All art criticism implies an objective standard, even if that standard can only be discovered by intuition and good sense. If music truly is all about “what I like,” then virtually every album review containing any sort of opinion is a waste of time; it’s just based on the personal tastes of the reviewer. Since the critic’s opinion is no more important than yours, and has no bearing on the latter, you might as well just listen to the music yourself to determine if it’s something you like.
How many read music reviews, and even employ the language of objectivity (e.g., “their newest album isn’t as good as their last,”) and yet also claim that music can only be judged according to subjective taste, that there is no such thing as inherently good or bad art? I don’t think we can have it both ways, and I come down in the camp of real standards in music.
Certain analogies illuminate our case. I would doubt too many people would argue every piece of writing is of equal merit. Some writings adhere to grammar rules, while others show themselves deficient when laid next to the yardstick of convention. Some express ideas more cogently and accurately than others, which is more or less easy to measure; some have certain aesthetic qualities that others lack, which is harder to measure but no less detectable. Hence, in school papers are graded on objective rubrics– the element of subjectivity in grading stems not from the standards themselves, but from the standards imperfectly applied by imperfect human teachers. Some parts of the rubric appear black and white (e.g., the grammar rules) and make application easy, but I would argue that standards that are a little harder to divine (e.g., expression, aesthetic) and thus apply are no less existent. They might be harder to know or articulate, per our limitations of human perspective. But that does not mean they are not there, and that we may not develop intuition and taste to access them. For instance, perhaps with not too many explicit reasons why, we can all see that the pulp of the Left Behind series pails in comparison to the literature of Dickens.
Since music is about effective and artful expression, just like writing is, I think all the same arguments apply to our subject. And what’s more, I have the strong conviction that musical development is learning to enjoy something you can tell is good. To borrow an example from another art form– I know the movie Schlinder’s List is excellent, but I do not like watching it. If I really immersed myself in what makes good film, I’d learn to appreciate it to the point of actually enjoying it, even though it is terribly disturbing. I think music works the same way; it’s not necessarily what we like (although that can be an element), but what is artfully executed. To attempt a shoddy paraphrase C.S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism (who argues for an objective standard and a proper way to approach art, by the way), it’s not about how “catchy” the symphony is, but how well it is constructed and how it expresses what it is trying to express.
If there is objectivity in music, even if it is often difficult to measure, then music is interesting– something worth getting passionate about and arguing about with others. Even though I strongly disagree, I appreciate it when someone tells me Pinkerton sucks because I know we at least agree that some music sucks and some music doesn’t, and if then we agree on a particular work, it is all the more satisfying. But all disagreements about specific pieces of music are really arguments about what the softer standards (e.g. aesthetics) consist of. That is a philosophical argument, which is the highest kind of dispute. But if every piece of music is of equal merit, if everything is what it is, there is no risk and romance in art, and there is no common plain on which to wage any kind of fruitful dispute.
I suppose you could argue that every piece of music has at least a modicum of worth– they are all products of the creative impulse, which is one of the most glorious things in the universe. I’d have to agree. But I think there is a relative scale (think of it as sort of a Neo-Platonism, where pure evil is the complete lack of good, as increasing cold is the increasing absence of heat). And I think God is the ultimate arbiter of what makes good art– after all, of His creation, He declared “it is good,” which is a value judgment. But even if I am completely wrong, if Bach is no better than Nickelback in any transcendent sense, if objectivity of music is a mere working fiction, it is at least a tremendously enriching and useful fiction: keeping thousands employed as music critics and at least providing the fleeting suspense of arguing about music as if it mattered.