It is one of the most vital words in the human experience. Because it is one of the defining characteristics of you and me, as distinct from lots of cuter, hairier, faster or fly-yer Earth animals. Our brains are wired to do it, to outright need it – and that’s why we’re more impressive than the freaking angels. At least in holding a tune. Or in still eyeing up a ballpit thoughtfully, as a blatantly middle-aged person.
It is also the very final word in a six-part telly programme from the Beeb that I loudly cheered by its demurely triumphant conclusion – Howard Goodall’s Story Of Music.
Go on, you enjoy music. At least a little, every now and then. But probably life-definingly.
So perhaps you’ll find it of passing interest that we live in a time unlike any other for music. For two generations, we very blatantly defined ourselves, our lives – as young people especially – by our music taste. But crucially, all through that time, by just one type of music most usually. One tribe of music lovers. Distinct as much by very definitely NOT being that other tribe of unmusical chumps over there.
Of course, before the whole invention of ‘teenagers’ we were so bum-faced ignorant we didn’t feel the need to swear allegiance to posters of primped ponsos with sniggeringly small vocabularies but also some sort of ethereal mesmeric power in their hips. How backward were WE? Cuh. We just went to the workhouse in drably indistinct rags and got ourselves trapped in the machinery of industrial haberdasheries and suchlike for the good of Queen and Empire. Those were the days. We invented the sealed food can in those days.
Howard Goodall didn’t delve into the history of the sealed food can, that I recall. But he did contextualise his single, very followable thread of story all along its route. So, for example, when he mentioned a worthy-sounding Modernist experiment such as Parade – a collaboration by three titans of 20th century culture, Satie, Cocteau and Picasso – he respectfully asked whether these childish posers should really have been peeing about in Paris with this pantomime sound effects & cartoons sh** just 80 miles down the clotted cart track from the battle of the Somme. ..And it seemed a very good question.
I mean, how do we judge music? Purely on its form? In some elitist suspension tank, full of dryly droaning, drawn-looking young-retired Baby Boomers, sponging off the state with their winter fuel allowance they don’t need and hiding their secret wish to have been able to carry a tune behind an imperious purism about ‘real’ jazz or ‘proper’ composers?
Or do we judge music just on its effect? Whether you find your ass moving without asking it to in the freezer aisle, or choking back manful “Yep”s all of a sudden from behind your pint standing around the rugby in the boozer.
..Oh, lordy, it’s a minefield – if Justin Bieber truly does preside over a worldwide ‘family’ of beliebers who will follow him anywhere, and forgive not only his hair and youthful honest-to-goodness punchability but his cringing attempts at becoming ‘edgy’ (or ‘late’ as we grown-ups put it), is his music of more cultural merit than the pathetic loser who just makes weirdo tape machine sounds? Yeah, Steve Reich, I’m looking at YOU. And oi! Eno and Anderson, I see you both sitting there contemplatively at the back, yeah? When was YOUR last Motown hit, eh? EH?
Or is Bieber no better or worse than any other child king, crowned and displayed before he’s had any chance to make a life for himself and learn some stuff the hard but largely private way?
Howard Goodall didn’t mention Justin Bieber. But he did mention Lady Gaga. Or rather, he simply referenced her in the coolest opening to a documentary series I’ve seen for a a long Tuesday night – he built up an orchestral arrangement of Poker Face underneath his opening VO that crash cut to her video at the big chorus. Instantly I knew I’d love his perspective, and straightaway he’d basically set out his case. That ended in the word Play.
For we are now out of a period of history that was still in sway in my childhood. One that had lost the meaning of the word Play, ironically. My fabulously educated, creative and otherwise open-minded, music-loving mother hated ‘pop’ music when I was young. And meanwhile, I couldn’t understand orchestral music for love or money – where the hell my innate love of disco came from is still a mystery, growing up with Beethoven and Gilbert & Sullivan as heavily as I did.
