In defense of making “bad” art


Kara Killinger Photo by Genevieve Humphrey’s

Photo by Genevieve Humphreys

I probably will never shut up about Katie Bennett, a musician I randomly encountered during the summer of 2018 when I was on this big indie music kick that never actually ended.

Her band is (or more accurately, was — rest in peace) called Free Cake for Every Creature, all her stuff is super stripped down, and her lyrics are often almost stream-of-consciousness meditations on life’s mundane difficulties. She is frustrated with the dryer in her apartment, tired of working at Whole Foods, trying to understand modern poetry but perplexed by the images. She’s gonna make you bread! “Do you want a cake instead? / Gonna knit you a sweater / You can wear it on your head,” etc.

Her early stuff especially is not well-produced, consisting of extra-simple three-chord melodies, the rush of white noise heavy in the background. But it’s still the best stuff I’ve ever heard.

I probably wouldn’t have started writing my own tentative songs, alone in my room on the cheap guitar I got for Christmas, if it weren’t for artists like Katie Bennett who make the simple appealing. I’d always kind of thought writing songs would be fun, but the barrier to entry into something like music seemed high.

Even in college, all the people I’ve met who make music seem to really Make Music. They have access to real studios; they’ve been playing their instrument for a decade.

They seem to just randomly end up in cute bands with quirky names, full of their brilliant best friends who are just as talented as them. I’ve always admired the music scene from afar, but it’s always intimidated the hell out of me.

Not that there’s nothing wrong with being amazing at what you do, obviously. But I, personally, am not amazing at music. And how can one convince oneself of even attempting a new hobby when the dominant narrative seems to be that being good is all that matters, and nothing you make on the road to success is worth anything, until you actually get to the top?

Well, you just have to convince yourself that being “bad” at something isn’t actually… bad.

Basically I think there’s a comforting quality to imperfect art. Like, Katie Bennett’s first album isn’t great because it’s…actually great. It’s great because I know she worked on it when she was about my age. It’s personal, confessional. I can imagine her getting back from work and sitting on the floor of her sun-drenched room in Philadelphia and pouring out her soul to a few basic, familiar chords.

Sometimes the difference between good and “bad” art is like the difference between a beautiful painting in a gallery and a dumb stick-person cartoon your friend drew you for your birthday.

Maybe the perfect, polished thing is objectively better, but it often ranks lower on the scale of personal mattering.

This summer, I forced myself to actually sit down and produce some songs I’d written. I bought the basic equipment — a microphone, headphones.

I was working a summer internship but still lived on campus and had access to a computer with Adobe Audition. After work, I would take a sweaty walk across campus, toting my guitar and bag of recording equipment.

Then I would sit in a tiny windowless room and work for hours teaching myself to do the simplest things on this audio editing software I didn’t understand.

In the end, I produced five songs that are not very good. My guitar buzzed a lot, I couldn’t sing high notes at all, and I couldn’t edit the white noise out of my songs no matter how hard I tried. Still, those bad songs are also really special to me. I’m proud of myself for making them, for trying something new.

I shared those songs, too, and some people actually liked them.

Probably, they liked them less in the way you like a painting in a gallery, and more in the way you like a bad stick-person cartoon your friend draws you for your birthday. But that’s okay with me.