Schoenberg vs Bieber – why is “difficult” music perceived as “cool”?

I can has diatonic harmonyThanks to Duck and Ricky for their ranting in the kitchen, which formed the basis of this post.

Everyone thinks they have great taste in music. This is clearly nonsense, unless you can think of a better explanation for the continuing success of N-Dubz. Of late – particularly since Mary and I started making the Shady Ladies podcasts – I’ve been pondering what makes one song “cooler” than another.

A lot of my friends are really into music. Not in the way that one of my mates once declared she was really into music because she owned more than one album by The Lighthouse Family, but in the having-a-whole-room-of-records-and-more-in-the-attic kind of way. Of course my friends are cool – they wouldn’t be my friends if they weren’t, obviously – but there is definitely an arbitrary scale of coolness in music, which I struggle to calibrate myself against.

My taste in music is undeniably eclectic, ranging from Tallis to Toumani Diabate, but it’s not very “cool”. For example, I have an undying love for cheesy pop like Baby by Justin Bieber, but I struggle with “cool” arty bands I “ought” to like, such as Sonic Youth. Maybe it’s the Girl Guide in me – careful with that screwdriver, you’ll have someone’s eye out! – but it just sounds like noise to me. Maybe I just don’t take enough drugs….

Is coolness merely in the eye (or rather ear) of the beholder? The ultimate arbiters of coolness seem to be music critics, but surely they can’t be a reliable judge – critics are desperate neophiles, who’ve listened to pretty much everything worth putting an ear to, and consider anything to be old hat unless it sounds like someone playing a dog with a pneumatic drill and a coathanger.

This is especially true of the male ones who (according to Duck, anyway) seem to be perpetually engaged in a metaphorical pissing contest, to see who can pee highest over the emperor’s new clothes. I can only assume that the aim is to project the attitude that “I’m so cool I like music you don’t even understand.” Although that’s only a short hop from the ironic (and wonderful) T-shirt slogan “I listen to bands that don’t exist yet”.

Anyway – you tell me. What do you define as “cool” music? Can I ever learn to truly love Sonic Youth? Or do I just need to take more drugs?

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16 responses to “Schoenberg vs Bieber – why is “difficult” music perceived as “cool”?

  1. Cool is in the ear of the listener, but as far as I’m concerned it’s something that evokes a strong emotion – whether it’s the desire to throw your hands in the air and jump up and down, or it throws up a memory, or it just has an indefinable something that you can’t quite put your finger on. If it moves you, it’s cool.

  2. just so we’re clear – Toumani Diabate is WAY COOL.

  3. I think it’s also interesting to think that Iron Maiden have been tragically uncool for about 15 years, but for some reason in the last 4-5 have started to be regarded as, in some twisted way, cool….. weird, huh?

  4. p.s. but I like Pachelbel’s Cannon, so whaddoiknow? 😉

  5. ha ha ha ha ha! I knew you’d say that. 😀 xx

  6. Seems to me that ‘cool’ music is only ever music that is not liked by ‘the masses’ at this moment in time. Hence music that was originally widely (or too) popular and therefore not cool, can become cool when that popularity has settled into pleasures (guilty or otherwise) for the remaining faithfuls or when ‘rediscovered’. New music is cool only as long as a few people know about it – as soon as ‘the masses’ catch on it becomes uncool.

    • Interesting idea – I think there’s probably a lot of truth there. Off the top of my head I can’t think of many (any?) artists or bands that achieve mass popularity and stay cool. Lady Gaga at the moment, perhaps? Or has she moved into uncool yet? Rihanna?

  7. Critics have it all wrong… Their job is to point the right audience in the right direction. Not decide what’s interesting and what’s not. I think it has been proven that any piece of music can find someone to appreciate it (King Crimson has been trying to prove the opposite for years and still haven’t succeeded). I couldn’t really comment on the coolness thing since I haven’t been aware of what’s cool and what’s not since I left high school a decade ago…

  8. This is pretty much the only thing I like Sonic Youth for, but then, most the the music I like is because of having heard it in films (New Order, Dr John, Otis Redding). However, not being a big music fan, you can completely ignore my opinion !

  9. For me it is the actual “sound” of record that gives it that “cool” factor. Not necessarily the melody, musicianship or even the sentiment. More the way its been put together and instrumented. I love the way Robert Forster covered Heart’s “Alone” and Susannah and Magic Orchestra covered Kiss “Crazy Nights” to turn hair metal anthems into something more intimate and moving.

    Certain sounds to my ears sound horrifically cheesey……Lady GaGa…….doesn’t matter how ironic her stage act is, it sounds like Euro-trance to my ears.

  10. @Ella- I thought there was a period in the 90’s when tunes that the critics and masses liked seemed to get into the charts. Thinking of the Madchester/90’s dance music/shoegaze/Brit pop era……..I remember dancing to the Stone Roses & Happy Mondays on a holiday to Corfu in the early 90’s…….these were bands championed by the NME that had broken through to a wider audience.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Andy. I do love the way that thoughful cover versions can completely change the sound of a song, and often serve to highlight really strong songwriting in the original, even though it may have originally been performed in an “uncool” style

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