics is determined by one’s culture.
Building upon Springsteen’s romantic lyrics about the open road, the reverberant production on “Born to Run” makes the song a moving spiritual experience. Reverberant indoor spaces are a classic setting for religious music in the United States; by association, reverberation has come to evoke a spiritual aura for American listeners. In the production on “Born to Run,” Springsteen’s guitar chords blend together like organ notes bouncing against stone church walls, giving spiritual weight to quasi-religious lyrics such as “we’ll walk in the sun” and “I wanna die with you… in an everlasting kiss.” (The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” uses the same “wall of sound” production to a similar effect.)
Yet, to listeners outside Springsteen’s intended audience, the production on “Born to Run” fails to evoke spirituality. To a member of a society in which religious services are held outdoors, for example, Springsteen’s production would sound more muddled than transcendent. As with Springsteen’s lyrics, the production on “Born to Run” inherently appeals to the song’s intended audience, but its impact may be lost on outside listeners.
Here, the skeptical reader might bring up an example of an American who does not like “Born to Run” — perhaps a friend, a relative, even him or herself. And it is true that not every American likes “Born to Run.” Yet, this does not undermine the argument that a song can be objectively good.
First, “Americans” is merely an approximation of Bruce Springsteen’s intended audience. Springsteen wrote “Born to Run” for people of certain social identities, neither limited to Americans nor including all Americans. Within that, a certain category of listeners might appreciate some elements of the song but not others; a religious, communist American, for example, might appreciate Springsteen’s spiritual allusions but not his American Dream imagery. For this piece, I chose “Americans” for its simplicity and proximity to Springsteen’s intended audience.
Second, even if “Born to Run” is not objectively good in its entirety, the song nevertheless does have objectively good elements (e.g., the lyrics of the chorus). In having objectively good elements, “Born to Run” therefore points to the possibility of an objectively good song — that is, a song comprised entirely of objectively good elements.
The conclusion that an objectively good song could exist (even if one does not actually exist) undermines the theory that music taste is entirely subjective. One’s judgments of music are not entirely self-determined; these judgments can be determined by the culture in which one lives and one’s social identity within that culture. Simply put, some songs we cannot help but love or hate. And because a single-intended audience could instinctively love one song and hate another, one can further conclude: Some songs are better than others.