27 October 2009

Categorical Likes and Dislikes

When you like a song, do you like the song because you like the singer? Because you like what the song is about? The voice quality? The whole band? Same thing when you dislike a song. Do you not like the song because it is a certain band that is singing it, or because of the voice quality, or because of the topic of the song?

The thing is, I have a few bands that I like most, if not all of their songs. Bands like The Cranberries, Chevelle, 30 Seconds to Mars, Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins, and so on.

My good friend on the other hand dislikes several acts categorically, and by this, she means that she dislikes whatever song these acts sing, such as Lady Gaga and Katy Perry.

Which is fine, I don't have a problem with that. The thing that we disagree however is whether one can categorically like or dislike a singer. My friend believes that one categorically dislike songs by virtue of who sings it, but one cannot categorically like a song just because a certain singer sings it. I on the other hand believe that it is both possible to categorically like or dislike a song based on who is singing it.

The thing is, one argument for being able to categorically disliking a song due to the singer is that if one really dislikes the way a certain singer sings, then no matter what song the singer sings, then it will turn out bad. The content of the song is variable, but the quality of the singer's voice and style is assumed to be constant in this view. Now, according to this view, the reason why it is not possible to categorically like a song due to the singer is that one is never sure what the content of the song is going to be. Thus, if there is a very crappy song by its content, no matter how good it is sung by the singer, it will still be disliked.

I believe otherwise. For me, everything is variable. Voice quality is variable, so is style and content. However, my model is a statistically sound model, by integrating previous data points and then using these data points as predictors of whether future songs from this singer will be liked or disliked.

Case in point: I like the band Chevelle a lot. I discovered their music back in 2001, while watching a show in MTV where they were featuring rock music for the whole hour. I like their extraordinary use of guitar, and the way Pete Loeffler sings. I have a copy of all their albums. And so based on the impression that I get from their songs, chances are, if they come up with a new album, I will also like them. See, what I am doing is making a predictive and probabilistic model of whether I would like a song or not. I have always liked the voice quality of Pete Loeffler, not as a stipulation, but based on evaluating every song I have heard that is sung by him. I always liked the topic of their songs, again, not as a stipulation, but by evaluating the topic every time a Chevelle song would play. And thus, these factors all increase the probability that whenever I hear another Chevelle song, I would like them. Thus, I can confidently say that statistically speaking, I can like a Chevelle song, whatever the song may be. I can therefore claim that I can categorically like Chevelle music.

Let's take another example: Colbie Caillat. This is a singer that I feel ambivalent about. She has two songs that I didn't like: the one that talks about toes and picking your nose (aka Bubbly), and another one that featured a very repetitive word, "realize" (which is titled the same way). I hated the first song for being silly, and I hated the second song for using that word over and over again. However, I saw a video of her singing a rendition of the song Don't Cha by the Pussycat Dolls. This is a song that I didn't like at all, but when Caillat sang it, it was transformed into this very beautiful song. Another song that I liked that Caillat sang was Fallin' For You. It is being played in the radio nowadays.

So, what is Colbie Caillat's track record when it comes to me liking her? Well, sometimes I like her, sometimes I don't. So statistically speaking, liking her is not a reliable phenomenon. Thus, I cannot say that I can categorically like Colbie Caillat's music.

So, what do you think? Can you categorically like or dislike music?

(Dramatic Mask, from my Sackler and Freer Collection Series)


  1. Voice quality and melody are the two main factors that make me appreciate a song. The reason why we consistently like/dislike particular singers or bands is because they tend to maintain a certain style which we either like or dislike.

  2. Let's see... I totally abhorred Rod Stewart. But I loved it when he sang the standards in his American Songbook. And I hate the song "Put Your Head on My Shoulder"... but adored it when Michael Buble sang it.

    Hehe... obviously... I'm very old-fashioned. :)

  3. Abaniko,

    I agree. I guess voice quality is more or less consistent, that's why if one finds a singer that has bad voice quality, then chances are every song will be bad.


    Old-fashioned? I don't know any of those songs, but hey, nothing wrong with that!

  4. I have a theory of "the 80% crap rule". I've found it is generally true that the vast majority of any genre (or, pertaining to your post, songs by a given artist) will be painfully like the rest and, therefore, probably uninteresting and unoriginal. Unless, of course, you like said genre or artist indiscriminately. I used to say that all rap was crap, but have since discovered a small handful of artists that use hip hop to it's true potential and use it to spread wisdom and talent rather than simply trying to get rich. So to answer your question, I'd say about 80% of the time a genre can be categorized and therefore judged highly or poorly based on the listener's personal preference.

  5. DreiGrasheir,

    Welcome to my blog! And yes, I agree. One expects consistency among the songs that a certain artist sings (after all, there's this thing called style), so if one dislikes that style, then chances are one can categorically dislike the songs of that artist. But as you pointed out, there can be exceptions.

  6. I had so "music nazi" friends. If the band wasn't: 1) left-wing 2) politically acceptable 3) underground 4) virtually unknown -- then it was "commercial crap".

    It got on my nerve, because at the end, we were listening to a bunch of crappy no name bands who never made it out of their basement, and there was a reason for that.

    So now I'm not ashamed to occasionnally like a tune because it's catchy, even though it's "disco music" (and I have Katy Perry stuck in my head right now).

    Generally speaking, I don't care that much about the band, but I do care about the lyrics.

    PS: the Smashing Pumpkins were the first concert I went to with my friends, in 96 ;-)

  7. Zhu,

    I've always like music not because of a certain idealism or philosophy, but simply if the tune or the voice of the singer pleased me. It was always subjective, so I can understand when a model crashes if it is based on music nazi criteria.