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April 26-May 2, 2006

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Spice Girls

Extra spicy: Our writer seemingly punishes herself through the engine of Posh, Sporty, Scary, Ginger and, ugh, Baby.

Bad Music Takeover

In praise of bad music, the new white noise

By Sara Bir


There's no point in denying it any longer. I've kept this charade going far too long, and the time has come to be up-front. I like bad music.

Perhaps you have suspected. My complete and utter disregard for new musical talent in this space could have been an indicator, but my complete and utter disregard for established musical talent could have tipped you off, too. You may have also noted that this space has never once devoted itself to a band whose name prominently features poor capitalization, a punctuation mark, or both. (In certain critical circles, such playful letterset in band monikers is viewed as an indicator of a band's potential greatness.)

I'm getting on in years and don't have time for that crap. These new-fangled indie rock songs inevitably sound very similar and unfangled to me--which means my ears have aged in exponential disproportion to the rest of my body. At 30, I'm a grumpy old woman before my time!

Then, just when I was millimeters away from becoming an insufferably dull curmudgeon, bad music saved me, refreshing as a tall glass of room-temperature tap water. Bad music's mollifying spell tamed the critical beast within me; instead of taking the time to hate, I take time to breathe.

All my life, I've voraciously devoured rock-related books, films and magazines, and that is how I came to learn that the Clash is cool while the Bee Gees are lame. Frank Sinatra is cool, Robert Goulet is lame. Britney Spears can be cool, so long as you approach her oeuvre with a cautious analysis of what her train-wreck popularity signifies in our age of big-celebrity game hunting; but Britney Spears can't be cool just because sometimes it's fun to listen to songs that make you want to dance like a wasted club slut.

If good music is distinctive, innovative and engaged, bad music is interchangeable, lazy and detached. Feeling detached and lazy myself, my Bad Music Takeover was inevitable. Good music wore me out. I sought out good music so fervently for so long that I broke my ears. The bad music gives them time to heal.

I've had a secret fondness for bad music all my life, but it was only about two years ago that it became the primary music I listen to. In the context of my CD and record collection, bad music is an invasive species that started out with a single castaway seed that, before long, swelled into a dense thicket of kudzu. Currently my favorite platter of bad music is Columbia Records' The Best of '66--Volume Two, a gift from Mr. Bir Toujour. Most charming about this record is how none of what we might today consider to be the best songs of 1966 are represented. Instead of "Good Vibrations" or "Eleanor Rigby" we get Steve Lawrence's über-dorky version of "What's New, Pussycat?," which comes off like a mash-up of a lullaby and a marching band's halftime show.

The other day I arrived at my degrading retail job and frantically loaded the CD player with the "good" music from my previous life as someone who cared about artists with talent and creativity. This is what I typically do to prevent my otherwise lovely co-workers from filling it with crap like that stupid "You're Beautiful" song. But I stopped short, finding I didn't have the energy to spend the whole day listening to music dear to my heart, and I dug into the store's CD collection, which is more like a noncollection (it includes two--yes, two--copies of the Cranberries' To the Faithful Departed).

We usually ignore these CDs, but they beckoned me that morning with their utter lack of luster. We spent the day listening to Boyz II Men, Collective Soul, Genesis' Duke, Aerosmith's Pump and the Spice Girls. Our customers found themselves trapped in a nonsensical bad-music time warp, and at the end of the day I arrived home invigorated, my step light and my whistle tuneless.

The purchase of a turntable did much to accelerate the Bad Music Takeover. Bad music on vinyl is cheap and plentiful. I now actually play all of those awful instrumental albums I picked up at thrift shops solely because I liked the pretty blondes on their covers. Lush, soporific strings melt into nearly nothing once their intonations hit the air. It's musical atomizer. Sometimes, we listen to these albums (Living Strings' Too Beautiful for Words in particular) as we eat dinner, and Nurse Ratched from One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest comes to mind; she played similarly vapid records over the loudspeaker during pill time. With my weightless armada of bad music, I am at once the tyrannical Nurse Ratched and an overmedicated patient.

Bad music is a lovable, slobbering mutt that specializes in delivering scattershot affection on demand. That's why bad music is not cool; it wants so badly to be liked. My newfound disinterest in cool music is liberating, and I relish the space in my brain it frees for other pursuits. But I am also disturbed. Why did I want so badly to be one of those people who dictate to lesser mortals which music is worth their attention and emotion?

I suppose I've been approaching this whole rock-critic thing the wrong way. The question should be not what makes this album good or what makes that band cool, but what makes it important? What makes it matter? I read all of these reviews that tout the brilliance of up-and-coming bands, and then I hear a song of theirs and they sound like every other rock band around. Perhaps they matter, perhaps they are important, but not to me. I'm holding out for the band that sound like gods. Until then, I'll keep my mouth shut and relax with a steady diet of bad music, over which I harbor no shame.


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