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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Why M. Ward is the Greatest Musical Artist Ever

Because I said so. Really, that’s why. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling myself any more of an authority on music than anyone else. I just think that music is such a personal and subjective thing. Who can really say why people are drawn to certain artists or say that they are wrong for that. The Beatles vs. Stones argument has waged on for years likely due to this. Both were great artists and both connected with a whole lot of people, so I’m sure for many, either one was the greatest artist of all-time, and those people wouldn't be wrong. Does the fact that so many people think The Beatles are the greatest ever make it more true than if just one person thinks some obscure basement band is? I don’t think so. I can give reasons for why I love M. Ward, like his raspy voice, his brilliant guitar playing, his lyrics, the fact that he never seems fully comfortable in the spotlight, the area he's from, and on and on, but I don't think any of that would really get to why he's my favorite because I could come up with similar reasons I like other artists too.

This approach is somewhat strange to me since so much of my life is based on a belief in objective truth, hard evidence, and supporting facts. It's why I majored in Statistics and Philosophy as an undergrad. Both disciplines allowed you to sift through the noise in the world to actually make sense of it. But art in all of its many forms doesn’t feel this way to me. Lost is my favorite TV show of all-time. I agree that other shows had better acting, better writing, better special effects, more resolution when they finished, and so on. But that doesn’t change that my experience with the show was better than with any other show (although Arrested Development is likely close). I can see the flaws that other people point out, but they aren’t that important to me. The show engaged me in a way that no other show has done, and that is what’s important to me. It made me think beyond just the hour I was watching. It had me going back to re-watch old episodes and old seasons. It got me to research topics in the show, to read books that were name dropped, to dig deeper into the names and mythology that were used.

When I was an undergrad at UW-Madison, I took a class called African American Music History (or something to that effect). To this day, I think it is my favorite class I’ve taken at any level. A large part of this is due to the professor that taught the course. I can’t remember how he phrased it exactly, or the exact context, but one day he kinda stopped what we were doing, and you could tell he had something he really wanted to share. The take-away was him strongly encouraging us to never dismiss something out of hand. The particular focus here, as I recall, was pop music or hip hop or other forms that people dismiss as unimportant, or just bad. His point was that if somebody likes the music (which with Top 40 hits is clearly the case), there has to be something of value there. Maybe the musician doesn’t write their own lyrics, or play their own instruments, or their voice is auto-tuned to be almost unrecognizable, but people like it, and there is a reason for that. There is something of worth there, maybe with the actual artist whose name is on the song, maybe something the people behind the scenes in the studio are doing, or who knows what else. The point is, just saying “I hate Lady Gaga, her music is terrible, how could anybody listen to it?” is a little disingenuous if you actually think about it. Clearly a lot of people really like Lady Gaga and there must be a reason. You personally may not enjoy listening to it, but that doesn’t mean that it has no worth.

This particular speech of the professor, whose name I forgot (but thanks to Google is Alexander Shashko), is probably the one thing that has stuck with me more than anything else in my years of education. Maybe it’s an aside to the original post, but I think it’s important. There’s just too much negativity in the world. Bon Iver released their new album recently, and it has received some rave reviews. As is so often the case, there is backlash against it then. Reading comments to one review, there were several people who wanted to talk about how boring the music was and how they didn’t see how people could listen to it. They wanted to let everyone know how pretentious Justin Vernon is with his lyrics. I wonder why that’s the case. Why can’t some people like Bon Iver, and if you personally don’t, that’s fine? You shouldn’t need to tell people that they shouldn’t either. Music isn't logical. There is no way to prove an artist is good or bad and that others need to agree.

This post started about M. Ward, so let me share one of my (many) favorite songs of his below:

I’ve avoided writing about M. Ward for a long time because I knew that the eventual post to do it would run too long. Here I am, 700 some words in and I haven’t even really talked about him. I planned on going into all sorts of details about just how much I like him, giving plenty of reasons, listing songs and albums and other projects he has been involved in, but that’s fine that I didn't get to it. Some other day I’ll get around to it, but for now I wanted to get this little rant off my chest, and let everyone know that M. Ward is the greatest musical artist of all-time. So are a lot of other musicians. I’d love to hear who they are in the comments.

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