What Is Bad In Music: Dubstep and The Necessary Evil

Continuing our series, here is a conversation between Mary Hughes and Joe Kendrick, where they get at a few more angles of the debate:

Joe: One thing that always comes to mind is terminology. Referencing a broad genre when describing a specific piece of music is often the first step towards mutual misunderstanding. Casting a wide net like “jazz” to describe an album like Mose Allison’s Local Color, for example, ultimately fails to land this slippery fish. However, painting with too broad a brush is just one way of misusing terminology. It’s a lazy way of communicating, and most music deserves better (unless the music is bad enough to deserve a terse review, like the one that Spinal Tap received for their album Shark Sandwich).

Another way that terms and descriptors muddy the waters is when they are overly vague, like “post-rock”, “alt-country”, or esoteric, like “glitch-pop” and other hyphenated terms, and most everything ending with “esque”. Both types often fail to convey much of anything about what they are attempting to describe, but they can serve to puff up the people employing them. Many times, this will result in glazed looks on their recipients, which can be the whole point, especially in music’s small, private circles: they don’t want unhip people glomming onto their favorite unheard-of music, so their language employs a lot of indecipherable code.

Essentially, using language that employs short-cuts to critical thinking as well as barriers to understanding and inclusion is another large aspect of what is bad in music. As a famous song says, though, this is the “same as it ever was”, and will continue as long as there are cliques and laziness.

Here’s an example using a band I never cared for: Coldplay. While I haven’t spent a great deal of time detailing reasons why I don’t like their music, the first things that come to mind when I hear their songs is that there is something too cute about them, and that they tend to play to the lowest common denominator. The next time I feel like grinding my teeth for forty-four minutes and examine Mylo Xyloto, I may come up with something far better, but it will surely never be the phrase “Beatle-esque”. Do an internet search for “coldplay+beatle-esque”, and you will get over seven million results. Being lazy might not always be wrong, but being lazy almost eight million times is never right.

Mary: Well, Joe, here’s a term that I do not like - dubstep.

Unlike the above commentary, though, I do not dislike the term ‘dubstep’ because of it being a potentially lazy descriptor; I dislike the term ‘dubstep’ because it refers to a genre of music that I cannot stand.
Unsure of what dubstep is? Allow me to illuminate you.

It is (basically) a combination of two styles of electronic music: ‘dub’ - as in drum-n-bass that you might find in reggae/ska + ‘2-step’ – as in electronic music consisting of jittery, irregular rhythms. All of this equals into the mathematical sum of my musical nightmares.

But do not take this rather subjective criticism as a slam against the world of electronic music as a whole.

I’ve been surrounding my ears with variations of electronic music for as long as I can remember - daydreaming to my father’s Tangerine Dream cassettes, singing along to a myriad of synth-heavy songs from the 1980’s (Gary Numan is a genius, you know?), dancing into the wee hours with club tracks from Inner City and then drifting happily into the realm of trance via guys like Paul van Dyk. Even now, I continue to discover some of the most fantastic and interesting electronic music by looking further into the past – people like Raymond Scott or Louis & Bebe Barron… All this name-dropping is to impress upon you, dear reader, that I am not an electronic music hater.

However, ‘dubstep’ tries even my usually unlimited musical patience.

Perhaps it is the glitch-filled vocals that make me feel like I am suffering through a really horrible drug-trip. Perhaps it is that incessant wobble-bass that sounds like a synthesized chainsaw going down the middle of my skull. Perhaps it is the fact that you cannot escape this particular sound as there are dubstep-remixes of every song that is currently ‘popular’, making generally bad songs even worse.

But more than all of these reasons is the distinct feeling I get when I hear dubstep/brostep/post-dubstep (which, c’mon people, let’s give it a damn rest) – and that is no feeling at all. That is what I require from music: feeling. Just like with any other art-form, a song is a window into the artist who created it. You get to feel their happiness, their sadness, their anger; you get to be front-and-center for the revelation of someone’s soul. And yes, you can hear that in electronic music, too. I dare anyone to listen to Ulrich Schnauss’s ‘Never Be the Same’ and not find yourself swimming in some pretty deep waters.

