G#’s Musical Radar: Music canons promote exclusivity and uniformity
Columnist Grant Sharples discusses how our opinions can be influenced by music critics.
Frankly, I’ve never been a fan of Kanye West, but many people seem to obsess over his music. It’s something I’ve never quite understood, and I feel even more discredited for my dislike because his albums always receive incredible scores from critics.
This is something that’s always been in the back of my head. Recently, though, I feel that I’ve experienced somewhat of a revelation. Last week in my English class, we discussed what a literary canon is: “a body of writings recognized by authority,” according to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms.
Essentially, literature professors get to choose what their students read and, in a sense, what “great” literature is. I’m sure plenty of high school students read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, for instance. Professors decide what stays in the literary canon and what doesn’t through this systematic process.
I then realized this is applicable to music as well. Music critics act as agents of choice and judgment, deciding what “great” music is exactly. It’s as if there’s some unspoken law about what stays in and enters the musical canon and what doesn’t, very similar to how the literary canon functions.
Artists such as Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper and Beyoncé invariably earn outstanding ratings from critics. These artists also have insanely large and loyal fanbases. Perhaps these significantly massive fanbases aren’t coincidental.
Now, I’m not saying these artists don’t deserve the recognition they receive. I’m a very big fan of Arcade Fire and Radiohead. While there are certainly many people that genuinely love these artists, there could be a small percentage of such followings that only listen to the music because they feel they should. They understand that critics praise these artists for creating high-quality, remarkable albums, and as a result feel pressured to listen to and like whatever received exemplary reviews.
That is the very issue of a canon. A 2013 article in The Daily Nebraskan said that “people have been conditioned to depend on arbiters of knowledge and canonical suggestion.” In short, canonization causes people to not think for themselves or support an opinion that strays from the majority.
If people are told what to listen to, many artists aren’t heard, and there’s already plenty of under-representation in the musical sphere. Many artists will be ignored simply for the sake of not being labelled “great.” The musical realm should not have exclusive undertones. It should be inviting, and people should be willing to give artists a chance despite what score their album got from critics.
Music fanatics should be able to choose what they listen to, rather than having something they have no interest in shoved down their throats. While it is nice to have a collective work of albums to refer to, it should not be the determining factor in what people listen to.