Music: The Unasked Questions

What kind of music are you into?

Did you spot the problem with that question? No? OK, try again. What kind of wrestling are you into? Now did you spot the problem? Everybody assumes that everybody else is deeply into music. Nobody would think it unusual if somebody said they weren’t into any kind of sport, playing or watching. That’s quite normal. It is also normal to have no interest in religion or spirituality or no interest in theatre or visual arts. Or dancing. Or pets. Or children. Or cars. Or gardening. Or cooking. Or politics. But if you ever say that you’re not into music, that you’re not taken over by an irrational passion for music of a particular genre people think you’re sick.

I have never met anybody who didn’t like music to some degree, with the exception of deaf people, and even deaf people are exposed to the “of course you like music” propaganda (by music teachers, naturally). The point of this rant is not that the desire to listen to music is alien to people and has been created by evil manipulators but that the option to care for music to a reasonable degree is not given to people, especially the young. The only option is to be seen to be thoroughly obsessed by music and to proclaim that obsession loudly, clearly and publicly at every opportunity or be considered a soulless freak.

To clear up the point, I do like music. The key word is like. I am not obsessed by it, it does not control my life. I have a preference for one type of music over another just as I have a preference for particular scenery, perfume, fabrics and methods of making coffee.

Music was a minor part of my life for many years. I sold my cassette and LP collection in 1985 because I needed the money and I didn’t buy any other form of recorded music for 15 years. I always had something more important to spend my money on. I did not refuse to buy music, I just didn’t get round to it. Music was always available to me on the radio, if I could find nothing better to do, and most of the time I could, in fact, all of the time I could. I did not avoid music, I just didn’t buy any. Some people may find the idea unthinkable, but I just got on with my life and there were no problems. Those 15 years without music were some of the happiest of my life, not because I wasn’t listening to music, but because my life was full and satisfying. I had no need of music and I did not miss it.

I do now own some CDs again, about a dozen, and I sometimes browse YouTube for music videos. But if you string it all together it would be a difficult call as to whether I spend more time on foreplay and sex each month or listening to music, and that was not meant as a boast. Either way round I ain’t Sting.

The idea that you can have a full and satisfying life without listening to music for several hours each day is utterly alien to many people. They have swallowed the idea that music is essential, that music is what life is for. They swallow that idea and they spread it. Music is Life is a very powerful meme.

Teenagers do not have a choice as to whether or not to be obsessed by music, their choice is limited to which music should be seen to be their life.

Until downloading killed music there was an enormous industry that existed by stimulating and servicing the demand of teenagers for music. It could not be left to be an option for teenagers to like music a bit, but not enough to buy it. The music production industry was in a symbiotic relationship with the children’s media industry. Children’s television was full of promotional videos for records and concert tours. Half the airtime on Saturday morning television was filled with music videos and interviews with “pop stars”. The music producers wanted the publicity, the television companies got to fill the airtime. I often wondered who paid who for what in such circumstances. This uneasy relationship could take on new twists when the musicians made records which were in effect three and a half-minute commercial for their own brand; naming the band in the title and chorus and introducing band members individually in the verses. The children’s television presenters and wannabe pop stars were so far up each others bottoms that they probably couldn’t see the issue. They wouldn’t dream of mentioning the name of a burger restaurant chain on the air in case it was seen as a commercial endorsement but they would gladly give over a million pounds worth of airtime for a free advert for a manufactured pop act without considering saying that other forms of recorded music are available.

Another mind boggling institution that nobody seems to challenge much is the music chart. How many sad people must there be out there for whom the total weekly sales figures for records are the biggest thing happening in their life? Why should anybody really care? If the world had its head screwed on right the music charts would appear only on the inside pages of specialist music industry magazines. But in the world we live in for some people this stuff really seems to matter. Why? Do these people have shares in the acts or record companies? No. They have absolutely no real reason to care at all. I am as mildly curious about which musician is selling records as I am curious about what the most popular holiday destination or brand of soap powder. But on music radio and television stations, it seems that knowledge of what is number one this week is the most important piece of information that mankind has ever been privy to.

Not caring much about music is not an option. Of course, you care. You have to, many people rely on your obsession for their living. Actors are forever droning on about the importance of Shakespeare. Nurses constantly warn that we are not spending enough on health care. Teachers are constantly making sure that education is always the first priority. Musicians, music journalists and music media presenters are constantly fanning the flames of our “natural obsession” with music. Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll! It is more important than life itself. Life without music would be not worth living. Nah.