But interestingly, as a music graduate of the sixties, Ma also didn’t enjoy contemporary classical music. And if there’s one reason that both the orchestra and the jazz band have known such decades of dwindling audiences and funds in the past, it is because the 20th century turned them both, fascinatingly, from the music of the people into the music of the academic elite. Experiments in form and structure did for mass appeal and removed the whole idea of the orchestra from Jo Schmo’s idea of a fun Saturday night.
Except it didn’t. Firstly, because the orchestra we all know and love found a new home right under our noses – which is thankfully usefully close enough to our ears, I suppose – in film. And also because those very experiments in tone and melody and God-awful elitist spikey sonic stunts that threatened to kill off the good tune and tried to mock Khachaturian for his anachronistically utterly perfect and quickly gigantically famous 1954 Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia ALSO did a magic work on those of us just a little younger. It bled into popular music through, yes, film scores, but also influential pop artists with fanbases of millions, such as David Bowie, drawn as he was to an intriguing bunch of Germans experimenting with the very idea of music and the very idea of musical instruments and the very idea of their country’s identity.
Perhaps Bowie and Eno’s Low is the point at which artschool music and pop fell into each other’s arms in 1975. Or perhaps it was Kraftwerk clearing a Paris dancefloor with Trans Europe Express in 1977. Or when The Art Of Noise got us buying millions of copies of a fake TV computer character quoting poetry over a lot of Emulator II sample work in 1986. Or maybe just Blondie hanging out at Studio 54 with Warhol… I don’t know how you judge the worthiness of music culturally. Not helpfully.
I know that it’s certainly pleasing to the Jo Schmomos when art and pop collide – I do know that much. But when it comes to music’s innate musicality, I’ve always felt, much like my mother, that it’s soul that makes the most of it. Hitting the sweet spot, rather than making an academic point.
But, afterall, what is art for if not to question… everything? It is the questing of the artist’s soul or somesuch, right? Which, as we all know, is the almost conjoined sibling of Trying To Show The Hell Off To Your Contemporaries.
The good composer of Blackadder‘s many cleverly re-arranged sig tune versions opted to make no value judgement on the music itself. Merely observing that during the 20th century art and pop took different roads for a fair time.
But now, they are getting the band back together again. That’s the point. And why Mr G’s Story Of Music is such a product of now – he’s of an age to delight in the conflation of tastes our time throws into the musical Moulinex, rather than high-mindedly condemn them.
The link from someone daring to risk hellfire by putting a third note between the first and the fifth on a scale is as joined to the Chemical Brothers as it is to Mozart or Berlioz’s ideas-frazzled hair. And today, folk traditions of the masses and mass-marketed brands and high-minded concepts and hard-working clever ideas in a composer’s shed are ALL in the cultural mix. For idiots like you and me.
Brain, heart, imagination, dirt, sterilisation, abandon, control, colour, monochrome… how music drives heavenly beings mad with incomprehension. Who doesn’t want all that to enjoy whenever the right mood fits? The chaps I work with in the Electro Pops Orchestra are all weepingly-good musicians, trained ‘properly’ to an exam-beatingly professional level. And yet they enjoy the odd good spot of EDM as much as Horrace Silver. And they even play with Momo.
Don’t you want to cheer for all the colour you can put in your ears today?
The shuffle generation gets it. Though way more cooly than me dad dancing around the kitchen to Earth Wind & Fire. It is a bunch of young people unlike you and me, if you weren’t born very long after me – they’re kids that get it’s okay to like a bit of this and a bit of that and that your own mix of likes is more tasty than licking your identity off the back of a Siouxie And The Banshees LP. Though that would still make you look cool if your friends happen to find it lying around at your next cocktail souré, sure.
Of course, of all the very many ways to enjoy music, there is the one that we all will forever most enjoy in the post-consumer Have Whatever You Idley Thing Of age.
It’s all part of the play.