As Now We’ve Got Europe slipped into a state of dormancy, I was relieved of the pressure of having to listen to a variety of music. Variety has never been something I’ve been a hugely comfortable with, and so this new-found independence was deeply satisfying.
While for most people, a 1GB MP3 player would seem horrendously restrictive, for me it is more than adequate, being capable of holding all nine Falco studio albums with room to spare (the extra space I filled with Amanda Lear and Yello). Armed with this puny, stone-age MP3 player, I’ve spent most of the last year listening to Falco:
(My puny MP3 player appears to have had some sort of nervous breakdown recently, and so is currently out of action. I might buy a new one soon.)
But, what was it exactly that I was listening too? Or rather, what was it exactly that I was hearing?
The honest answer is that I don’t know.
While this may seem like a cop-out, I think it’s actually a lot closer to the reality of aesthetic experience than most people are willing to admit. The conventional (flattering, but fundamentally dishonest) view of aesthetic experience is that we see a piece of art (or listen to a record, or watch a film, or read a novel) and we consider what it means (what it represents, what it is saying, how it has been crafted) and we evaluate it (rationally) according to a (fixed) set of aesthetic criteria and then decide whether or not we like it. This is the basis of the review culture and awards infrastructure; where experts in each field are employed specifically to interpret and evaluate works of art, their opinions given credibility because of their ability to fit each piece within a historical framework.
I think that actually, something approaching the reverse is true. That the process works more or less in the opposite direction. That, almost instinctively, we decide whether or not we like something and then hold that decision up to our rational brain in search of some sort of satisfactory explanation. When the decision corresponds with an easily available explanation, we are happy and convincingly convince ourselves that we either like (or dislike) whatever it is for the reason (or reasons) we have selected. However, on those occasions where there is no readily available explanation, we experience discomfort and have to grasp for something else instead (like “it’s so bad, it’s good”).
Malcolm Gladwell talks about this idea here, arguing that when people are forced to explain their decisions, not only do they give explanations which are false, but it can even change the decision they are likely to make. He describes an experiment by Tim Wilson, where a group of students were shown two different posters. Half the students were told to pick a poster they wanted and were then allowed to take that poster home with them. The other half were told to pick a poster, explain why they chose it, and then take it home with them. A while later, Wilson phoned the students and asked if they still liked the poster they’d chosen. The ones who didn’t have to give an explanation tended to be happy with their choice, while the other group regretted chosing the poster they did:
Now, there’s a wonderful little detail in this – that there were two kinds of posters in the room. There were Impressionist prints and then there were these photos of, you know, a kitten hanging by bars that says “Hang in there baby”. And the students who were asked to explain their preference overwhelmingly chose the kitten. And the ones who weren’t asked to explain overwhelmingly chose the Impressionist poster, and they were happy with their choice, obviously. But who could be happy with a kitten on their wall after three months?
Why when you ask someone to explain their preference do they gravitate toward the least sophisticated of the offerings? Because it’s a language problem. You’re someone, you know in your heart that you prefer the Impressionists but now you have to come up with a reason for your choice, and you really don’t have the language to say why you like the Impressionist poster. What you do have the language for is to say, “Well, I like the kitten because I had a kitten when I was growing up” and so forcing you to explain something when you don’t necessarily have the vocabulary and the tools to explain your preference automatically shifts you toward the most conservative and the least sophisticated choice.
What it really means is that there is a class of products that are difficult for people to interpret. Some things are ugly and when we say that they’re ugly, they really are ugly and we’re always going to think they’re ugly. They’re never going to be beautiful. But there’s another class of products which we see and we don’t really know what we think, they challenge us, we don’t know how to describe them, and we end up, if we’re forced to explain ourselves, in calling them ugly because we can’t think of a better way to describe our feelings. And the real problem with asking people what they think about something is that we don’t have a good way to distinguish between these two states. We don’t have a good way of distinguishing between the thing that really is ugly and the thing that is radical and challenging and simply new and unusual.
And so, “so bad, it’s good”.
If I had to explain why I thought The Beatles were the greatest band of all time, which I’d never be asked to do (because it’s taken for granted and also because I don’t believe it) I’d know what to say. I could use phrases like “perfect songwriting partnership” and “reinvented rock and roll” and “created the blueprint for today’s pop groups”, and I could pretend they’ve always been as untouchable and well loved and respected as they are today. I could, if I had to, also make the argument that The Smiths were the greatest British band of all time (I wouldn’t believe a word I was saying, but at least I’d know the words). I could list their range of influences, locate them in history, discuss the magnificence of Morrissey’s asexuality and the complexity of his lyrics. If I didn’t want to believe (as I don’t) that Morrissey was the greatest British pop star of all time, I could argue it was David Bowie, this, at least, I genuinely do believe (as did Falco). But even if I do believe it, these words wouldn’t be my own. It’d all just be stories I’d learnt. Lines from a script.
I need to write my own script.