So The London Ladybird wants to talk about music.
First of all, an admission – I was partially goaded into reading this piece and therefore may have had a few preconceptions. Having re-read it, I want to state that I agree with a lot of the points made. However, and it would be very boring if this wasn’t the case, I do have a few points I would like to make myself.
I am not entirely sure what The LL is driving at overall: is it people who make judgements about music they know nothing about; is it people who try to follow what’s cool rather than what they like; is it people who think everything was better back in the day and there is no good music being made now; is it people who don’t like the current dominance of generic and meaningless popular music of all genres; or is it people who believe that there is such a thing as good and bad music and are vocal about their opinion?
Music is a tough thing to debate, like all art it is inherently subjective, and therefore elicits powerful opinions along hard to define concepts. I accept that there can be no scientific or objective categorisation of what constitutes good or bad music and we must therefore be careful when seeking to pass judgement. However, also like all other art forms within our society, music cannot be separated from money – the two are inseparable, and this relationship cannot and must not be overlooked.
I am not going to deal in depth with all of the questions listed above; suffice to say many of them are too ridiculous to take seriously, and some I must admit, I think The LL alluded to in a ‘straw man’ type argument in order to further her point. So first let me be clear:
People who make judgements about music they know nothing about are stupid.
People who try to follow what’s cool rather than what they actually like, are misguided, unlucky and doomed to failure.
People who think everything was better back in the day and don’t value contemporary music are small-minded and have no appreciation for musical evolution and diversity.
These statements may seem harsh or judgemental but there you go, sometimes you have to draw a line in the sand.
The last two questions however are more difficult.
Let’s start with ‘the current dominance of generic and meaningless popular music of all genres.’ Straight away I would like to make clear that I know generic and meaningless music is not a new phenomenon, I know that some popular music has merit, and I know that this paragraph is perhaps going to identify me as one of the people The LL was talking about. The problem with popular music in our society is that it has become, more than ever before, big business. The sums of money available to those who achieve even the most modest success are enough to provide the basis for an extremely comfortable lifestyle. This lifestyle, and therefore the music which can be the vehicle to it, cannot be separated from the associated celebrity trappings of trashy magazines, banal gossip columns and meaningless award ceremonies. The draw of this industry, and the vast sums that it generates in merchandise, ticket and advertising revenue, is such that very intelligent people dedicate their careers to successfully introducing new products into the market. It is this dynamic that has ruined popular music. These executives understand that in our mass media and mass consumption environment it is incredibly rare for unique artistic expression to lead to widespread public acclaim and therefore healthy profits. This can be seen across music, film and publishing (how many celebrity cook books and ‘autobiographies’ will be on the best seller lists this Christmas?). Their strategy is therefore to appeal to the lowest common denominator, to deliver a product which appeals to the widest possible range of people. It is no accident that three generations of the same family can all be into One Direction.
It is this ‘wide and shallow’ strategy that causes me such pain. I do not dislike a large chunk of ‘popular’ music (not all!) on any ideological basis; I dislike it because there is nothing to it. Much of the music is incredibly risk averse, following established patterns of formulaic success, and does not do anything to contribute to the incredible canon of world music that has developed over the course of human history. This is by design – things which are new, or different, or present a challenge through being ambitious, are not immediately successful. It takes much trial and error, graft and care, and a certain amount of faith from the consumer for these things to get off the ground. Record execs do not like what this kind of time, risk and commitment does to their bottom line, so they focus on what is guaranteed to sell x units in y amount of time – it’s safe and it follows an established route for commercial success.
For anyone looking for an example of this in action please note the current explosion in awful dance / EDM / ‘house’ (it’s not house) guff being relentlessly released into the atmosphere. Or the complete bastardisation of what used to be RnB. What happened to hip hop too while we’re at it? ‘Popular music’ waits for actual innovators in the music industry to make a breakthrough and then relentlessly rides it into the ground ‘Little Boy’ style until the market is completely saturated.
Linking this ‘popular music’ question with ‘good or bad music,’ I do take The LL’s point regarding different songs and different music serving different purposes. There are certainly things I enjoy in the club which I would not sit and listen to in my lounge. Similarly there are tracks which are inescapably catchy even if there does not appear to be anything particularly good about them. But does this mean all music is equal? That we simply lose ourselves in a big subjective grey mess where nothing is subjected to critique or analysis?
I believe that the fundamental differences that exist in this debate are based upon an underlying gap between the people who are doing the debating. For some, music is something which can be enjoyable; it might provide a distraction on the train to work, or the soundtrack to a boozy weekend. These people are pretty easy going, they do not demand much of their music, simply that they can either dance to it, sing along with it, or throw up on the dance floor in time to it.
Then there are the people who cannot imagine being without music, the thought of not being able to listen to all the songs they’ve so far discovered and will continue to discover, is abhorrent to them. When they find music they really like it’s an almost spiritual experience, music has the ability to transform their mood and completely take them out of themselves. Unsurprisingly these people are more demanding of their music, it has to grab them in one way or another, it has to make them feel something, to stir something in them. And these people have no tolerance for the chaff that typically occupies the top 40 and stirs nothing but the bank balance of a suit in an office.
Now to be clear I am not saying one of these types is better or worse than the other – simply that they are different. I do however know who’s music advice I would take more seriously…
In summary: money ruins most things – particularly art, and we each get the music we deserve.
Back chat supplied by Nick Yandle. Response to follow.