There’s a long running joke with my family and friends that the only music that I dislike is “comedy music”. Music that is cringingly novelty, or comedians singing songs. There’s such a small pool of music that I actively dislike, but “comedy music” makes me feel like I’m physically turning inside out. I’ll give you an example, as much as it pains me; Tenacious D
. Even finding that link hurt. I love good comedy, I love good music, but put them together and my insides can’t take it. The most frequent accusation that gets levelled at me is; “you just don’t like music to be fun, you bloody goth”. Which I think is pretty unfair. You all know about my love of upbeat disco, I love a little kitsch pop music, and I wouldn’t say I had even the vaguest elitist tendencies. I love music. Just not comedy music (or most country and western, while I’m in the mood for a confession).
I don’t think this is about me taking music too seriously. As I mentioned last week, what I really enjoyed about Sylvia Patterson’s book (I’m Not With the Band) was the unbridled sense of joy she takes in music. She never takes music too seriously, but equally I think if she clicked that Tenacious D link above, she’d puke. The more I’ve thought about it over the years, the more I’ve realised my distaste is because I want music to mean something. To say something, and for the artists to hold beliefs and views that they’re trying to communicate through their music. To me, songs like the one above aren’t cultural critiques, they’re send ups and the musical equivalent of sour Haribo. Tasty for about five minutes, then your tongue is burnt. Maybe that analogy doesn’t work.
Anyway, on meaning in music (or lack of), there’s an excellent moment in Patterson’s book where she’s interviewing Mumford and Sons, and Marcus (the lead singer) says “We’re not into being influential in culture, I don’t want people to listen to what I say, really. I don’t think it’s important. If they listen to our music, cool, but I didn’t sign up to be some sort of cultural leader or inspiration or … spokesman for a generation, fuck that!”. Much like Patterson, this sent shivers down my spine (and not in a good way). Mumford and Sons have / had an enormous platform – whether they (or I) like it, they are part of culture, and as such have a responsibility to create or say something of meaning. Some of our greatest pop artists understood this, and have used their platform to say something meaningful. i-D put together a collection of the five most culturally significant VMA performances – and even Brittney and Christina knew of their cultural responsibility.
This doesn’t mean that music cannot and should not be fun, and it’s equally important that music can provide us with an escape. Music (and art more broadly) doesn’t have to be worthy, but it should have some meaning, otherwise why does it exist? For me, the role of art within culture and society is to communicate ideas – and art has been a vehicle for meaning since before even language existed. If there aren’ any ideas behind the art, is it still art? Or is it just well-dressed attention bait? A shiny product parading as art in order to part people with their attention or money. This comes back to something I’ve written about before – which is the idea that the line between ‘art’ and ‘product’ is blurred the second that the ‘art’ isn’t from the culture it purports to be from, but is instead is a collection of signals that are deployed to suggest authenticity.
This idea of ‘fauxthenticity’ is something that is becoming a white hot conversation in electronic music at the moment. The (re)emerging label of DJ as ‘selector’ is creating a cottage industry of ‘DJs’ who are more focused on buying up the rarest records to act as sort of ‘trophies’. This echoes back to the Northern Soul scene on blank cover stickers on labels, and it’s not a knew phenomena, however the difference now is that the ‘digging’ aspect has been largely removed, and now the route to rarities isn’t the search, but the bank balance. When almost everything is available to anyone, anyone with enough money can buy into the game. This has lead to an emerging breed of people who are treating music as a Panini sticker book collection, rather than finding new music to share with people. In the latest edition of The Vinyl Factory’sexcellent Crate Diggers series, Red Greg talks about his motivations around collecting music and playing it out rather than hoarding it at home; “it’s very macho and competitive, which I really don’t like”. When the focus moves from finding new music to share with people, to finding rare records to tell people you own them, feels like big game hunting, rather than setting up an animal sanctuary.
The positive side of everything being available (for the right price) is that there’s more music to search through than every before. DJs like Red Greg, Gilles P, Theo Parrish, Bradley Zero have an even greater abundance of music to dig through and share with an audience. I was reading an article on the present state of museum curation (as seen through the lens of the Smithsonian), and was struck by the following quote “curators are custodians of the past, but they must also collect the present in anticipation of the future. They grab hold of ideas, and attempt to illustrate them with physical objects”. When we think of dedicated DJs like those mentioned above, the idea that they’re custodians and the past and the future feels really powerful, and bang on the money. They build their reputation (and therefore authenticity) by sharing what they’ve found, and presenting it in a way that makes total sense in the moment – providing both an escape, and an introduction to new ideas. In the book Diaghilev and Friends, one of the worlds most respected and revered curators Han Ulrich Obrist talks about J.G. Ballard calling the best curation ‘junction-making’ – and Obrist himself sees curation as being “a patchwork of fragments”. As I was reading that I couldn’t help but remember hearing Theo Parrish playing free jazz next to a Terrence Parker classic – and thinking, for me, that’s threading together fragments, to make something bigger, to create something meaningful, and ultimately, to create a moment that matters.
As always, if you’ve read to here, thanks for indulging me ♥️.
See you on the dance floor.
Love Will Save the Day