Monday, 4 November 2013

they were having fun wrong

One reason for starting this blog was to build up a picture of what art meant to me.  By bringing together examples of what I consider good art and some words from other people and some random thinking aloud from me I would pin down Art.  As in, stick a pin through its little tender heart, nail it like a butterfly to a board.  Mostly it has been about visual art and, in particular, street art.  This surprises me a bit because I'm far more interested in music.  

This is a post about music.  I don't know the answer to the question that I will eventually get round to posing.  Thinking it through may help me understand the question better, even if I don't finish up with an answer.  Here's the thing . . .

There was something on the radio the other day about some research into how playing music to children in hospital helped their recovery.  Apparently they played music to one group of children, read stories to a second group and had a control with no stories and no music. Recovery rate was best for the music group, second best for storytime and bronze for the control group.  No surprise there as far as I'm concerned.  But. And there's always a but. They accompanied the news piece with some music - jazz piano.  It sucked.  It was depressing as hell.

 Which made me wonder.  You could presumably have different results if you played different music.  Playing Mozart, Wagner or Stockhausen could have wildly different outcomes.   Playing the Velvet Underground, Townes van Zandt or Mumford & Sons likewise.  They would probably hinder recovery, although for different reasons.  The atonal racket of European Son (for Delmore Schwarz), the depths of despair plumbed by The Hole and the sheer awfulness of anything by music's answer to Lark Rise to Candleford could each in their own way have a negative effect on the immune system.

The thing that puzzles me though, the question that haunts my mind, is . . . what makes some music more listenable than other music.  And like beauty being in the eye of the beholder, or art being whatever we want it to be, it would seem to be a matter of (Lord help us) personal choice.

I do remember when I was younger not understanding the term "easy listening". I found listening to say Perry Como extremely painful, whereas listening to the Clash, Velvet Underground or Talking Heads was a doddle and a pleasure. My easy listening was different to other people's easy listening. So far so good.

It isn't the broad like/dislike thing that I don't understand.  I understand completely why I don't like a whole genre of music like Heavy Metal.  If you've heard Paranoid and Ace of Spades you don't need to hear anything else.  I like Americana, I dont like Heavy Metal.  I like 60s soul music but not 70s funk.  I like pop music but I detest anything with an X Factor logo attached. 

The bit I don't understand is where the line falls within a genre.  I love the songs of Townes van Zandt. I don't listen to the songs of John Denver. Both are dead American singer songwriters, at their best performing as one man and one guitar. If Townes had written Annie's Song I would be looking for the lyrical genius, the profound statements wrapped in simple words, enjoying the soaring, searing melody. If John Denver didn't look like the Milky Bar Kid maybe he would have written a song like Maria. The thing I don't understand is why I like TVZ and not Denver. Why I like Willard Grant Conspiracy and the Handsome Family but not Mumford and Sons or Noah and the Whale.  And I really do not like Mumford and Sons or Noah & the Whale.

As a young punk in 1977 I treasured my copy of Sheena is a Punk Rocker (still got it, 12" single, numbered 000020) by the Ramones, another four lads who shook the world, dragging rock music back to its pure form. At the same time I sneered at that bunch of long hairs, Status Quo, boring old farts that they were with their repetitive riffs and simplistic lyrics.  Now with hindsight I think it is safe to say that there is not a million miles of difference between Rockin All Over the World and Sheena is a Punk Rocker. The difference was attitude (of the Ramones and Quo) and peer pressure.  Peer pressure applied by the New Musical Express and John Peel show.

Recently I did think I was going to have to revise my opinion of, whisper it, Phil Collins.  I was in a van with someone else in charge of the music (I know, rookie error) and this beat came on, obviously 80s but otherwise I didn't recognise it. I try to have a positive attitude to things so listened with an open mind. Eventually, as the vocal came in, recognised it as In the Air Tonight. Being at peace with myself I listened. That drum sound - cliched but then, that was the first time it had been used, good sound; synths, of their time, but, I thought, not unlike a Peter Gabriel record.  I was wondering if my dislike of Phil Collins' music was a result of not liking the man (who took Genesis from Rael to Squonk).  However as the song carried on I was relieved to realise that my dislike of the song was justified. In the Air Tonight sucks. Shedloads.  Like a Jack Vettriano print.

So what is it?  TVZ, Willard Grant, Ramones, Peter Gabriel = yes; John Denver, Mumford, Status Quo, Phil Collins = no.  (Are these too easy?  There's lots more I don't like, I'm just trying to use some examples that no-one would argue over).

Is it significant that the No pile includes the big sellers, while many on my regular playlists couldn't fill a bus shelter if it was raining?   I do like some big sellers; I recognise that Elvis, Dylan and the Beatles tower over most anything else ever recorded. But when it comes right down to it I'll stick with my pile of Jackie Leven albums.

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