Thursday, November 26, 2009

Music journalism

Occasionally I wonder if I would have enjoyed being a music journalist. I have two of the necessary qualifications: I enjoy a wide range of music; and I could happily spend all day writing pseudy bollocks along the lines of “The De Trop Rainbows' new album sounds as if Marianne Faithful had never met the Stones but spent the 60s in a nunnery, then joined Primal Scream for a jamming session with Bob Marley in a Cuban dance hall, with Keith Moon on drums and acid, and Miles Davis on flugelhorn.”

The line between objective and subjective is very fuzzy in music appreciation, as I suppose it is with all arty criticism. Most people not in their teens or early twenties think that today’s pop music is worse than yesterday’s. But I deny the existence of a decline from any previous Golden Age for two reasons. First, because to claim that there has been a general decline in standards is to claim that talent has declined. This is essentially a supernatural claim. Second, people invariably believe that the peak of pop music just happened to coincide with their formative years, so it is always a subjective claim.

But on the other hand, I do think that some individual records and artists are objectively better than others. For example, the White Stripes are objectively better than the Bay City Rollers (better, that is, if you rate musical quality over populism for its own sake, which you don’t have to, but I do). It’s quite hard to say why this is the case exactly, but if you know that sort of thing when you see it, then you know it when you see it. Possibly. Anyway, music journalists depend on this assumption.

But then again the biggest problem I have with music journalism is that reviews are very heavily driven by self-conscious trendiness rather than the objective quality of the music. I recall noticing the full extent of this with the critical reception of Oasis’s third album, Be Here Now in 1997. It garnered gushing reviews across the board, with Q Magazine going particularly overboard with a 5 star eulogy. The reason the reviews were so positive was that all the journos were basing them on the traditional cyclical trend of rave-backlash-rave, rather than on the actual songs. The music press had praised Definitely Maybe (rightly), then had slammed What’s the Story (Morning Glory)?, only to be wrong-footed when every man and his dog bought a copy of what was probably the defining Britpop record. They therefore went, en masse and herd-like, to the other extreme when Be Here Now came out, hailing it as the greatest thing since Sergeant Pepper, whereas in fact when you listened to the album it was a perfectly obvious shark-jump.

This cyclical trending also occurs with decades and pop music movements, since each is in some respects a reaction to the last. This is a very British thing because we are still quite a uni-cultural nation and extremely fashion-conscious. In the mid-90s it was an incontrovertible fact that the 80s was the worst musical decade ever, and that Britpop was the goldenest age since 1967. In the noughties that was revised and Britpop became naff – which, of course, if your image of Britpop is a Kula Shaker appearance on TFI Friday, it was.

But I guarantee you now that in about five years time Britpop’s reputation will be revised again and it will be back in, even if you define ‘Britpop’ narrowly enough to exclude, say, Radiohead, Portishead and Underworld. The cream - Blur, Oasis, Weller Supergrass – all produced cracking albums in the period, and a compilation featuring the best efforts from Pulp, Suede, Charlatans and all the one or two-hit wonders would be at least as good – in terms of ‘objective’ musical quality - as any compilation of the lesser acts of punk, ska, electro, disco, reggae, heavy metal or whatever genre floats your boat (which genre does float your boat is, of course, subjective and largely dependent on your age).

Most of the rest is crap but most of everything is crap. Nineties revival and Noughties backlash followed by Noughties revival and Twenty-teens backlash – you read it here first so you can safely ignore it when it comes.

18 comments:

Gaw said...

The problem I have with this argument is that you seem to assume that 'talent' is sufficient to produce great art. And as 'talent' must always be around, so must great art.

This isn't true as a moment's reflection confirms (Renaissance Florence vs Florence over the last four hundred years?). The cultural context really is of crucial importance.

I would argue that something in British pop-youth culture changed after Acid House, roughly speaking, which made music less interesting and, I think, less good. After this date there was a shift from what the Marxists would describe as 'popular culture' to an emphasis on 'mass culture'. Perhaps as a consequence there was an excess of re-treads over original developments.

Gaw said...

I've just had a further thought which explains, I think, why our arguments on this topic are barely on nodding terms.

Your conception of pop music is that of the guitar-music fan who sees it as a craft that can attain the heights of art. In this sense, it is quite timeless and I can see now why you sustain your point of view. You can compare The Arctic Monkeys and The Jam as much the same thing.

On the other hand, I see the best pop music as part of a cultural phenomenon - an all-embracing lifestyle, really - of which the music is an important part and also reflective of the whole thing.

So when I listen to The Jam I love the music but I also love what it represents in terms of the whole set of interesting cultural things that went on behind it. It's this cultural background that's missing from today's music and that's why I think The Arctic Monkeys aren't as interesting as what went before. And I do lean strongly towards equating 'interesting' with 'good'.

worm said...

speaking as an old raver, I agree with Gaw that there hasn't been anything big since acid house - in the way that it was an underground thing, there was a culture around it. You had to behave a certain way to be part of it. Only a few people knew about it - You could recognise fellow ravers by their clothes and would strike up conversations on the bus with people you didn't know, simply because of their hairstyle (ponytail, shaved sides) or t-shirt.

