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Is Your Next-Door Neighbor's Band Better Than The Beatles?

19 March 2006

Lately I’m feeling this push-and-pull among music critics regarding the subject of skill. Punk rock may have paved the way for the idea that anyone can make music that matters, even if you barely know how to play an instrument… but lately I keep reading critics who maintain, often in passing or in reaction to others, that expertise and technical proficiency are important. That they’re necessary even—crucial criteria for evaluating music.

I understand the slippery slope argument about relativism, but I also assume it’s mostly about control. That is, if you decide that there are no objective criteria for evaluating music, that even talent and skill are subjective qualities, then how can a critic ever be expected to sift through all that music and judge it consistently? How can a larger story be created out of an essentially endless stream of music; how can music history ever be written if there’s no agreed-upon hierarchy of quality? If expertise isn’t a chief way of judging music, than how can a critic ever believably be considered an expert?

One of my favorite rock bands of all time is THE INCONTINENTALS, from Kirksville, Missouri (and later, Columbia, Missouri). Never heard of them? Of course not—they played mostly in basements, to a few dozen of their friends and acquaintances. The furthest they got in pursuing ‘success’ was to drive to St. Louis, or Lawrence, Kansas, to play shows. I heard word that some of their self-released CDs made it as far as Chicago record stores, and know that they were occasionally played by college radio DJs here or there. But that’s about it. Their drummer now plays in a more successful (and also quite good) art-rock band from Chicago called MAHJONGG that seems to keep getting more attention. But the other members aren’t up to much these days, music-wise, as far as I know.

I say that The Incontinentals is of the best bands ever and you assume that I’m trying to demonstrate expertise, that I’m trying to show you how ‘in the know’ I am by praising a band you’ve never heard of. [Actually, you said that they were one of your “favorite rock bands of all time” -ed.] But the truth is, they were a fantastic band. On the right night, they struck me as at least as good as any other live band I’ve ever seen. And their albums haven’t decreased any in impact since they were recorded, mostly in the ‘90s.

Every time I think about them, I think first of how lucky I was to see them play twenty or so times. But then I think about how many other bands like them probably exist. If Kirksville, population 17,000, can produce a band that good, who’s to say that there aren’t bands that good all over the country or even the world? I start to imagine that every city, town, or village has so many of these unknown bands in their past, present, and future: bands without the ambition or resources it takes to “make it big” (or even semi-big), yet whose music meant so much to their fans, and has the ability to mean so much to new listeners today or tomorrow as well.

One time a touring indie-label musician asked me if I had a band. I said no, that I didn’t really play an instrument, and he said, sincerely, that I should start one, that everyone should start one. I’m sure I’ll never start a band, but the idea that everyone should start one is something I support without reservation. You never know who might create whichever music that will hit you hard when you hear it. My next favorite album of all time might be in the works right now, anywhere in the world. Who knows who is making it, or why. It could be your next-door neighbor, just fooling around in the basement. It could be the weirdo down the street. It could be the weirdo’s grandparents. Or the weirdo’s 12-year-old niece. You never know.

The music industry is having trouble figuring out its place in today’s world. But music itself will always be made, and people will hear it. Right now, with the Internet, I often feel like we’re in a better place to hear more music made by non-professional musicians than ever. There’s more of a chance than ever that I might stumble across some great band making music for no one in the middle of nowhere.

Thinking about this makes me so excited to hear as much music as possible. It makes me sad when people theorize that too much music is being made and released these days. Too much music for whom? Give me it all, I say – for every hundred albums that do nothing for me, I’m liable to find something that strikes me right in the heart, or the gut, or the head… music that makes me want to share it with everyone I know, to spread the word far and wide.