What is the Best Song or Album?
You’ve heard it in conversations with your friends and seen it in a countless number of comment sections. “It” being the idea that “an artist fails because they create bad art”. It sounds simple enough, but is it true? In order to define what “bad art” is, we need to understand the objective of art. We cannot use words such as “bad” and “good” to describe something unless that something has a measurable quality (in relation to an objective). If there is an objective quality we can use to measure art, then that means there is a “best” art.
We could end the discussion here by stating the “best” art is the one that makes the most money; given that most people define success as the amount of money you earn (in a capitalistic society). This would prompt arguments between fandoms over who has the most Billboard sales, which is ultimately irrelevant because revenue is revenue. Eventually, we’d figure out who earned the most purchasing power through their art and call it a day…
Obviously, we can understand why the best art doesn’t necessarily equate to the art with the most revenue (or profit or whatever manipulated metric you want to use): The best person isn’t necessarily the richest. The best product isn’t the most expensive. So on and so forth… Instead, we will analyze how a listener determines the “best music” and the biases they have doing so.
An Objective Opinion
The best music is objective but that objective is opinionated. People listen to music to achieve an emotional experience and/or alter their physical state. While we can do countless studies that measure specific properties (i.e dopamine) of this state, none of them will be concrete beyond a song’s universal attributes (i.e volume). This is because that objective is always dependent on the listener whose state will determine whether a song is good. In addition, people are prone to biases that skew their evaluation of a song. The idea that an artist’s success depends on the quality of their music — defined by an individual listener — fails on this point alone, but we can explore this topic further.
How does a listener determine the best music? The sound comes first. You don’t need a study to recognize the fact that literal gibberish can top the charts. Many people listen to songs in a foreign language, not because lyrics don’t matter, but because they don’t matter as much. When people describe the music they enjoy, it’s always done by genre (i.e rap, pop, rock, etc) for a reason.
Entire genres are written off by listeners despite containing the same lyrical content. Crank Lucas does a great job at showcasing this phenomenon (using trap and boombap). The fact is the sound of music is what drives the human body at an emotional level. If you are aggressively racing people on the highway (don’t do this), you aren’t going to listen to a slower sounding track such as Beethoven’s 5th while doing so. You want something that keeps you alert and in the moment.
Let’s drive this point further: Imagine that you are in a ballroom (or prom or whatever) with a significant other. Everyone is moving towards the center of the room in order to begin dancing in an intimate manner. You lock hands with your significant other and stare into their eyes as the DJ hits play on his set. A few moments go by and in the next you hear, “LET THE BODIES HIT THE FLOOOOOR”… You can see where I’m going with this. The situation you listen to music in matters.
Lyrics do matter, but only to a certain point. There have been studies done on whether lyrics matter or not, but I will tell you that the answer is entirely dependent on the environment of the listener. If a person is listening to music for the lyrics, then they will analyze them and state that the lyrics matter. If a person is not listening to the lyrics, then the lyrics don’t matter. What?
Yes. Read it again… I’m stating the obvious because what I’m about to say IS obvious: Lyrics only matter when a person cares about the lyrics. People don’t listen to lyrics when they are exposed to a song subconsciously (which happens more often than you realize). In addition, listening to a song subconsciously increases your chance of enjoying it (as it “grows on you”). Essentially, many people who “care about lyrics” fail to recognize the unavoidable instances where they don’t care. This becomes important later.
When lyrics DO matter to a listener, they have to be relatable or involve subject matter of interest. The reason for this is simple: A person can’t understand a song if they don’t understand what’s being said. This concept is known as relatability and is why mainstream music is never hyper-specific. Everyone desires money and/or sex (love) which is why those subjects are so frequent in popular culture.
There’s a high probability for lyrics of any topic to exist. However, “improving” those lyrics leads to a dilemma. On one hand, using more advanced vocabulary and references results in “better” lyrics with more (intellectual) depth. On the other hand, doing this limits your audience to the people who understand that advanced vocabulary. For example, math songs about basic division perform better than math songs about differential equations; and receive more funding because of this.
