You’ve heard it in conversations with your friends. You’ve seen it in countless comment sections. “It” is the idea that “an artist fails because they create bad art”.
It sounds simple enough, but is it true?
To define what “bad art” is, we need to understand the objective of art:
You cannot use words such as “bad” and “good” to describe art alone because the statement lacks meaning. When I say something is “bad”, it’s implied that there is a measurable quality or objective that hasn’t been met. So if there is an objective quality we can use to measure art, then that means there is a “bad”, “good”, and “best” art.
You could end the discussion here by stating the “best” art is the one that makes the most money since many people — in a capitalist society — define success by the amount of money you earn. This statement would stir arguments between fandoms over who has the most Billboard sales, which is ultimately irrelevant because Billboard doesn’t track an artist’s revenue.
Instead, figure out who earned the most purchasing power through their art and call it a day.
The “best person” in the world isn’t strictly the richest, but the richest person is the “best person” at making money. The best product isn’t the most expensive. So on and so forth…
You can understand from this logic why the best song or album doesn’t necessarily equate to the song or album with the most revenue or profit or whatever. So instead, this article analyzes how listeners determine the “best song or album” for themselves.
An Objective Opinion
The “best music” is objective, but that objective is opinionated.
People listen to music to achieve an emotional experience and alter their state. Researchers perform studies that measure specific properties of this state (e.g., dopamine), but none of these studies are controllable outside of a song’s universal attributes (e.g., volume): This is because the reception of a song is always dependent on the listener, whose relatability to the song will determine whether the song is “good”.
People maintain additional biases that skew their evaluation of a song: A person’s personality, upbringing, and even the room they are in can influence how a song feels. Then, there is the social aspect of music. So the idea that an artist’s success depends on the quality of their music — defined by an individual listener — is fallacious.
But let’s explore this topic further.
How does a listener determine the best music? The sound comes first.
You don’t need a study to recognize that literal gibberish can top the charts. Many people listen to songs in a foreign language: This isn’t because lyrics don’t matter, but because they don’t matter as much. When someone describes the music they enjoy, the genre (e.g., rap, pop, rock) comes first for a reason.
Listeners write off entire genres despite songs within them containing the same lyrical content. Crank Lucas does a great job of showcasing this phenomenon (using the trap and boom-bap subgenres of rap music).
The truth is that the sound of music drives the human body at a physical and emotional level. You won’t be aggressively racing people on the highway (don’t do this) while listening to a slower-sounding track such as Beethoven’s 5th. You want something that keeps you alert and in the moment.
You are in a ballroom dance event with a significant other. Everyone is moving toward the center of the room to start dancing intimately. You lock hands with your significant other and stare into their eyes as the DJ hits play on his set.
“LET THE BODIES HIT THE FLOOOOOR!!!”
Do you see where I’m going with this?
The environment you listen to music in matters.
You can even argue that the environment you listen to a song in matters more than the song’s lyrical content. That’s because a person who listens to a song’s lyrics cares more about the song’s lyrics than someone who doesn’t.
Read that last sentence again… I’m stating the obvious because what I’m saying IS obvious: Lyrics only matter when a person cares about them.
A person doesn’t listen to a song’s lyrics while subconsciously exposed to the song (which happens more often than you realize). In addition, listening to the same song multiple times increases your enjoyment of the song (as it “grows on you”). So while studies can prove that lyrics matter, the extent to which lyrics matter comes down to the environment first.
When lyrics matter to a listener, they must be relatable or involve a subject of interest.
The theory of relatability asserts that you are more likely to engage with retable content. In this context, listeners engage with lyrics most relatable to themselves. Every human desires sex (love) and resources (money), which is why these subjects are so frequent in mainstream music and pop culture.
Many consumers use the frequency of advanced vocabulary and references in a song to measure the song's lyrical quality. However, this article argues that relatability is more important than these things. Furthermore, using advanced vocabulary to "improve a song's lyrics" may make the song less relatable, which limits the number of people who can understand the song.
For example, math songs about basic division are more popular than songs about differential equations because more people understand basic division than differential equations.
The Critical State
A person who critiques a song approaches the song in a critical state. However, most people don’t usually listen to music from a critical state.
The critical state is important to recognize because people in this state are more likely to find errors in a song since they are actively searching for them. In the same way that cities with a higher police presence are more likely to “find more crime”, listening to a song in a critical state makes the song more likely to be objectively “bad”.
If there is a single reason to avoid extensive self-promotion, it’s this one: Listeners who expect to hear unfamiliar music will approach it in a critical state. That makes it more likely for them to find the music “bad”.
While the cost of a failed first impression is not known, I’d imagine it to be expensive as people are prone to writing an artist off at the first sign of failure.
Using this logic, it’s understandable why major labels push music subconsciously: Listeners are averse to direct self-promotion and advertisements (unless they follow the person doing so). By subconsciously pushing music, there is less chance for a listener to enter the critical state that may invalidate a song.
To the artists: DON’T use this article to cope. DO use it to fend off the haters.
