A year or so ago, I was embroiled in an internet discussion with an online personality on the merits of music. I mentioned that I couldn't really understand people who only value the lyrics, why don't they read poetry instead, and their response was "We're not all boring musos". So, someone who listens to music for its musical values is a muso. And I think that pretty much sums up the British musical scene at the moment.
2005 not only marks the halfway point of the so-called 'noughties', it also marks the ten year anniversary of the high point of the musical movement known as Brit-pop. Worshipped at the time by the media and the record buying public alike, it has since fallen into revulsion and an uneasy remembrance, almost like the Third Reich. Almost none of the darlings of the scene are currently extant, and if they are they're not the most respected of artists. The British music industry seems to be at pains to purge all memory of the events of the middle part of the previous decade.
In a review of up-and-coming British band Bloc Party's debut album in this month's Q magazine, their journalist charged with writing about it (I can't find any trace of the review itself, and Q's website has discontinued its excellent online archive in favour of selling ringtones, and I can't remember the reviewer's name, so I'm going to call him XXXX) delivers what he probably feels is a decisive nail in the coffin of Britpop when he deems 2005's most likely to succeed guitar band as being 'more artistic than Noel-rock bands such as Hurricane #1, Northern Uproar or Proud Mary'. On the surface, this seems to be a final farewell to the memory of 1995. But XXXX is being disingenuous. He later goes on to mention Bloc Party's lyrics as being 'nonsense', and neither the band's music nor their appearance could be considered cutting edge. And the bands he has singled out as being typical of ten years previous could hardly considered high profile even at their peak. In fact, you'd be hard pushed to find anyone who could hum you one of their songs at the time, let alone now.
Which brings me back to the British music scene of 2005. Unlike the previous decade, there aren't that many new guitar based bands coming through. The rise of the MP3 and the Internet has drastically cut the amount of money record companies are willing to spend on unsigned acts. And where one successful band is found, several more similar acts will pop up attempting to cash in on their predecessors. This can be noted in the fact Bloc Party have been heavily name checked by last year's big breakthrough band, Franz Ferdinand. Looking again at XXXX's article, he makes some other non-music based points. At no time does he mention Bloc Party's music, instead remarking that Franz Ferdinand mention Dada and edit broadsheet newspaper articles. Now call me old-fashioned, but how does surrealism affect your ability to write a good song?
At the moment, the U.K. music scene strikes me as being in a lull. And if it's in a lull, what are the music writers going to write about? Since the days of Lester Bangs, music journalists in Britain have strived to make a name for themselves almost as big as the artists they write about, notable in the work of Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill, Paul Morley, and Steven Wells, which has quite frankly at times become counterproductive and dangerous. Journalists talking up or talking down a band as they see fit. Often they'll use a review as a vehicle for their own writing abilities, resulting in offensively accurate reviews such as Mr XXXX. There aren't that many great bands coming through in Britain at the moment, but no journalist will nail his or her colours to the mast and flag this situation up, as their livelihoods depends on musical groups releasing albums and playing gigs. Indeed, Q seem to be convinced that Britain's current crop of bands will storm the world this year. Forgive me for being cynical, but I can't see it happening.
Stuart Maconie once made an interesting point while discussing the deification of Bob Dylan, in, ironically, Q magazine saying "Most journalists cannot play instruments, and thus place undue importance on lyrics. Hence, Dylan and Lennon are hailed as legends, while McCartney and Bacharach are dismissed as (haughty sniff) 'tunesmiths'" And he has a point. In the British music press, it's difficult finding a review of any single or album release that mentions in passing anything to do with the music included on the CD. And ironically, music journalists tend to know absolutely nothing about the technicalities of music. Does this happen in ANY other field of human interest? Do plumbing trade magazines run features by writers who know nothing about Armitage Shanks' new urinals, and instead witter on about Rimbaud?
Music and art have traditionally kept themselves to themselves, acknowledging the other, but tending not to get involved too closely with the other's affairs. Entering the 20th century however, music would cross populate with art on a more regular basis, notably in the works of John Cage and Karl Heinz-Stockhausen. Nevertheless, for the vast majority of music listeners, music retained its traditional form of storytelling set to music, for pleasure and to remember, and most of the 20th century's most enduring genres took their cue from these values; Blues, Jazz, Rock and Roll. These were forms of music reliant on individuals either expressing the human condition set to music, or just expressing themselves through their music
As Salman Rushdie's fictional character Rai noted in the novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet: "Why do we care about singers? Wherein lies the power of songs? Maybe it derives from the sheer strangeness of their being singing in the world", and this remains the most enduring feature of what we call music. Flirtations with art have come and gone, but it seems the very idea of someone making melodious noises, or singing out their troubles is the most important part of music, and its art.
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