Our subtle ways of casting judgment:
Recently, I was sent a disc of 900 songs — a sort of SXSW preview, if you will. My task is to listen to the bands and figure out whom I might want to see at the festival, so that I might pass the recommendations on to you. Nine hundred songs! That's like purchasing 75 new albums, except that it's not. It's worse, because you don't get the cohesion of a full-length record, one singer, one band. Basically, 900 MP3s is the musical equivalent of a penny jar — yes, it adds up to the same amount of money as dollars, but you still feel broke, and the weight of it is overwhelming.
As much as I'd like to think I will sit down and listen to all 900 songs, that idea is simply unrealistic. Instead, I must find ways of making snap decisions, instinctive decisions, based on arbitrary rules. But are these rules merely of my own design, or are there universal principles that draw us to one artist and make us reject another?
When we enter a record store or read music blogs and Web sites, we cannot merely ingest each and every artist with wholehearted enthusiasm; the prospect is too overwhelming. Thus, in order to save ourselves energy, we come up with ways of determining good from bad, and of ascertaining what endeavors are worthy of not just our time, but also our curiosity.
The quickest way to pre-judge is easy: band names. This is the first and easiest means by which — not hearing the music yet, of course — we can weed out the weak kids. Some of it is based on personal taste. For instance, maybe you're sick of bands with animals in their names, or you can't stand band names culled from French New Wave film titles, or perhaps you're particularly drawn to alliteration. Some confounding monikers fall to the wayside once you hear their music; Death Cab For Cutie comes to mind. Others, however, remain perennial deal-breakers. I mean, how great would Hoobastank have to be before you actually bought a T-shirt or uttered its name out loud, followed by the phrases "personal favorite" or "life changing"?
I've often tried to go back retroactively and separate the band name from the music, an impossible and frivolous task for sure, but an interesting exercise. For example, if my friends said, "We're going to call our band Led Zeppelin," would I balk and suggest that they rethink it? What this game always reveals, of course, is the force of the music and how it obliterates doubts by marrying what was once an arbitrary name with a sound. (Or perhaps my interest in this idea stems from the fact that my own band name sounded like a law firm, and always involved an explanation.)
The opposite conundrum, of course, is that a lot of band names are inherently cool — so much so that, before you hear them, you hope that the music lives up to the title: Sonic Youth, Television, Buzzcocks and The Strokes are all great band names, whether or not you've heard a note. Unfortunately, a lot of bands with fantastic names are awful (present company in this paragraph excluded, of course).
So, to make sense of the voluminous SXSW MP3s, I did begin with the name game. For the most part, it worked! Fortunately, I also don't have to stare at a bunch of album artwork, which presents a whole other set of problems. As you know, after the band name, if you don't know the music, all you have to go on is the cover art, And when it looks like this...
Well, let's just say it's hard to know what to make of it.
Feel free to share your own experiences with the pre-judging of band names and artwork.