What is cred?
February 25, 2005 8:09 AM   Subscribe

I've had this question on my mind a lot lately, and not coming up with much of an answer. Why do some performers have it, and some don't? What is the essence of what separates Vanilla Ice from Dr. Dre? Michael Bolton from Van Morrison? Nirvana from Nickelback?

"Talent" doesn't seem to be an adequate answer. Why do we respond one way to some performers, and the opposite way to others? Is there some innate sense that one group has legitimately suffered ("paid their dues"), while the other group are just neurotic poseurs? What gives rise to this perception? Or is it just all about how they're marketed?
posted by ZenMasterThis to Media & Arts (32 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Oops, I meant to ask "What is cred?" at the beginning of this post!
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:11 AM on February 25, 2005

there was a "what is cool?" thread way back (but i can't find it either...)
posted by andrew cooke at 8:15 AM on February 25, 2005

I think the same can be said for humans in general. How many of us have been approached by a salesman and we immediately get the feeling they're a scumbag? While other people we meet, even the occasional salesman, might feel very genuine, because they are genuine.

With performers, the ones that "have it" are genuine. Maybe they've paid their dues, maybe they have extraordinary talent, or maybe they just got lucky. The ones that don't seem to have it just got where they are because some record exec felt they fit the part. They're faking it, just like the used car salesman who pretends you're his new buddy.

A lot of us can tell the difference most of the time. Unfortunatly, some people fall for it.
posted by bondcliff at 8:17 AM on February 25, 2005

Or is it just all about how they're marketed?

Your question in general is going to be just about impossible to answer definitively. But I can say for sure that it's not just marketing, or at least not all the time. I do local music coverage, which means seeing a whole lot of bands who are just starting out and whose marketing, at most, consists of a web site and twenty minutes at Kinko's. And within that marketing-free group, some have it, and some don't.

I think a lot of it is confidence- if the person/act appears comfortable on the stage, the audience responds to that. Conviction plays a part-- the performer needs to believe (or at least appear to believe) in their material (the argument for Nirvana as great band, for instance, is at least half-based on Kurt Cobain singing his heart out at every show).

There are tons of other factors, including talent (and of course they all interact; greater talent should but doean't always lead to greater confidence, etc.), but I think confidence and conviction are the two biggest.
posted by COBRA! at 8:18 AM on February 25, 2005

I think "talent" is a big part of the answer. Everyone you mention is a good performer, but the latter half of each pairing have definitely written better songs than the former.

Another aspect of it is the idea of pandering to an audience. Michael Bolton started out as a big hair, heavy metal guy, but failed to find an audience. He switched to big hair, adult contemporary, and women went nuts, so he stuck with it. Vanilla Ice tried so hard to overcome the "white rapper" stigma that he was pretty much begging everyone to take him seriously, and asking for cred is a sure-fire way not to get it.
posted by mkultra at 8:25 AM on February 25, 2005

It's worth commenting that plenty of folks find nothing that separates Vanilla Ice from Dr. Dre, Nirvana from Nickelback, et cetera. Pop music is pop music.
posted by cribcage at 8:26 AM on February 25, 2005

Yeah, but those same people find differences between talent and hackery in whatever it is they like when they're not busy turning their noses up at pop music.
posted by COBRA! at 8:31 AM on February 25, 2005

I think there's something to be said for good old-fashioned charisma. Either you got it or you don't.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:37 AM on February 25, 2005

I believe you guys are too quick to dismiss Mr. Ice simply because he's a lame-o. More simply, Dre's got the beats. If you listne to "The Chronic" you'll see the perfection of rap, without anything stolen from Queen. The way Mr. Ice dressed and danced was pretty much a pop idol construct by some PR firm. You don't see Dre dancing around choreographed. When people are constructed by companies for their looks and ability to dance instead of their ability to produce music, well people notice.

As far as MB and VM are concerned, it's not that one "had it" and the other doesn't. MB has a totally different audience that likes and respects his music. I don't listen to MB in the same vein I don't listen to Glen Miller, even though I think Glen Miller is a great band leader and can do great music.
posted by geoff. at 8:40 AM on February 25, 2005

I agree with cribcage. All the artists you mention above have been wildly successful. We might not like Michael Bolton, but he certainly had "it." In every example above, it seems to me, you're really asking why do some bands have staying power, and in every instance I would say talent. But even that is subjective, I suppose.

