Written by Ronny Kerr
Standards, boundaries, and definitions are how we as humans mentally categorize different kinds of music (rock vs electronic, dance vs chill, etc). The most significant divider we use has to be that imaginary line separating the “good” music from the “bad”— but what happens when the line refuses to stand still? This piece is a personal reflection on how one individual kept seeing the line drifting, so he gave up on it entirely.
Anyone with an appreciation for art knows the feeling. There’s a new TV show, movie, or song, and everyone adores it but you. And then, eventually, you come around. Maybe it takes a day, a week, or even a couple years, but you come around. You come to understand what everyone had understood from the beginning, and you feel humbled.
I can be a bit of a music snob, so this happens to me all the time. In the summer of 2013, for example, the hype machine was collectively orgasming over Disclosure’s debut full-length, but I dismissed it after a single listen. Professional music listener and lover, I had determined it to be generic and simply not worth the hype.
One year later, for whatever reason, it clicked.
Most everyone else had moved on, but suddenly I realized that Settle was one of the best electronic albums in a long, long time. Those pristine beats! Sam Smith’s voice! The well-crafted flow, the unvarying quality from song to song to song. How could I be so wrong? And then it dawned on me that this was no isolated incident. My perspective on music throughout most of my life has been a perpetual teetering between snobbish, detached judgment and sudden, open-minded realization.
As is common, my earliest taste in music was directly influenced by my parents, who listened to a lot of classic rock like Led Zeppelin, Chicago, and Paul Simon. My dad, born and raised in a remote Arizona town, swung a bit more country and folk, which is how I ended up inheriting my present, fairly complete collection of Bob Dylan vinyl. On the other hand, my mom had immigrated from Nicaragua, so she loved jamming out to Motown hits (America’s best export in the 1960s) and Latin music.
That partly explains why, even from a young age, I drew a line in the sand to distinguish good music from bad music. When my dad dropped the needle on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, we were listening to good music. When my mom drove me to school blasting Diana Ross or Jimmy Page, we were listening to good music. But when Daft Punk’s “Around the World” came on the radio station, something was wrong. It was bad.
The difference for me was that Bob, Diana, and Jimmy were musicians. They breathed through harmonicas, warbled gorgeous melodies, and performed dark magic on their guitars. The music was real because real people were playing real instruments. I lumped those Daft Punk characters in the same category as every manufactured pop hit on the radio because to me it was the work of soulless computers.
Electronic music, to little me, wasn’t real music because it wasn’t made with real instruments. Never mind that all the albums I’d heard by classic rock bands sounded great largely thanks to the work of innumerable audio engineers, producers, and mixers; how could I know what George Martin had done to make the Beatles sound divine? And never mind that Motown was just as manufactured as Britney Spears and Madonna; the contemporary stuff just didn’t have the same degree of authenticity.
While my parents’ music gave me an ear for traditional instruments, the snobbishness must’ve been innate. Perhaps strangely for a little kid, I was more attracted to classical music than I was to the modern sounds on the radio. Bach just sounded superior and, again, authentic. But it’s perhaps that affinity for complexity that left me vulnerable to the world of electronic music.
After my parents, my next musical influence was my older brother, but he mostly introduced me to Green Day and other alternative rock bands, which fit nicely into my paradigm of “real musicians play real instruments.” It wasn’t until my cousin Chris stepped in that a paradigm shift took place. At some point while I was in middle school, Chris treated me to my first Aphex Twin, which changed everything. It wasn’t like that Daft Punk stuff. It was more like Bach. It was mind-bogglingly intricate, mysterious, and, most importantly, beautiful.
And then it clicked.
Electronic music could be considered real music, I decided, if it was like Aphex Twin. If you had a real genius at the computer, then that individual was clearly a musician. It also helped that a couple of my cousins had bought synthesizers and sequencers around this time, so I got to see them composing songs of their own, and sometimes I even twiddled some knobs myself.
This goes a long way toward explaining why Nine Inch Nails was my high school obsession. Industrial music perfectly married my former paradigm—demanding the instruments of rock & roll—with the new possibilities in electronic music. On The Downward Spiral, my favorite album from that era of my life, you hear tortured vocals and gritty guitars slathered over diabolical drum machines. Real music.
As for Daft Punk? Still not worth my time. It reminded me of all that cheesy pop music and disco crap you hear on the radio. It was repetitive, soulless, boring. Its whole point, I well understood, was to be dance music, but dance music in and of itself wasn’t really to be placed in the same category as actual quality music.
Then one day in college, drunk out of my stupid freshman mind, I stumbled into a random dude’s dorm room where possibly the lamest three person dance party was happening. (That’s a fair description of most dance parties at my alma mater.) Everyone, and that soon included myself, was dancing to this song. It was as loud, intense, and abrasive as anything produced by Trent Reznor, but it was also completely unique. The vocals sounded robotic and kept repeating the phrase, “rock… robot rock…” over and over and over again, and my drunken body danced as if the lyric were a command. I asked the dorm room DJ what the hell we were listening to, and he said, “Daft Punk.”
And then it clicked.
Dance music is real music because there’s no such fucking thing as “real music.” Musicians are artists of sound, and the rest of us are the ears of the world. If it sounds good, it is good.
Following a good couple years’ obsession with Daft Punk, I inevitably fell into a disco hole. Every artist that had influenced Daft Punk was suddenly worth their weight in diamond: Sister Sledge. Chic. Tavares. Donna Summer. Giorgio Moroder. Cerrone. Boney M. Imagination. Methusalem. Larry Levan… and on and on and on. If my younger self—donning spiky blue hair and a biker chain wallet—had seen my college self listening to and loving those glossy disco productions, he would’ve shit his pants.
By now, in my late twenties, I hope I’ve finally learned my lesson. I try to remind myself to remain humble and to not judge any category of music—if I don’t like it it’s probably because I don’t understand it. Some “growers” take a long time to appreciate. Some (most?) music is directly tied to a specific culture or demographic, so dismissing an entire genre out of hand is effectively like dismissing an entire group of people. And, let’s be real, we’re a product of our own backgrounds. I grew up listening to Bob Dylan and Motown, so you will find Bob Dylan and Motown in every piece of music I love.
Music, like peace, is all about harmony. So, if you can manage it, try not to be like young Ronny. That guy was a dick.