As the owner-operator of a reasonably widely-read music blog, I end up fielding some interesting questions via email from time to time. One recent inquiry, from an up-and-coming singer-songwriter on the regional scene here in Northern California, struck me as especially deserving of wider consideration:
It seems to me that positive music is more likely to be panned by critics than material of a darker nature. Do you find that to be the case? If so, why? It is particularly relevant in my case because the record I’m working on is a very bright, optimistic one. There are very sincere reasons for that, but I want this record to be heard by critics without getting tossed because of its primarily good-natured content.
What do you think? Are critics biased against feel-good material? Should they be?
My initial feeling is that many critics are drawn to darker subject matter because there’s simply more to do there, more to unpack. Whereas a party song or motivational anthem is made to be taken at face value and enjoyed on a visceral level by even the most casual of listeners, a song that grapples with a problem or presents an unexpected or subversive notion gives you something to ponder. When you’re in the business of thinking about music, the latter makes for obvious, appealing source material.
That’s not to say that bright, optimistic songs can’t be interesting, or that compelling critical arguments can’t be built around them. I’ll be the first in line for a book-length breakdown of every happy song Roger Miller ever wrote. But in the often relentlessly positive world of today’s mainstream country music, the willingness to go a little dark – to be unsettling and ‘real’ in ways we don’t expect – automatically commands critical attention and respect. How could it not? If you’re willing to go to all the trouble of swimming upstream, you must have something particular and distinctive in mind. Otherwise, why make it harder on yourself?
By contrast, a new uplifting song can come off as more white noise, easily dismissed even if better than the average song of its ilk. Made for tailgate parties and minivan commutes, not serious examination.
If country music is about stories, storytelling is about conflict. Conflict is inherently interesting because we all have problems. When problems are glossed over or resolved in pat ways to motivate and inspire, it can feel like opportunity lost and time wasted. Worse still, it can feel like we’re being manipulated.
Yeah, that’s cute. Sure, that’s catchy. But where’s the story? Why should anyone care?
The best uplifting songs answer those questions. Most don’t.
When a song’s focus is darker, conflict and intrigue are nearly automatic. The elements are already there. Making ‘feel-good’ matter takes considerably more finesse. Non-cheesy feel-good songs are actually deceptively difficult to write, so lots of people try and fail, so many such songs get panned.
That’s what I say, anyway.
Contrary to my ramblings, though, I’m actually interested in your input. Reactions to this fellow’s question? Feel-good songs that were, or should have been, great critical successes?