I’ve always admired people who can write well about music, because it seems more difficult than any other form of criticism. Our language, rich as it is, seems ill equipped to fully convey its moods, textures, styles of composition and performance, and what it is all intended to mean. It can’t be done as succinctly as the playing of it, certainly. The best writers about music, like Alex Ross, can relate music on the page by conjuring an aural impression to the reader in words. They can hear the subtleties you can’t and explain them to you. They can adroitly judge the interpretive aptitude of an orchestra. Likewise, a good pop music writer will hear a hook or a bridge or a segue and describe it in creatively evocative language.
I say all this by way of a sort of disclaimer before wading into a discussion that requires an opinion from anybody who counts himself a participant in our popular culture. Which basically means everybody. This blog wasn’t intended to ever dip into music, but I will here make a tiptoed foray into choppy waters, and hopefully slip out again before mangling too many metaphors (too late) and generally overstaying my welcome. As you already guessed, I am writing about Kanye West headlining the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury last night.
To briefly digress, the legendary Giorgio Moroder has released a new album. He changed pop music in the 1970s with the seminal disco track I Feel Love, which is mostly celebrated for its much-emulated bassline, and is also notable for being entirely put together using a synthesiser. It was a newish technology, and that kind of thing wasn’t done before. With I Feel Love, Moroder was giving the world the sound of the future, and on hearing it for the first time, I immediately directed my sympathies to those who believe popular music should in the main be trying to move forward.
Which brings us back to Kanye West, and the reactionary mean spiritedness of those who petitioned to have him removed from his headlining gig last night. I “go to Glastonbury” most years via the TV, but I only caught a brief glimpse of his set. He seemed an isolated figure on stage, the way it was set up for him, but I am not here to offer a review of his performance. That is not relevant to the point at hand. I’m here to castigate the pompous “homiephobes” who believe their often uninspiring, increasingly moribund corner of the musical scene deserves to be privileged over the others.
We could be up all night analysing indie music snobbery. The notion that guys with their guitars are inherently worthier than generally more vibrant and innovative dance and hip-hop acts tends not to be accompanied by any attempt to provide compelling evidence. They just are, apparently. Never mind that contemporary rock acts are palpably smaller and less enduring than the really great bands of the past. So much so that the old guys who would be regarded as fossils and coffin dodgers in many other walks of life are still touring and remain the hottest tickets, selling out the biggest venues. And guess who the headline act at Glastonbury was tonight? The Who.
This brings to mind an aspect of contemporary culture generally that is deeply worrisome. At one level it has become increasingly atomised. Music has branched out so much there is now a plethora of genres and subgenres. There is in fact lots of fantastic music out there now, but it seems more ghettoised within those niches, and requires greater effort to find it. The problem is with the mainstream, which hasn’t moved on much at all over recent decades. It’s that blandness which partly explains our yearning for The Rolling Stones and The Who to keep touring forever. A fantastic Vanity Fair article a few years ago examined this trend, or rather this absence of trend, and it is a topic I will return to in a future post.