Not all music has to have some grand meaning, of course. Sometimes you just want to shake your ass and have some fun… But even the somewhat-vapid offerings of the 1980’s (‘Safety Dance’ anyone?) have more heart than anything Skrillex could ever deliver.
Joe: Mary, I’m scratching my head right next to you when listening to dubstep. Still, it has very many fans, so there has to be something about it, right? I searched “how to like dubstep” and found this answer on Yahoo that may shed some light:

“Cam W” writes: “hi there, i am a big dubstep fan as well as an amateur dubstep artist. so i could go on for ages why i like it, but i feel that the majority of punters like it for different reasons to me. people like the filth of it all, its ment to sound as grose as possible, and the idea of the nice electro bits is to make the grose bits sound heavier because of the huge contrast. to realy get an understanding for it all you have got to go to a dubstep club, where they have proper speakers and subs (alot of dubstep cant even be heard through normal speakers because its sub bass). i find alot of people dont listen to it at all at home, but just love hearing it at a club, espeshialy after a few drinks, its heavy it's dirty, it's great!

i hope this helps you understand why people like it so much, and i completly get why some people dont like it, as it is nowhere near as melodic and i guess you could say "musical" as other electronic genres.”

Here’s another helpful response, from “Squidward”:

"Not all dubstep songs are repetitive. About the song you used as an example though (scary monsters and nice sprites - skrillex) I don't consider Skrillex to be dubstep. He's kind of his own genre in my own opinion, but I hate his sound. It sounds more like transformers having sex than anything else. :P

I love techno music in general, from house to trance to dubstep, it's all amazing. (except Skrillex) I like dubstep because of the bass, it just sounds good to me. Everyone has their own preferences I suppose.

Here's some GOOD dubstep:

Mt. Eden Dubstep: Beautiful Lies

Mt. Eden Dubstep: Still Alive

Mt. Eden Dubstep: Sierra Leone"

So now the question is, Mary: “Will you play it in a train? Will you listen in a plane?”...sorry, couldn’t resist.

While you were going all Sam I Am on us, I took the opportunity to ask some other friends on Facebook what their favorite “eyeroll” music terms were, and got some great responses from Kim Ruehl, Justin Farrar, Stephen Kaplan and Armando Bellmas, among others:

James Richards: Angular guitar
Justin Farrar: Soundscape
Kim Ruehl: Folk-electro-space-funk. THAT IS NOT A THING. Mostly I just hate hyphens in music descriptions.
Martin Anderson: Oh boy I see lots and lots that could be added. Does "evokes early Bob Dylan" count?
Kim Ruehl: ‎"The next Bob Dylan".
Justin Farrar: Is that esoteric or just an over-invoked death wish?
Douglas P Ewen: If Bob Dylan had a child with Patti Smith
Armando Bellmas: ‎*anything* sensibility
Jeff Eason: The musical "stylings" of so and so. Stylings is not a word. Also, an album or song is titled something. It is not entitled something.
Doug Keel: ‎"Organically" is fast on it's way
Steven Howard: the sophisticated elegance of dream pop
Stephen H. Kaplan: CESH, stellar, ground-breaking, shoe-gaze, discordian, ethereal, and brooding are all colorful ways to say "It's rather shitty."

I got a big grin out of these and hope you might add your own favorites in the comments section here, or tweet us @linguamusica, where we are always game for some good music conversation.

The ultimate conclusion I come to when trying to understand the whole of what is bad in music is that bad music is a necessary evil. Think of any story in history and there has to be at least one bad guy somewhere in order for there to be a plot. The tale that comes the closest to being without an antagonist might be “Waiting For Godot”, however Godot fills the role through his absence, so that leaves no memorable story without one or more antagonists (I consider disaster and survival stories as having their conditions and challenges as the primary antagonists). Still not here... The same can be said of our own musical stories: who doesn’t have music that they don’t care for? People will typically consider at least some music to be bad, and I understand that. In a way, I embrace the fact that lots of people dislike, even hate, some music that I love, and hope that they can do the same. What I don’t understand is someone who pretends to like everything. Perhaps they are telling the truth in their own mind, and they simply have not experienced anything they dislike. However, their musical plotline is going nowhere. It does not have holes; it is a hole. These people cannot be trusted with an opinion. Come to think of it, this kind of person’s undiscerning taste may be the one thing that is truly bad in music.

