What makes music good or bad?

2013-06-26 00:00

MY eight-year-old niece caught me red-handed. I was smiling, humming and even tapping to the auto-tuned voice of Rihanna.

“Who is this?” she demanded.

Her question boxed my ears. I stood up straight, pulled my hands from my pockets and confessed: “It’s Rihanna.”

If her face could have put its hands on its hips and started tapping its toe, it would have. “Who is Rihanna?” she frowned.

I began loosening my collar and saying, “Well it’s like this”, when I remembered that she was eight. And I was 38. And wasn’t attack the best form of defence? So I stuck my hands back in my pockets and said: “She’s like only the most famous singer in the world.”

My niece sniffed loudly and said: “Is her music good or bad?”

I remembered as a child that lines were drawn, swords were crossed and identities were cut over music. I listened to alternate rock, and everyone who listened to pop was shallow, trendy and brainless. The only good pop was dead pop.

“She has a nice voice,” I replied, fighting back those childhood fears. It had taken my husband 13 years to convince me that mature humans could listen to all genres of music without prejudice. And they could make up their own mind as to what was good and what was bad music, without fear of persecution.

But my niece had no pity. Her identity guns were cocked and she repeated her question: “Is her music good or bad?”

That evening I asked my children: “What defines good music?”

The Beatles make good music and Justin Bieber makes bad music, they explained.

I didn’t think that would hold up in my niece’s court of law so I asked why.

“Well,” my 10-year-old daughter explained, “all the Beatles played their instruments well and worked together to make one good sound, whereas Justin Bieber just draws attention to himself.”

“And,” my seven-year-old son added, “all Justin Bieber can sing about is boyfriends and girlfriends, whereas the Beatles can sing about a lot of stuff.”

“And,” my daughter added, “Justin Bieber makes you feel like he might not treat girls right. He might just move from one girl to the next. But the Beatles say they’ll love one girl always.”

“Now,” my son said, “can we discuss an interesting question, like how old the sun is?”

I think I had enough ammunition to face my niece. The point is not who the singer is, or what genre of music it is, the point is do all the instruments work together serving the common end of beauty? And is there variation and thoughtfulness in the lyrics? And is there morality in the words and videos?

“Actually,” I said to my niece, “I do think some of Rihanna’s music is good.

“Some of her lyrics have tidy rhyme, and the voices and instruments work together to make you feel happy, to make you want to ... um .... er ... tap.”

I made my defence while no one was watching and then got out of there.

But at home, I had more courage. In lieu of a car trip, we bought some music for my daughter’s iPod — a bit of Leonard Cohen, some Mumford and Sons, some Simon and Garfunkel, and a Rihanna single.

The next day we drove to the coast and made our way through the selection. As we pulled into a large shopping centre, Rihanna’s Umbrella came on. I turned it up and started finger tapping loudly, free in the knowledge that I had faced my genre fears and won; I could listen to pop.

Simultaneously, my son and daughter leaned over to turn it down.

“Sorry,” they said, looking round, “but there are lots of people here, and that music,” they pointed in my general, liberated direction, “is embarrassing.”

• Sarah Groves is a freelance writer living in Pietermaritzburg.

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