Brit said...

That is exactly it, Gaw - I'm talking about quality of music (not just guitar bands as it happens, but yes the point stands) and you're essentially talking about youthful tribalism, of which the music is a part.

Never much into tribes, myself - I half-heartedly flirted with grunge and was a bit more into indie. But I'm not sure any of us are qualified to talk on how 'interesting' today's youthful tribes are, anyway. That's entirely subjective and the yoofs will tell you you don't know nuffink. Tribes do seem to be more splintered these days (emo, indie, hiphop, urban, dance etc) instead of big mods v rockers-type clashes (but do we exaggerate/glamorise the importance of tribes with hindsight? I suspect so.)

People like us are, however, qualified to sticking to whether White Riot sounds good in the Mondeo.

This bit I don't agree with because it's just the same golden age argument dressed up a bit: After this date there was a shift from what the Marxists would describe as 'popular culture' to an emphasis on 'mass culture'. No justification for that at all, since it downplays the quality of the current music scene, but even more exaggerates the quality of past ones. You really think trashy mass culture didn't exist before 1990? The Osmonds sold way records more than Television.

Brit said...

Also, Gaw, it's worth pointing out that Joe Strummer made exactly the same complaint as you in 1978.

David said...

I refute it thus.

Brit said...

I assume you're aiming your refutation at Gaw, David.

'Crazy in Love' is popular/mass culture at its best.

Hey Ya, 7 Nation Army, Crazy by Gnarls Barkley, Rehab by Amy Winehouse, could go on for a long while.

Gadjo Dilo said...

I actually smile with pleasure and not irony when I hear the Bay City Rollers, because I remember the girls of my formative years dancing to them, but a Hockney painting of the same era would do nothing for me. I think this supports Gaw's point, maybe.

Brit said...

Actually it supports my argument but I can't say I'm too pleased about enlisting the Rollers.

Gaw said...

But I think the cultural backdrop is important. Of the many, many Florentine artists who have been alive in the hundreds of years since the Renaissance it's certain that there were ones who had a similar level of technical skill to Leonardo - but they're forgotten nonetheless. Leonardo is Leonardo not just because of his technical prowess but because he exercised it when he did. This gave his work a large part of the character that marks it out for us.

By the same token there can only be one Jonny Rotten. No matter how badly behaved someone might be at the present time, no matter how badly the backing band play their instruments, they can never achieve what he achieved.

Ditto with many others too: the Arctic Monkeys can never have the historical salience or appreciation of The Who or even The Jam because they're not working against the backdrop of the same cultural ferment and excitement. That's my point about popular versus mass culture. Relatively, there was a lot more of the former about and a lot less of the latter. This was a good thing in terms of creativity, innovation and meaning.

David said...

Indeed, Brit.

Gaw: There is a difference between "perfectly encapsulates the zeitgeist of my youth" and "is better than all that current tosh."

As for why we sometimes see a concentrated explosion of creativity, that's a good question.

Brit said...

Gaw - hmmm, hell of a claim for, what are we actually talking about here, 7 or 8 singles circa 1977-79?

In fact, renaissance would be a pretty strong claim even for 1967-69, or Bob Dylan's output in the 60s and early 70s, by either of which definitions the Jam would be part of the decline.

Why don't you just say: "The Jam were a really cool band", in which case I'd agree with you.

As for zeitgeists, there's always one going on. Arctic Monkeys are the wrong band to pick as a counter-example, since their debut album was as zeitgeisty as it gets. It just wasn't yours.

Brit said...

And yes, there are, in historical terms, 'periods' of concentrated creativity. But not that concentrated. Calling the years you happened to be at uni an 'era' is pushing it.

malty said...

Evening all, we are told, by those in the know, that down among the little bits the event can depend upon the observers position, well for the purpose of this discussion. I'll take their word for it.
A classical musician will listen to a piece of music and draw conclusions based upon the baggage of history he carries. Me and the other plebs will, at the same concert, say wonderfull, reminds of a summer evening, larks calling, girls in summer dresses.
The composer, rotating in his crypt will mutter "idiots, it's about the sea"

Music is a multipurpose discipline, music for listening pleasure, music to stress a particular point, music to dance to, music to create mood, shop by, fly by, an integral part of a movie.

I would have thought that the line between objectivity and subjectivity was pretty clear, it can be explained mathematically or culturally.
So, one persons meat is another's Harman.
Try Flogging Molly's Black Friday Rule, Phillip Glass and Patti Smith at the Cohen tribute concert, Buddy Hollies Rave On, Dusty's Preacher Man, Irmgard Seefried's Il Re Pastore, Hayden's Seven Last Words and Sholt's Ring Cycle, just for starters.
Oh, and....

