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March 7, 2008

In Defence of Pop


"...music, like colour, or a cloud, is neither intelligent nor unintelligent--it just is. The chord, the simplest building-block for even the tritest, silliest chart song, is a beautiful, perfect, mysterious thing...

I don't want to read inane books, but books are built from words, our only instruments of thought; all I ask of music is that it sounds good. Despite its crudity and simplicity, "Twist and Shout" sounds good--in fact, any attempt to sophisticate it would make it sound much worse--and I fundamentally, profoundly disagree with anyone who equates musical complication and intelligence with superiority."

--Nick Hornby, 31 Songs.

"Echos Myron" is playing now, and I have no idea what it's about. It's by Guided by Voices, and, when it's finished, I'll hit "play" again, and be as happily ignorant of the lyrics as before. I'm sure that'll change, but for now the song's more than enough to provide that happy/wistful vacuum of harmless self-absorption.

Obviously, there are grim forms of self-absorption, but this is a period of down-time and shameless ponderousness. And why not? If you're half doing your job on this planet then you have things to worry about; some cruel and unusual, but most simple, banal, and necessary, and it's refreshing to listen to Robert Pollard's 2.5 minute pop-miracles and be reminded of the giddier elements of experience.

We can of course find plenty of those elements elsewhere in life--my cup brimmeth at the moment--but the sheer concentration of mirth in Pollard's best songs (and there's a lot of junk) is gold.

It may be that pop--or the fine consequences of listening to it--is neglected by contemporary criticism or popular wisdom. Edginess and politics and danger often wins out in the perceived importance stakes.* Put the preference down to middle-class guilt, or, as Hornby has it, the result of "peacetime and prosperity and over-education" which may be the same thing. Or disregard the idea completely as just so many words, words, words. Music criticism--or at least my counterfeits of it--must surely rank as one of the more superfluous pursuits of our culture.

But all that said, I still ask myself, what does pop--The Byrds, Big Star, The Posies, REM, Teenage Fanclub--mean?

If we consider our existence important--not important like Churchill's, but important because it is valuable, because it simply is, and is predicated on potential--then pop, for this guy, anyway, is a sweet tonic to that existence. A spur, a hug, a smile, an injection of badly needed vitamins.

Pop can be a small holiday; a feeling differently when whatever recipe of modern responsibilities is temporarily relieved. And it can be a drinking partner; a wildly sympathetic source of confirmation of freshly discovered love, or anything else wonderful.

Christ knows that when you deal with madness in this life, both abstract and the appallingly concrete, pop is a partner you should happily walk down the aisle to. That hackneyed metaphor deserves a song to replace Mendelssohn's "The Wedding March": insert your own.

*Sure, Bragg was political, but his self-deprecation never made him dangerous. What he did for me was to light up certain experiences from a fresh angle. And The Pistols? They were no more a threat to the British Government than the Argentinean forces would be a few years later, and far more a danger to themselves, their lovers, and music journos who dared to be snotty-nosed enough to exist. Fuck them.

Records/songs bought:

Guided by Voices Human Amusements at Hourly Rates (Best of GBV)
The Wannadies Bagsy Me and Be a Girl
Yo la Tengo Painful
The Jesus and Mary Chain "You Trip Me Up"

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at March 7, 2008 10:36 AM