As to why some bands (or whatever) never make it...that's a much more difficult question.
posted by Doug at 8:41 AM on February 25, 2005

ikkyu2 is on the money as far as I'm concerned. Charisma, charm, personal magnetism... it's what moves the world.
posted by FlamingBore at 8:45 AM on February 25, 2005

I think the quality we're trying to define is "taste". It's the ability to make good artistic decisions, to tell what is really worthwhile from just makes a loud noise. Some artists have it and some don't, just as some listeners have it and some don't. It's partly innate, but it's also shaped by listening to the great artists that have gone before.

From here we can ask "What makes one thing a good musical decision, and not the other thing?" There is no easy answer to this, but this book has some interesting ideas on the subject.
posted by barjo at 8:55 AM on February 25, 2005

I honestly don't know how I know, but I can spot a cheesy artist from a mile away. I suspect most people are the same way.

Maybe we should look to the Simpsons for guidance:

Homer: So, I realized that being with my family is more important than being cool.
Bart: Dad, what you just said was powerfully uncool.
Homer: You know what the song says: "It's hip to be square".
Lisa: That song is so lame.
Homer: So lame that it's... cool?
Bart+Lisa: No.
Marge: Am I cool, kids?
Bart+Lisa: No.
Marge: Good. I'm glad. And that's what makes me cool, not caring, right?
Bart+Lisa: No.
Marge: Well, how the hell do you be cool? I feel like we've tried everything here.
Homer: Wait, Marge. Maybe if you're truly cool, you don't need to be told you're cool.
Bart: Well, sure you do.
Lisa: How else would you know?
posted by fletchmuy at 9:04 AM on February 25, 2005

Alas, we're arrived at the effin' ineffable. Thanks, everyone.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:14 AM on February 25, 2005

Disclaimer: I'm currently taking a reader-response criticism seminar, and am thus mentally unstable.

Marketing, charisma, et al. is entirely secondary to the substance of the music. We're just not always conscious of it.

It goes back to (one of) the basic definition(s) of art: a construction which stimulates the mind, evoking intellectual response, conscious and unconscious. Artists which "have it" produce artistically sound material and present it well. Our ability to identify artistically sound material is what we label as "taste". Of course, each individual's interaction with a piece of art will be different (depending on knowledge of the medium, experience with the genre, and just generally the way your brain is wired), which is where "preference" enters into it, but the artistically competent artists will be appreciated by a plurality of people, from whence "credibility" is born.

Any English major can tell you this. A good survey class of a specific period will include a couple of pieces of "bad" literature from that period, to contrast with the good. There are very specific and concrete technical qualities which separate the good from the bad; while it takes a good amount of training to be able to thoroughly identify them, it's much easier to be able to just experience their effect on your mind. Good lit will cause you to react, bad lit will bore you. The same applies to music.

This has been a serious generalization, but I'm just barely scraping the surface of the ages-old debates of criticism and artistic theory.
posted by DrJohnEvans at 10:19 AM on February 25, 2005

Talent, style and passion. Two out of three and perhaps you have something.
posted by caddis at 10:26 AM on February 25, 2005

Upon further consideration: I suppose one could argue that marketing and charisma are a part of the presentation, which is a part of the exhibit, and are thus a part of the art itself. But that's another debate.
posted by DrJohnEvans at 10:32 AM on February 25, 2005

Why do we respond one way to some performers, and the opposite way to others?

Well I think the thing is, if you have two performers that both have sold millions of records, one will be held in higher regard because on their "influence", that is that they are held in high regard by other musicians and/or cited as being an influence by other musicians. Like while Nickelback might have sold millions of albums I rarely hear other musicians praising them, unlike, say, the White Stripes, or Nirvana when they became popular.
posted by bobo123 at 11:26 AM on February 25, 2005

Some have a desire to perform, some have a need to channel an emotion. There's your major division between suck and good. Other factors like "taste" and "talent" are subjective. Bob Dylan (who I dislike, but will admit is good) has a need. MC Hammer merely has a talent. 20 years from now Dylan will still be Dylan, no one will remember Hammer.
posted by dong_resin at 11:38 AM on February 25, 2005

i'm going to make a concious effort to remember hammer just to contradict you.

posted by fishfucker at 12:30 PM on February 25, 2005

whether or not i won't be dead before twenty years go by is somewhat questionable, perhaps.

something to live for, then.

posted by fishfucker at 12:31 PM on February 25, 2005

As George Burns noted, sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you've got it made.
posted by nixerman at 1:05 PM on February 25, 2005

MHO: I think it has to do with the power of their imagination to create strong, unusual, vibrant worlds, and to bring you to them. They draw on other artists' ideas, obviously, but when you're spending time with a really good album you're powerfully aware of being in its world, and it's pleasurable, and not like any other you've heard. It's different--not just different from other music, but different from you.

