You’re sitting in your car at a stoplight, and it’s a late spring day, and your windows are all rolled down so you can bask in the warm floral breeze.

And then another car pulls up, more or less beside you, and they are absolutely blasting their music. You know the song instantaneously, because it inspires in you immediate revulsion, and now it doesn’t matter how delicious that breeze is, because you are not going to endure that song for another second. You close your windows and turn up your own music just to drown out the assault on your ears.

So what’s the song?

More broadly, what’s the movie that makes you groan, or the book, or the video game? And more importantly, why? When you say “That (whatever thing) sucks,” what makes it suck?

If we stick with music for a second, people tend to go with three major things: 1) The way it sounds, in terms of beat/rhythm, 2) Sincerity of the music, in terms of the people playing it versus who write it, and if it can be reproduced live, and 3) the lyrics.

Fans of pop music tend to value the first and sometimes the second two things most; if a song has a good beat, something you can dance or sing along to, it’s a good song, even if the lyrics aren’t especially masterful. Sometimes the second one will also come into play, often in a strange defensive stance, like “[insert pop singer here] can totally sing amazingly – check out this live proof. See, they’re super talented!” That’s the metric of ‘good’ for these folks. And that’s great for them.

Fans of more esoteric stuff tend to be more about 2 and 3, and that’s great for them. So if they say a song is good, it’s because the lyrics are inspired, or different, or interesting. OR they, again, value the ability of the artist to reproduce the sound in a live situation, or that the artist singing it is the same human that wrote it.

I think this is one of the major reasons people disagree about what’s good and what isn’t (the other being the much more obvious thing about people having a variety of tastes). If you take these themes a little more broadly, it’s the same sort of thing across a variety of media. In movies or TV, the metric is sometimes “Was it entertaining?” and sometimes “Did it have depth?” There are all sorts of other things that work into each of these, of course, but those seem to be the major camps.

I’ve run into this most in discussing books, I think, where the metrics are often the same as the ones we use to judge television and movies. In books, the entertainment value usually comes from things like pacing and drama, whereas the depth tends to come from tackling philosophical concerns.

For me, the best are the books that can manage both. For me, a good book is one with strong syntax and the power to propel me through the pages, but also leaves me thinking about it later.

I guess the moral of the story is that we could probably have better discussions about these sorts of things if people would start out by describing their metrics, and by people noting that everyone has different ones.

If you have a second, let me know what your metrics are in the comments! I was being pretty general, so I’m sure there are plenty that I missed, and I would love to hear about them.


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