What Is Bad In Music: Rebellious Tastes, and Hatin' on U2

Here is a two-part article in our series "What Is Bad In Music", one from writer and editor Jeff Eason of The Blowing Rocket, and another from Becka Moore of the 9:30 Club. The two have very different takes on the subject here, but while Jeff looks at the question from a more psychological perspective and Becka openly addresses her dislike for an iconic band, they both have a common love for radio station WNCW. That is where in 2008, on the program What It Is, Jeff happened to take a Becka-like whack at his favorite "sacred cow" icon, Robert Johnson. You can hear his comments as well as my own debunking of Grateful Dead and Fred Mills' top ten reasons why John Lennon is overrated here

Please note that Jeff and Becka's opinions are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this website or their employers. That said, I am glad they stepped up and have added to this conversation! -Joe


Above is a photo of Jeff from his days at UNC-Chapel Hill and WXYC. Here is his take on "What Is Bad In Music":

To the notion that the number of chords has something to do with the quality of music, it reminded me of a story I heard about Harry Nilsson. Supposedly, he made a bet with a fellow musician that he could make a hit record with exactly one chord in it. The other guy took him up on the bet. The result of the bet was the song "Coconut." 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                 For me, bad music is like that old definition of pornography: I know it when I hear it. 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                    I think a more interesting way to approach the question is how people develop the musical tastes that they do. A lot of it, in the beginning, is based on the music our parents listened to when we were growing up. Then, for most people, there is the eventual rebellious stage where we listen to music our parents hate (even if we don't totally embrace it ourselves). A lot of people get stuck listening to "ugly" music just because it allows them to feel part of a group of outsiders that other people just don't understand. It is used as a wall to keep other people out. Even some jazz lovers fall into this trap. 
I think the most subjective musical instrument is the human voice. I know some people just can't get beyond Tom Waits' and Neil Young's voices enough to appreciate their considerable songwriting skills. I know when the three-disc Chimes of Freedom disc came out earlier this year, I was amazed at how beautiful some of the songs were because the originals, sung in Bob Dylan's latter day rasp, just didn't do anything for me. Some voices have qualities that I can't tolerate. I find Joan Baez' constant tremolo to be incredibly annoying and John Hiatt's growl/yelp thing to be a bit contrived. - Jeff Eason
And now, here is Becka Moore's essay on the famous rock band U2

What is bad in music? What has been bad, grown stale, and yet continues to mold on the airwaves?


Surely I'll catch some flak for this, but music is personal right? It's my opinion. But I can tell you, plenty of people share it.

There is no shortage of people jumping on the Bono-Bashing-Bandwagon.  This is not about that.  As a bit of a bleeding heart, I can't fault him for wanting to help people. And if you haven't seen Million Dollar Hotel, a Dramedy he wrote/co-wrote, you should. 

What this is about is U2’s music. Having grown up with some of their songs on the radio, sure, a few stuck around and I might even enjoy listening to them if they pop up on the radio. Does that make their music good as a whole? Or does it just put them in the category of every other band that had some hits on the radio?

U2 often takes on heavy topics, which Bono's vocals just can't do justice. He sounds like a weakened Joe Strummer trying to croon.

Bono once said, "I remember the day I found I could sing. I said, 'Oh, that's how you do it.'" Maybe he should have talked to himself a little more. Or maybe he just has an odd view of what vocal talent is, considering he started out doing punk-ish music (yes, it's a genre, because I added -ish and because I said so). Not exactly the first place you go when you realize you can "sing".

Honestly, I find the band boring. A lot of guitarists would argue that The Edge is one of the greats. That's certainly debatable. Does he have a unique style, or is he just monotonous? And besides, you can’t say a band is good because of one member, right?

Are their live shows really all that entertaining? Or do they just have a lot of flashing lights (A LOT of flashing lights)? These guys have no stage presence. Bono attempts to move around, but comes off like a wounded duck stricken with Tourette’s syndrome. Enough has been said about Bono and his sunglasses, but can we talk about The Edge’s beanie

Their thinly veiled messages are borderline pompous and inappropriate.  Nobody wants to hear love songs all the time, so I won’t fault them for mixing it up a bit. And lyrics about God are pretty interchangeable with lyrics about love, sex, and relationships. But the actual message remains pompous at times and fairly hackneyed at the very least.

If U2 is so drab and boring (it is), why do they continue to mildew up the airwaves? It's pretty simple. I will give U2 credit for reaching beyond the pulpit and into mainstream radio. Unfortunately, that may be the very thing that has kept them around all these years. Religious Christians can listen to U2, rock out a bit, nod their heads bit, and not feel like they're a step closer to the fiery abyss. 

U2 is the gateway drug to Rock and Roll for a lot of young Christians.  For better or worse, that is their legacy.  But it doesn't make the music good. 

 --Oh, and if you’re one of the people that like U2 for their moral message, check out Million Dollar Hotel.  It’s full of filthy language, sex, murder and suicide.  Bono was so proud of his work, he cameos in it for a brief second.  Let’s add hypocrisy to the list of grievances. - Becka Moore


Thanks for visiting Lingua Musica and I hope you may take part in our conversation by commenting here, or writing us at linguamusica@gmail.com if you would like to be featured in the series. - Joe Kendrick