Despite his millions of poor deluded, listeners, Michael Bolton's music is derivative crap. I'm comfortable talking as though there was some objective standard here--why not? It sure feels objectively true to me! Some people like derivative crap. But it doesn't change them; it doesn't sustain them; it doesn't help them relate to their universe. It doesn't require them to translate themselves into its world to listen.

And I think great poetry is like this too. Emily Dickinson's poetry is powerfully strange; it forces you to work to come to terms with it, and it rewards you with the feeling that you've been to a new place, and come back a slightly different person. Not everything good forces you to work--Nirvana doesn't, for me--but it transforms you a little by bringing you to someplace outside your experience.

Also, for me, great art helps. "Astral Weeks" makes the world an better and fuller place to be in; it makes me feel older, better prepared for loss, and more surrounded by beauty.

Vanilla Ice gets into your head, but Dre's songs make you get into his head. And you'll find yourself slightly more interesting when you get out.
posted by Polonius at 1:40 PM on February 25, 2005 [2 favorites]

It's worth commenting that plenty of folks find nothing that separates Vanilla Ice from Dr. Dre, Nirvana from Nickelback, et cetera. Pop music is pop music.

Plenty of people may equalize everything, but for people who do differentiate, it is quite universal which is which - which oughta tell you something.

As DrJohn said, if you're willing to really spend the time to investigate the material under question, you can probably come up with some fairly objective factors that will help explain why certain artists are better, but people who have honed their taste will pick up on these factors without explicitly realizing what they are. They will 'intuitively' get what's genuine, or expressing something interesting, or trying something different, or just plain well done, versus that which is derivative, superficial, fake, or shoddy.

Obviously tastes differ to some degree, but really it's impressive how much we tend to agree when it comes to basic quality (ie, "it's not my style, but I can see that it's good").
posted by mdn at 1:53 PM on February 25, 2005

mdn said it much better than I did. I blame Stanley Fish.
posted by DrJohnEvans at 2:35 PM on February 25, 2005

I can't really offer an explanation but maybe I can offer an example. The Nine Inch Nails song Hurt was covered by Johnny Cash a while back. It is always interesting to see the differences when two musicians perform the same song.

Cash's version of the song is, quite simply, much better. Not because it is more understated, but because through it you see into Cash's life. Cash was at the end of his life. There was nothing left in him but a vague sense of himself as an artist. Everything else had crumbled. Cash tells you this through his performance. One easily believes that this is a broken man. It's a powerfully human song.

By contrast, Trent Reznor (who I think wrote the song) comes across as simply a poseur in his version. He has not destroyed himself, he is merely playing at someone who has destroyed himself. The real Trent Reznor is hidden. His conjuring of demons fails. He makes self-degradation look sexy instead.
posted by Ritchie at 3:23 PM on February 25, 2005

Some people like derivative crap. But it doesn't change them; it doesn't sustain them; it doesn't help them relate to their universe.
Says who? A wee bit condescending, here, Polonius. I know of at least one woman for whom Bolton's cover of "When A Man Loves a Woman" (which I think is awful in the extreme) is as important to her "universe" as "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" is to mine
posted by sconbie at 5:08 PM on February 25, 2005

Polonius: Very well articulated. And I agree that there is an objective standard. Some are simply not qualified to apply it.
posted by DuoJet at 12:34 AM on February 26, 2005

