The Bias of Background

A couple Christmases ago I was listening to the radio. We were well into the Christmas season and the station was in full holiday mode. It was during the lunch hour when they played older songs and one song in particular caught my attention. It caught my attention because it was not good. Let’s face it—Christmas songs are difficult to do well. The classics have been beaten to death, and unless you’re Sufjan Stevens, writing new ones is daunting. From what I remember, this song fell into the latter category (though it was a couple decades old). I proceeded to groan audibly and made a disparaging comment about the song to my wife.

When it was over, the DJ said the song he just played was by Adam Again. Wait. What? I love Adam Again! And they get so little airplay. Let’s face it—they’re rather obscure. The fact that this station even played them is an unexpected surprise and the station should be applauded for playing such a deep track. You know, it was an interesting arrangement. I thought that voice sounded familiar. It’s always refreshing to hear something creative that breaks the mold. I hope they play it again sometime. It was really good!

What just happened? I went from disliking a song (even making a verbal jab about it), to praising it and wanting to hear it again.

We all have our horses that we’ve backed in the past. Some of these “horses” are dear to us. Art is a very personal thing. Like annual rings in a tree trunk, artists and artwork become part of our history, and part of our makeup. Artwork, whether visual or audial, becomes a landmark of both good and bad times. We stay devoted to it throughout the years.

There’s a nobility to that, but let’s move past the sentimentality. I recently watched Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary special. It covered a lot of ground. And we all seem to prefer the SNL era which we experienced first. I certainly do. It’s part of our history and it’s part of our background. It’s natural. But when it comes to critique, that sentimentality and bias needs to be eliminated.

That being said, I always feel a sense of satisfaction when a band I took a chance on in the past—as in I bought their album—continues to get good reviews and is admired by the critics. Somehow I feel their current praise speaks to my past decisions in taste. Maybe that’s just musical snobbery. But at the same time there is value in being able to discern between the flavor of the week and talent/creativity that will stand the test of time. That’s a significant purpose of critique.

In contrast with my first radio story is this next example which is more common and a worse offense on my part—because I do it with total awareness. I’m riding in the car with someone, listening to a style of music I don’t usually listen to. A song comes on the radio. It’s catchy. I like it! But I’m hesitant to say so. What if it’s by Katy Perry? I’ve often expressed my distaste for her music. I’ll look foolish if I now praise one of her songs. Or worse, it could be Miley Cyrus. So I hold off on complimenting it until after I discover who the artist is.

That’s foolishness and pride. And it’s certainly dishonest critique.

Time changes us all. Artists change and our tastes change. Our personal convictions of taste in the past, even when strong, should have no weight when critiquing today’s art. Looking back ten years, I can’t believe how wrong I was—in many areas of life. Looking back even one year can be embarrassing. Strangely, it can be easier to admit the fault in your own works than in those of artists you followed in the past.

Our history becomes nostalgia, and nostalgia is always personal. Our background and experiences have value and have hopefully provided us with knowledge and wisdom. But that should not chain us to our declarations of the past. Though we embrace that past, we need to intentionally set it aside when attempting honest critique. The conclusions will be sometimes surprising, occasionally disappointing, quite often refreshing, and thankfully—freeing.

N.B. – For a strong dose of poignancy, apply these same principles to politics.

Next we explore fame and past success.

Articles in this series on critique

  1. The Significance of Series
  2. The Farce of Familiarity
  3. The Bias of Background
  4. The Folklore of Fame

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