As a musician, sometimes live music feels like Chinese water torture, because I notice all the ways the performers fall short of my hopes and expectations.
I notice the gimmicks, the lack of originality and I notice the way people phone it in instead of really being present with the audience — and it drives me crazy.
That’s why I often get stoned, or I just don’t show up at all.
It’s actually a problem a lot of musicians have — we can’t relax and enjoy music because we’re constantly critiquing it and wanting it to be better. That’s because to become great at something you must be able to appreciate what greatness really is, and that means cultivating your ability to discern “good” from “great”.
This isn’t just a musician thing though, it’s true of any art or discipline. Writers critique writing, chefs critique food and architects critique buildings. We all understand that refining our taste is an essential part of mastery, but it comes at the cost of being able to truly enjoy the art.
Or does it?
The Joy of Snobbery
I used to judge myself harshly for not being able to appreciate “normal” music. I’d go to music shows and just be in my head, especially if the music wasn’t great. But when the music was great, that changed things dramatically.
Often I would drag my friends to shows and share with them how excited I was to see this band, because to me this person was a genius, and I could hear it. But my friends wouldn’t have the same experience. They could appreciate the music, but if their taste wasn’t as refined they wouldn’t be able to appreciate how brilliant this performance was.
It was the subtle things I would notice, like how tight the rhythm section was, or the way the musicians really listened to each other, and my friends would only notice the big things like flashy guitar solos or times when the beat dropped.
We all understand what it’s like to have refined taste because we experience it, although some people don’t experience it through music. Our ability to appreciate genius changes depending on the particular craft we’ve cultivated a skill or discernment for.
For example, if I go to an art museum, I’m a shallow person. I love gimmicks, I love cheap thrills and it’s harder for me to appreciate the difference between good art and great art.
On the other hand, there are some people for whom an art museum is an endless display of wonder and brilliance. They notice things I could never even imagine, and while they may not be easily impressed, they may ultimately get more fulfillment out of the experience because of their ability to notice both the gross and the subtle details of the work.
In other areas, my taste has been developing over time — like food for example. During the four years I lived with Paula her well-cultivated palate started to rub off on me, and I would find myself tasting something and instantly knowing what spice it needed. I became a better chef, and with that benefit also came an aversion to bland food.
I became a food snob.
Five years ago I could have scarfed down food that wasn’t as tasty, but today the thought of that is less appealing. In fact, I watch some people eat bland food and think to myself “how could they not realize what they’re missing”?
The Burden of Having Great Taste
This article was born from a conversation I was having with a friend who was torn because she rarely got excited about the music shows that were happening in our community, and she judged herself as being a bad person.
It’s understandable — here we are wanting to support our friends in their art but our honest opinion when we watch them is “this is total shit”.
Yet we look around any everyone else seems to be having a great time. How could we not believe that on some level we’re a cold, heartless person?
My consolation over the years has been to remember that everyone sucks when they start, and that while I may not love what this person is creating, I can love the journey they’re on. I can applaud their effort, and their courage, because that’s something someone at any skill level can do.