When a person critiques a song, they are approaching the song in a state that they don’t actually listen to music from. This is relevant because bypassing the barriers described above — in this critical state — means that a song is more likely to be “bad”. If there is one reason not to self-promote, it’s this one. The cost of a failed first impression is not known, however I’d imagine it to be expensive. People are prone to writing artists off at the first sign of failure.
With this logic, we can see why major labels push music subconsciously as much as possible. Listeners are already averse to direct self-promotion and advertisements (unless they follow the person doing so). By pushing music subconsciously, there is less of a chance for a listener to enter the critical mode that may invalidate a song: There is less of a chance for the song to be “bad”.
Before we move on, let’s make a disclaimer to the artists reading this: 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 actually affects your career or not. So far, I’ve only stated the barriers someone has before they listen to a song. However, most people listen to music created by other people which adds additional factors to the equation.
An Influencer’s Bias
Human interaction plays a role in how a song is perceived. People who like (or are real friends) of another person are more likely to enjoy the music that person creates. A concrete example can be found by analyzing the role of a popstar (which is really just an actor). The record label handles the business (expenses and logistics) while hiring content creators (songwriters, producers, cover artists, videography) in order to put together a product. Marketers work with the “product” in order to drive engagement. When you point this out, some consumers may act like they care about authenticity (if they aren’t a fan of the artist in question). More important is the fact that the popstar’s role is to perform and interface with people. That’s it.
The modern popstar is used BECAUSE record labels understand how interaction affects a listener’s perspective. You may notice that most popstars are attractive; because people generally like attractive people. It’s a factor of evolution. The halo effect and pretty privilege gives these actors an advantage over their competition by making them more like-able. These people are given more chances for their music and have a larger network initially.
This is why popstars are often young women; who benefit more from being attractive compared to male counterparts. This can be proven by looking at social media: If you create two accounts with an attractive man and woman, the woman’s account will grow 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.
In general, I find that an artist’s network determines their chance of success rather than their music. The popular Minecraft YouTuber Dream “created” 2 songs and immediately gained 1 million Spotify followers using his network of 17 million YouTube subscribers. Bella Poarch was a TikTok sensation prior to becoming an artist and the same trend occurred. I’m not saying that’s all there is to their success. I’m saying there’s more to their success than their music quality.
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. Promotion decides how big a song is; not how good it is. Sales numbers aren’t equivalent to content-quality.
A War of Attention
Your attention is valuable. Advertisers want it and so do record labels. The stereotypical entertainment industry “curse” is the artist who wants the rewards without the fame. However, this isn’t really possible because people value people more than they value their music. If this wasn’t the case, streaming platforms wouldn’t need to aggregate content under artist names.
One way to gain a consumer’s attention is through a Public Relations Stunt (PR Stunt). This 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. The frequent yet not so frequent “boyfriend issues Taylor Swift is having” which isn’t a red flag even though this is her 5th time in this situation. As they say, if everyone else is the problem… Anyways, these events are usually followed up in a few weeks with a new song or album (when no other major artists are releasing). The world resumes shortly after and everything becomes fine. Look, I’m not saying these events aren’t real, just well timed. Most likely a coincidence.
A person on the internet (no one can lie on the internet) told a story about his anger towards the entertainment industry. He was creating music while homeless, but no one cared. Everyone would tell him how billie eilish went from zero to hero from her bedroom, but 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 towards writing about other people in your life (that you don’t actually know)? Yeah. Apply that thought to any celebrity 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 for it. Paparazzi don’t always have CIA members on shift…
The argument that an artist’s success is dependent on their quality of music falls flat on its face when you realize that even the “number 1” artists get criticized: “These artists create bad music, but they just got lucky!” WELL THEN WHERE DOES THE FALLACY END??? 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 pristine melodies of Taylor Swift? It doesn’t fucking matter. You’re missing the point of art and diminishing the importance of marketing.