There’s always room for improvement. However, you must consider whether that improvement affects your career.
An Influencer's Bias
Humans are social animals whose interactions influence each other. This means that human interaction plays a role in a song’s reception. People who like or are friends with a person are more likely to enjoy the music that person creates. This phenomenon has led to the development of the modern pop star.
A record label handles business (expenses and logistics) while hiring content creators (songwriters, producers, cover artists, and videographers) to assemble a product. Marketers work with the “product” to drive engagement. An attractive person with performance capabilities is contracted as a pop star, and their main role is to perform and interface with people. That’s it.
The role of the modern pop star exists BECAUSE record labels understand how interaction affects a listener’s perspective. You may notice that most popstars are attractive, and that’s because people typically favor attractive people as a factor of evolution. The halo effect and pretty privilege give these “actors” an advantage over their competition by making them more likable.
These people are also given more chances and have a more extensive network.
It should be no surprise that pop stars are often young women who can benefit from their attraction more than their male counterparts. Need proof? Use social media. Create two accounts with an attractive man and woman, and watch as the woman’s account grows faster. Some of this growth may be unwanted, but this is fine when all you care about are numbers. Now, if you’re reading this paragraph and thinking to yourself, “What is this bullshit?!” You’re right… This paragraph IS bullshit.
The Influencer's Network
The music industry isn’t much different from any other industry. So it wouldn’t be surprising if an artist’s success depended more on their network than their music. This claim doesn’t mean that creating quality music is NOT important. Rather that there are more important factors to an artist’s success than their music quality.
In an era where people listen to songs sorted by artist name, a person with a high follower count can easily acquire a fanbase for their music, regardless of prior content. For example, the popular Minecraft YouTuber Dream created two songs and immediately gained 1 million Spotify followers using his network of 17 million YouTube subscribers. Before she became an artist, Bella Poarch was a TikTok sensation, and the same trend occurred. Due to their network, these people have achieved more accolades than other artists.
Familiarity is why many popular artists were literally actors on popular kids shows: Ariana Grande, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Demi Levato, Drake, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, Olivia Rodrigo, Selena Gomez. I could go on... Network matters more than music. So promotion determines how popular a song will become, but not its quality.
A War of Attention
What is attention? It’s where you spend your time. You have 24 hours to spend in a day, and so does everyone else. So time is scarce and, in certain circumstances, more scarce than resources. This scarcity is what makes your attention valuable.
Companies — composed of people — need people to buy their products to acquire resources. So advertising platforms sell companies a space — to place an advertisement — where people will notice their product. The end goal is that the people buy the company’s product in exchange for resources (money).
Where does the advertising platform get the space to sell, though? These companies harvest attention by providing services — such as entertainment — which keep people on their platform. In this manner, a person pays attention to product advertisements subconsciously. The revenue from the sold attention is split between the advertising platform and its service providers (i.e content creators), who attract more people to the platform.
Public Relations Stunts
One way to gain a consumer’s attention is through a Public Relations Stunt (PR Stunt). This stunt is the typical “Justin Bieber dropped an egg on someone’s head” event that goes viral on the news and blogs. The Ol’ “Kanye having a manic episode” that leaves someone with a tail between their legs. You get the point.
These events are often followed up weeks in advance with a new song or album (when no other major artists are releasing). Shortly after, the world resumes, and everything becomes fine. Now, I’m not saying these events aren’t real or based on reality, but rather that they are well-timed. A coincidence, even.
A person on the internet — no one can lie on the internet — published a story about his anger towards the entertainment industry. He had created music while homeless, but no one cared: While everyone told him how billie eilish went from zero to hero from her bedroom, his story gained no traction. His anger didn’t subside until he realized the fact that no one cares. Promotion is inevitable, even if it means doing it yourself, but please remember that self-promotion is BAD. BAD. BAD.
It’s not too hard to create the illusion of “care” with enough resources. How much time do you dedicate to writing about other people in your life (that you don’t personally know)? Yeah. Apply that thought to any celebrity fandom, and you will see where I’m going with this… Most people who care about the minute-by-minute details of a celebrity’s egg-dropping bonanza are either mentally ill or getting paid.
Paparazzi don’t always have CIA members on shift...
The claim that an artist’s success is based on the caliber of their music is refuted by the fact that even “number 1” performers are subject to criticism. Couch critics holding this belief will exclaim, “These #1 artists create bad music. They just got lucky!” WELL, THEN WHERE DOES THE FALLACY END??? Either the artist creates good music, or the music isn't a significant factor.
You don’t put yourself on the face of every HipHop playlist on Spotify by getting lucky. These are things that you need to do to be successful. No artist is “only known for their music” unless they are dead. Looking at you, Drake. Love the music though.
Is Kanye a genius creator or a talentless hack? Is Drake too mainstream to be good? Did Travis Scott really kill those kids when he doesn’t have 20/20 vision? How does Chief Keef’s aggressive anthems compare to the melodies of Taylor Swift? It doesn’t fucking matter.
You’re missing the point of art and diminishing the importance of marketing.