Do teenagers from African tribes get obsessed by music, staying up all night listening to newly invented drum beats? Did the teenage children of the Pilgrim Fathers sew the names of fiddle players on the back of their jackets? Of course not. Obsession with music is not a human universal. A liking for music is. The obsession is engendered by our culture and the manipulation of a huge exploitative money making industry. It is also fanned directly by individuals who jump on any suggestion that music is not profoundly important. People will fall over themselves to condemn any suggestion that music isn’t really important.

There are over seven billion people in the world today. Many of them can make music. There is an enormous back-catalogue of great music from the past. There are fresh new people constantly coming of age into the music producing industry with the burning desire to produce even more music. People are going to college to learn how to be record producers, the unspoken assumption being that they will each work forty hours a week for the next thirty years churning out more music. There is the constant problem of oversupply to contend with. To keep the market in music going it is not enough for you to know what you like and like what you know. You must be driven to constantly buy new music, to spend a significant fraction of your income on music playing hardware and music playback software. If you don’t want new music you must be educated until you do.

Enjoy music just as much as you want. But get a grip on the obsession. Ask yourself if you truly believe it is quite as important as people make out. Also, ask yourself what good is done by reinforcing the idea that music obsession is healthy. If music is really so important it doesn’t need people falling over themselves to express that opinion. Nobody goes out of their way to say that sugar is sweet or water is wet. If music is so important and vital and is rightly the centre of every thinking person’s life then expressing that opinion at every opportunity would not be necessary.

Along with not taking music obsession too far I suggest we should all try not to take musicians too seriously either. Why care what these people do with their lives when they are not producing the product you consume? I don’t care what politics my dentist espouses so why should I care about the politics or sexuality of musicians? They are our servants; like waiters or cooks. Treat them with respect, not awe.

An ability to make good music does not make a person a wise political philosopher. In fact, a life of fame surrounded by fans and flunkies on the road with other people collecting the money for you is an excellent way to get yourself completely insulated from real life and distort your perceptions into terrible caricatures. Being a rock star isn’t real life at all, it is a kind of terminal mental disease.

Music with words can be dangerous. If you give music too much credence, which seems to be the normal attitude of modern youth, you are in danger of taking in a huge load of nonsense.

Adding a good tune to fifth rate poetry can make a first rate rock anthem. A good driving beat and powerful vocals can make manifest bullshit sound like the wisdom of the age. Just listen to Nutbush City Limits, it sounds to me like the random reading of road signs from a passing tour bus spliced into a good jam session, but the way it is performed makes you want to dedicate your life to finding some inner meaning in this wonderful work of profound poetry. Even if there was some meaning there would it be wise to turn a rock song into a creed? Never.

Being a musician, of any grade, is not a qualification to become a guru. Being famous, and rich because of that fame, makes a person less well qualified to think objectively about the problems of the world to my way of thinking. I would rather take advice from U2’s accountants than the band members. Is there anything quite as nauseating as a socialist millionaire tax avoider? Perhaps a socialist millionaire who tells us to imagine no possessions while trying to undermine the government of the country he has chosen to live in.

Words with music are very dangerous because they can allow repulsive and illogical ideas to penetrate into your brain. Music can wrap up any number of damaging or clichéd ideas and slip them past the sentries of logical thought. In the nineteenth century, Christians complained that the devil had all the best tunes but they were wrong, there are plenty of great sounding songs which I like the sound of but are filled with messages that I profoundly disagree with. God gave rock and roll to you? Give me a break guys.

Songs are dangerous. The most stupid and illogical nonsense can be made to seem profound when it is set to a good beat or catchy melody. I think it is highly dangerous that the first exposure that many of our children get to philosophy and political ideas come in the form of song lyrics written by self-obsessed twenty-year-old trendy lefty art school drop-outs who have never had a real job in their life and whose biggest and most bankable talent is looking just like the boys your mother warns you about.

“Anything that is too stupid to be spoken is sung.”


One Comment

  1. Ha! Intresting, I haven’t given it that amount of thought or angle of approach. I like mostly instrumental music but hate pop and anythong on radio. On radio they grind (any, good or bad) music repeatedly into insufferable noise I tend to hate.
    I didn’t have an intrest in music until I was 18 or so, found rythms and noises that peaked my curiosity, the group Art of Noise. From there it has taken off deep into the rabbit hole of electronic music listening.

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