There's a song that I recall
My mother sang to me.
Spriggs (off): Oh! (a sigh)
Tenor: She sang it as she tucked me in
When I was ninety-three.

(harp plays a rising chord...)

Spriggs: I diddle, I. Who was that bum?


Both: Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong iddle I po
Spriggs: lad
Both: Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong iddle I po (lad)
Iddle I po (lad)

Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong (Spriggs: iddle) (Bluebottle: ying tong)
Ying tong iddle I po
Ying tong ying tong iddle

Bluebottle (spoken):
Ying tong iddle I po!
(short raspberry, Secombe)

Both: Oh!
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong iddle I po
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong iddle I po
Iddle I po!

(trumpet bit)

Bluebottle:
Ying. Ying tongy tongy.
Ying tong iddle I po.
Ying tong iddle I po.
(Secombe under this: What a lovely lovely boy!)
(or Secombe under this: What a lovely melody devine!)
Ying ying ying tongy tongy.
(Milligan: Get out the rifle, sir.)
(or Milligan: Get off the record.)
Yeeeng.
Ying tong ying tong d'gy-n'o.
Ying tong d'ga.
(Secombe: Get away.)
D'g d'g d'ga.
Ying tong iddle I po.

Seagoon:Hear that crazy rhythm
Driving me insane.
Strike your partner on the bonce (bonk?).
(thump)
Eccles: Ooh. I felt no pain.
(Seagoon screeches)

Seagoon, Bluebottle and Eccles:
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong ying tong
Ying...

(harp chord rises)

Soprano: Take me back to Vienna....

(Raspberry section, probably Milligan)

Bloodnok: Ohhhhh!
Eccles: Oh!

(harp chord)

Soprano: Take me back to Vienna, where the....

(crash!)

Seagoon, Spriggs and Bluebottle (far off):
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong iddle I po
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong iddle I po

(mad dash to foreground)

Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong iddle I po
(Spriggs: where's he going lad?)
(BB: I don't know)
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong iddle I po

Seagoon: LOOK OUT!
(cry from Bluebottle)

(mad dash to distance)

(hastily)
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong iddle I po
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong iddle I po

(dash to foreground)

Ying tong...

(whine of bomb dropping, explosion)

Double speed, but same tempo, Goons:

Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong iddle I po
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong iddle I po
Iddle I po.

Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong iddle I po
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong iddle I po
Iddle I po.

One: Ying! Tongy tongy tongy.
Yiddy diddy diddy da daaa. Ying diddy.
Ying tong diddle. Yiddada boo.
(rhythmic thigh slapping, raspberry)

All Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong iddle
Ying tong iddle I po
Ying tong ying tong
Ying tong iddle I po
Iddle I po.

This, and the early days of rock and roll were our culture, can't separate one from t'uther.

malty said...

Music, the deeply embedded variety, as an aid to marital bliss..

"It was the early '80s. Protesters were marching on the nuclear power plants in Brokdorf and Gorleben, Nena was singing about her 99 red balloons, and Bayern Munich was the German football league champion for the nth time. It was also the time when Lucy and Jürgen assembled their first double bed in their home near Stuttgart. The wooden flat-pack model from a certain Swedish furniture company was just a snug 140 centimeters (55 inches) across. They covered it in shiny satin sheets as purple as Lucy's T-shirt-cum-nightie, and Jürgen would simply drop his thin leather tie on the floor before hopping into bed. After all, they were living in sin.

Almost 30 years, one house purchase, several extramarital affairs and two children later, their one-time love nest has been demoted to a basement guest bed. Upstairs, in the master bedroom, they may now have graduated to a king-size mattress, but Lucy only sleeps in brief intervals. The children are partly to blame; even though they are eight and 10 years old, they still try to sneak into their parents' bed. But the main reason is Jürgen's ear-piercing snoring, which is interrupted -- albeit briefly and rarely -- by disconcerting apnea."


Begins will a kiss, ends with a snore.

Gaw said...

The Florence example was there to demonstrate the phenomenon of concentrated creativity, to provide a model not a direct comparison! I'm not saying punk was as world changing as the Renaissance, with Jonny Rotten as Leonardo. Not even Malcolm McLaren would claim that (rather, he'd claim that he was Leonardo, not Rotten: a mere puppet in his genius hands).

You don't seem to have countered my point about the importance of cultural context. Or rather you've admitted it as important but don't seem to think it's important in this instance. And BTW it's more than zeitgeist - it's not so much what it reflected as what it embodied.

Finally, I'm talking about a period of about thirty years (early '60s to early '90s) - I wish I had been at university that long but sadly wasn't.

The last word is yours, if you so wish.

Brit said...

Very well, what happened in 1990 is that you hit the age of Pop Music Saturation.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Brit, I'm a hopelessly subjective person and the "Were the Bay City Rollers better than Beethoven?" question is one that I'll probably never be able to answer.