"it's not my style, but I can see that it's good"
I'm still amazed that there are people who will claim that something is "good", but at the same time say they don't like it. Because they don't like good things? Surely, if you can see it's good, you'd like it, right?
When a whole bunch of influential people say something's good, others will then quite happily claim that this thing which they might not like at all like is "actually quite good".
Nirvana don't do it for me and they never have. I can see why others like them, in the same way that I can see why others like white wine - it suits their tastes. But if someone asked whether Nirvana (or white wines) were good, it would make more sense to say "No, they are not good at all, just the thought of them makes me ill; but most of my friends disagree", than it would to say "The very thought of them makes me ill, but I'll say they're good because that's what most of my friends say".
Saying you don't like a band even if they're good is the same as saying that quality (the "it" in the original question) doesn't play a part in deciding what you like.
...which is a long-winded way of saying that I'm with sconbie here; but not entirely in disagreement with polonius. Performers who "have it" (Van, Dr Dre etc) have the thing that a certain group of people LIKES; others (Vanilla Ice, Nickelback etc.) have something that another group likes. I'd rather listen to Van than Bolton any day, and the reason I think Van is better - that he "has it" - is because he can make me em> feel older, better prepared for loss, and more surrounded by beauty. , but I think it's just stupid to expect that there's someone who doesn't feel that way about Bolton.
Having confidence in your own taste ( "knowing" that Nickelback are a load of shit) and having the cool kids and music critics agree with you doesn't mean there's an objective standard.
The difference between that have-its and the don't-have-its is that the have-its make music you enjoy and the others don't.
posted by bunglin jones at 2:49 AM on February 26, 2005

To me, it's a sense of honesty and conviction (as some earlier in the thread have said). It's most obvious in the Michael Bolton/Van Morrison comparison -- Bolton seemed to be doing what he did to sell records, while Morrison seemed to be doing what he would have done even if it didn't sell. It's a sense that what you hear is coming straight from the heart without taking a bypass through the "will this be successful" part of the brain. Some people, of course, can do this without any talent -- but you combine this conviction with real talent, and you've got something.

(Bands of the late 80s Seattle music scene had pretty much given up on caring about whether they ever made it big outside of Seattle, and that was when they began to be great. Before that, when I was in high school, lots of bands talked about moving to LA or New York to "get a record deal," etc. But at some point in the 80s people stopped bothering with that and just started doing what they wanted to do. And so you had Nirvana, Mudhoney, etc.)

But even crass commerciality can touch people sometimes, so I find it difficult to condemn outright those that aim for commercial success.
posted by litlnemo at 5:00 AM on February 26, 2005

I'm still amazed that there are people who will claim that something is "good", but at the same time say they don't like it. Because they don't like good things? Surely, if you can see it's good, you'd like it, right?

Sometimes certain things just touch you in a way that other things don't, and that isn't always concomitant with their being good or bad. There's an immediate, visceral reaction, and an intelligent, reflective reaction. You can have "guilty pleasures" that hit some buttons but don't change your life, and you can have "abstract appreciations" which don't quite reach you but which you can see are thoughtful and doing something interesting. The stuff you really like hits both points, and the stuff you think is total crap hits neither, but the murky areas are when something only gets part of the story right (for you).

I sometimes respond to cheesy emo songs, for instance, but I sort of feel manipulated even while I'm responding (because they're formulaic) and I can't put them in the same category as music I really think is good. Similarly, music that doesn't hit me but which I respect can be interesting and I'll often be able to pinpoint what doesn't work for me. Sometimes it's a person's voice, or a certain beat or instrument that just doesn't do it for me - I am rarely grabbed by reggae beats or whiny instruments (sax, bagpipes), eg - but if it's "good" I can still see that they do something interesting, explore interesting territory, even if some of the elements they chose to begin with aren't my style.
posted by mdn at 10:41 AM on February 26, 2005


I certainly wouldn't condemn anyone who likes Michael Bolton; I'm thrilled whenever anyone is touched by music. (And I'd hate to think Michael Bolton had been inflicted on the rest of us without anyone anywhere benefitting from it.)

I think it's just hard to express your heartfelt distaste for something without sounding condescending. (Hard for me, anyway. Possibly a character flaw.)

I don't really think there's an objective standard here -- but I think that's what it feels like in all of our brains, and I find efforts to pretend otherwise exhausting. So I call it "crap." But I'm sure the woman you know would think a lot of my favorite songs are crap, and that's fine.

It's a really big world, and there are lots of ways people get happy, and as long as they don't hurt anyone else, I strongly advocate pretty much all of them. So rock on, Michael Bolton fans! If the mind and heart of Michael Bolton give you solace, then blast away. Just please wear headphones.
posted by Polonius at 11:26 AM on February 26, 2005

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