Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Seriously Bad Music

A week away from the blog, more than I had intended but the past week was exceptionally busy, between juggling two jobs and then assuming my new-found weekend muppet-drinker status. I struggled to be in my apartment for long enough to sit in front of the computer and neither was I devoted enough to hawk my laptop around to wi-fi hotspots around Paris.

I will start off again however with a fine piece from The Guardian last week by Phillip Hensher, a writer I have always had a lot of time for even if his subject matter is sometimes a bit too recherché for someone with as simple tastes as myself. Hensher rightly pours scorn on rock (or pop)-classical crossovers. Such affairs, such as Sting's latest album, covering songs by the Elizabethan lute composer John Dowland, are usually vulgar displays of pretentiousness designed to concoct some prestige for mediocre musicians who have long been ploughing the same dreary furrow.

Popular music need not try to compare itself to classical music; it is technically, intellectually, and usually conceptionally inferior. And I say that as someone that would sooner spend his days listening to The Fall or Peaches than Verdi or Puccini. Popular music, be it made with conventional instruments or machines, is at its best when it is simple, and often better still when it is minimal and repetitive. It is no different from traditional or folk music that preceded the age of recording; the basic levels of intent and capability are the same. Great pop songs such as 'C'mon Everybody', 'Like a Virgin', 'Teenage Kicks', Gnarls Barkley's 'Crazy' have often no more than one hook and they run with it. They may not be musically sophisticated but they produce in their modesty a resonance as rich as more exalted works. But they have their limits too, limits that are often acknowledged by the better and smarter pop musicians. It is when rock stars start to get ideas above their station and, as Hensher notes, draft in better musicians to work as amanuenses and arrange their ditties that things get embarrassing. Music of a wider intellectual, technical and yes, emotional range is more often produced by composers and virtuosi of a higher stamp. Popular music, and by that I mean art-rock collectives such as Godspeed You Black Emperor or Sigur Rós as much as Kylie or Pink, need not bother their head about this fundamental reality. There are occasions when popular music does get elevated to a minor art form, but in this case it is more an amalgam of theatre, performance art and popular song, something that has not changed much since Henry VIII first strung his lute to write 'Greensleeves'. And it is always best when it is at its simplest.


Donagh said...

A week away from the blog, more than I had intended
Well, at least you made up for it. Good stuff here. Keep it coming.
Sting's latest album, covering songs by the Elizabethan lute composer John Dowland, are usually vulgar displays of pretentiousness
I sometimes worry that I haven't given classical music (or Romantic music or even Modernist music for that matter) enough time, preferring to let 'classic pop and/or rock' (God, I hate those categories - I just like listening to music) get under my skin. I've been an enthusiastic music listener for, oh a good many years and there are certain songs that I continue to enjoy years after first hearing them. Surely that's criteria enough for good music.

blaithin said...

rathnakelligaballymote17Here's an example of where popular music is jumpin's so high out of mo' fo' stations!


Check out the 12 (i think) installments of self proclaimed 'genius' R Kelly's musical Hip-Opera entitled 'Trapped in the closet' Who'd have figured?? Your life will never be the same again