chapter  5
22 Pages

At the edges: Value transfer, judgements, discontent

The third category that I trace through my fieldwork interviews encompasses a broad range of experiences in which musical value judgements formed largely outside of the church either become problematic for worshippers or need to be consciously suppressed in order to maintain a positive experience of Sunday worship. This is, perhaps, the most pastorally sensitive of the three categories of experience as it can sometimes lead to frustration and alienation on the part of musicians and congregation members. The question of what to do with value judgements in a context in which they are not a regular part of public discourse is something that can create tension for those who find them to be part of their experience and it is the area in which ethical dilemmas are most readily present both for worshippers and for the leaders shaping the church’s musical life and values. It is here that the musical practices of the church or the individual’s relationship to the church community are most readily brought into question. We saw in Chapter 1 how worship team leaders described the way that they would encourage worshippers (and, indeed, themselves) to set aside problems encountered in relation to musical style in favour of a direct engagement with God that can happen regardless of musical context. Beliefs about the nature of music shift discourse away from musical evaluations and instead frame music simply as a tool for worship. If worshippers regularly experience tension between the music they value and the music sung in church, they may learn to regularly suppress key aspects of their experience (or may eventually move to a different church as a way of escaping these tensions). This habituation is likely to have consequences for the way in which these worshippers learn to relate church and world, spiritual and material. Some of these consequences may be positive, fostering self-discipline, selflessness in community and the development of attitudes that allow them to relate to the divine in a broad range of situations. Other consequences are likely to be negative, where congregation members are forced to hold back key elements of their experience and activity from dialogue with the church community, refraining from valuing important aspects of experience and

preventing Sunday worship from being a place of fully open and honest coming before God as community. The title of the volume Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate points to

the ambiguity that often surrounds negative evaluations of music (Washburne and Derno 2004a). In ascribing positive value to the practice of making negative value judgements the editors suggest that such judgements can help to solidify identity and position individuals within a broader discursive field (Washburne and Derno 2004b). They also draw attention to the way in which it is often possible to indulge in music that on one level we are willing to judge as ‘bad’ but, on another, intentionally immerse ourselves in.1 Negative evaluations of music, and the musics which engender them are not, then, necessarily always an unwelcome part of musical life. The first chapter in the book is an essay by Simon Frith, who argues, first, that ‘there is no such thing as bad music. Music only becomes bad music in an evaluative context, as part of an argument’, and, second, that ‘“bad music” is a necessary concept for musical pleasure, for musical aesthetics’ and is part of what it means to be a musical fan and of the process of establishing oneself in a musical world (Frith 2004a, p19). Frith’s first point is on the one hand intuitively obvious and, on the other, slightly incomplete. While an evaluative context is key to the evaluation of music such contexts are so closely allied with music that they can rarely be detached and float free in the manner which Frith seems to suggest.2 Music is itself closely associated with, and is embedded within arguments such that it is unable to be completely distanced from these and reattached elsewhere in a completely free manner, but relates to its context in specific ways, inviting specific kinds of arguments and judgements to be made around it. Moreover, evaluative contexts are themselves subject to negotiation and valuation such that it is rarely the case that all have an equal seat at the table of musical evaluation. Contexts are inherently bound up with the process of forming appropriate kinds of relationships and engagement with a range of different settings, people, materials, communities and subjectivities. All of these are themselves subject to forms of ethical and political critique which by their very nature assume that, while different things are often valuable in different ways, it is still possible to say something meaningful and more than subjective about such value. Frith suggests that we listen ‘on the basis of who we are and what we

musically know and expect, and we respond according to how and where and why we’re listening … musical judgements are also ethical judgements, concern the perceived purposes as well as sounds of music … judgement is, by its nature, an attempt to persuade other listeners of the rightness of one’s own responses’ (Frith 2004a, p33). Such a picture, which ascribes ethical significance to musical argument, hangs in tension with Frith’s description elsewhere of popular music fandom in which such persuasion is less important and in which the trading of value judgements is part, instead, of the life, energy and fun of musical appreciation (Frith 1996b, p6). Frith both contends for the significance of musical evaluations and describes situations in which the contents of the

evaluations themselves bear relatively little significance. This ambiguity is partly due to Frith’s focus on consumer-centred situations in which individuals are largely free to establish and contest their own identities from a solo standpoint. Frith can see that for some people (particularly musicians), there is a greater level of self-investment, but also that for many people the situations they are part of don’t require a similar kind of commitment. If evaluations are assumed to be rooted largely in the specific subjectivities of individuals then judgements can be traded relatively consequence-free, their individual basis meaning that they have relatively little claim to compel others or devalue their enjoyment of the music. Within a context of communally significant music-making such as St Aldates,

this ambiguity begins to fade and the balance is more clearly weighted towards significant self-investment. Here there is much less room for the play of irony such that the self can find pleasure in pushing the music away as bad while also engaging with it as good or in seriously contesting the value of music while enjoying the contestation for its own sake. Tastes and positions can no longer remain a matter of play as they do for Frith’s fans, because individual identities must find themselves a place within a process of communal rather than largely individual musicking. The ethical is no longer simply a matter of contending for one’s own value judgements regardless of the ability to persuade the other, but a realisation that one’s value judgements encounter and participate in a communal practice of musical activity. Within this process the question of whether to ascribe different elements simply to subjectivity or to elevate them to a more objective level (despite the somewhat false nature of the dichotomy) is frequently encountered. The ambiguity which the editors of Bad Music draw attention to is a very present one, with judgements relating to music occupying a whole range of statuses and meta-evaluations which can involve self-critique as well as critique of the music and associated processes of engagement with it. Individuals at St Aldates often face a decision as to what status to attribute to their own judgements and not simply to the judgements of others. Within the situation of a church community individuals are not free to

retreat into their own musical world which accords with their own sense of the good as they are instead caught up in engagement with a common music, which either offers significant potential for participation or a level of alienation from the process of musical engagement. While it may therefore be problematic to single out a musical object and say simply that it is ‘bad music’ in and of itself, it is quite a different thing to look at an interconnected web of people, music and processes of engagement, which the music is already embedded within, and ask similar questions. Music contributes to the ways in which people are able to negotiate these situations, and judgements surrounding it often focus on these engagements while also drawing in musical sounds, processes and subjectivities. Judgements about music are fundamentally relational in nature, but these relationships include and incorporate the parties, both human and musical, which are implicated within them and the relational should not become an excuse for considering just one of these elements. By

taking the relational as primary, we can reach beyond the subjective/objective divide which leaves negative value judgements problematic and find a meaningful place for the ambiguity which is often felt by different individuals.