Introduction: Political Preferences, Not Taste Preferences
Issue #9, November 1993
How should a bad subject study popular music? This was the question I put to myself as I began to assemble articles for this issue. Luckily, I haven't had to answer this question 'all by myself'. Indeed, the quantity and quality of the articles I received made my own attempt at doing so superfluous! Rather, then leave you to figure the answer out without any help from me at all, however, I thought I'd at least give you a few guidelines for reading this issue.
The first thing to notice about the articles is that they are all about performers or phenomena who have fascinated, thrilled, or disturbed their authors. In other words, people wrote about popular music that interested them. Certainly, since we at BS strive to rethink the relation between the personal and the political, being interested in one's chosen topic is a good thing. For this issue in particular, however, it has proven to be especially helpful. Why? Because the range of musical interests reflected in these pieces gives a good indication of both how many different sorts of musical pleasure are out there *and* how arbitrary even well-educated intellectuals' taste-preferences are.
Some of us are intrigued by Bruce Springsteen; some by Dr. Dre; some by Madonna; some by Milli Vanilli: what unites us as a collective are *not* these taste-preferences, however, but our pursuit of a common *political* goal. We may find it impossible to agree on a tape to listen to while assembling the issue, but agree on what we want our articles to do! Just because I have never given a thought to Milli Vanilli, or am bored by Madonna doesn't mean that a BS approach to those topics is any less illuminating for me than an article on the 'alternative' rock or rap I have so much emotional and financial investment in.
So if there's one lesson to be gleaned from this issue, it's that it isn't what *kind* of pleasure you have that matters, but what you do with the pleasure you have. No matter how seemingly sophisticated one person's musical taste might be, they might never get beyond the Beavis+Butt-head school of criticism: all they are able to say about the music they consume is whether it sucks or not. Conversely, it's quite conceiveable that someone with a love for the most publically denigrated examples of popular music around — Barry Manilow, Debbie Gibson, and Barney spring to mind — could give an account of their peculiar pleasure with enormous insight about the politics of everyday life.
What sort of approach to popular music should a bad subject take? The answers these articles provide is both remarkably simple and hard-won. Don't assume that your pleasure makes you better than other people. Don't just find a way to praise the things you like already. Do interrogate your own interests and investments in a particular performer or genre. Do try to step outside your own taste-preference and examine the ways that it relates to the politics of everyday life as a whole. And remember, a bad subject is far more concerned with doing something useful than doing something cool.