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.