I enjoy The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey,” even if the radio plays it a bit too often. And how could you not like it, really? It has a pretty melody, and it practically demands that you sing along. Then there is the sweetly melodramatic thematic content of the song: the forlorn, soulful, sensitive, artistic boy pining over a girl who has not chosen him. This is a difficult character to not identify with. Furthermore, even if we cannot write a song, we want to believe that we would be the kind of person that is capable of artistic expression despite everything. The song affirms a fairly universal, thus fairly platitudinous, stand for art against the crude materiality of our times. Anyone who has ever written a poem—everyone!—knows the feeling of the calling of art and of the elevated sense of self that comes with such a calling. Also, the song’s musicality has a kind of craftsman’s quality, the quality of organic, disinterested musicians being organic disinterested musicians that almost screams out THIS IS MUSIC. It seems to me that in most terms this song passes the bar for what some people would call “good” music.
But I like a song like “Disco Inferno” by The Trammps a lot more. First of all, “Disco Inferno” is more or less determined by its heavy bass line, a feature mostly absent in “Ho Hey” and which I straight up love. That bass line propels the song forward, gives it the joyous sensibility that contrasts so dramatically with its strange imagery. The song paints this weird picture of a catastrophic event: a skyscraper on fire, the fire rising, and people trapped on the rooftop. People catch on fire, they dance out of control, and the pleasurable thrill of the scene is too much for the song’s narrator, who then has “to self destruct.” Craziness. Then there is the terrific and unique blend of horns, strings, and rhythm particular to disco (fuck yeah disco!). I dig it the most. Nonetheless, the appeals to the artist and to art are not here. Nor is the sensibility of music as craft. The primary purpose of the music is to get you to dance, to entertain you, to make you burn. Unlike “Ho Hey,” this is not music one is supposed to sit and listen to, and it doesn’t ask you to sing along. Dancing is its imperative. Because it doesn’t require contemplation on the part of the listener nor does it feed the fantasies of art, “Disco Inferno” must seem to some people as not “good” music.
The issue for me here is not to get people who think “Ho Hey” is good music to think that “Disco Inferno” is as good. Foucault's discussion of the scientificity of discourse is relevant to this. According to Foucault, the point is not whether we can raise formerly subjugated knowledge, that is, marginalized or discredited knowledge, to the status of “scientific” truth. Instead, he argues, we should question the wish to see the status of truth and the power of truth conferred onto subjugated knowledge. The desire to see something as scientific is the desire to invest it with authority. So I guess I don’t care if anyone thinks “Disco Inferno” constitutes good music; rather, I just want everyone to appreciate how The Trammps understand and convey the function of music. It does no good to argue whether the musical sensibilities of one genre are better than those of another, and anyone who engages in such an argument seeks only to establish some kind of cultural hierarchy. Music is more interesting and more important than the inequalities that it can be made to establish or maintain.