Recently I read about a series by the New Yorker’s pop music writer Sasha Frere-Jones about songs he thinks “perfect”. I was curious to see the list (you can find it in its entirety on his Twitter account) and find which, if any, choices I agreed with. While I would have reservations about calling any piece of music “perfect”, attaching this label to a selection of tracks at least makes for a change from the exhausted “100 Greatest” or “Best Ever” formats. But what makes a record perfect? What rationale can Frere-Jones give for including, say, Stevie Wonder’s cheesy Duke Ellington tribute “Sir Duke” when “I Wish” or “Uptight” would be, to my mind, better suggestions from this artist?
I found little in Frere-Jones’s playlist that I agreed with, or even half-agreed with. Quite apart from the subjectivity involved in making such a selection, to me the whole thing seemed indicative of the exaltation now lavished on pop music by critics. The American rock musician Frank Zappa likened writing about music to “dancing about architecture”, but journalism still plays a large role in how music is generally received. Pop and rock increasingly get far more critical and commercial attention than film or literature; witness the growing number of fat biographies of musicians and critical histories of the music. Yet when the products of pop music are typically confined to just three or four minutes, is this an accurate representation of its artistic worth? I can’t help but feel that the cultural emphasis placed on the medium outweighs its actual merits.
I didn’t always take this view, however, once being a fervent worshipper at the altar of pop. In my mid to late teens my thirst for rock knowledge led me to read up on and buy albums from across a variety of genres. This encyclopaedic musical grounding would, I told myself, serve me well when I’d form an indie band that would break out of the social and artistic confines of teenage South Dublin life, to worldwide critical and commercial success.
I probably don’t need to spell it out that, for various reasons, this never came to pass. Perhaps my waning interest in popular music is simply down to my tastes changing over time. Perhaps some of it comes from the general frustration that 99.9% of young hopefuls in bands encounter when they fail to get scouted and sign a five-album record deal. That said, I still enjoy playing music with friends on the fairly infrequent occasions I do and, ironically enough, probably play guitar alone more than I did in simpler times. I don’t want to exaggerate either, as music as a career was always going to be a pipe dream at best.
So why am I disillusioned with the quality of pop music today? Maybe some of it comes down to a relative lack of originality on the part of new musicians. Any time I read an article on The Next Big Thing I am usually disappointed to find I’m hearing a different group or singer to the one so ecstatically reviewed by critics from The Guardian music page or Pitchfork. Lately I’ve been rediscovering an old favourite of mine, Television’s 1977 album Marquee Moon. While on the one hand it is pleasant to revisit a record I first bought when I was 14, it is less comforting to think that I am doing so because of the lack of new music of comparable vibrancy. Originality, you can’t help but feel, is all too rare in the contemporary music industry.
Is it simply the case that—as Decca Records manager put it on rejecting the Beatles’ audition for his label—guitar music is “on the way out”? My preference for guitar bands hasn’t stopped me from listening to other artists from a number of different genres. Indeed, these days most songs in the charts fall under the horrible misnomer of ‘R‘n’B’, when most of it bears little resemblance to the 50s and 60s music of the same name. But, other than a few exceptions like Frank Ocean and Miguel, most singers who fall under this contemporary bracket seem, to me, fairly samey and less inventive than the soul artists of the past such as Marvin Gaye or James Brown. I have never understood the critical adoration of Beyonce and her plastic feminism—a state of affairs only slightly more surprising than “Crazy in Love” constantly being voted the Song of the 00s, when its most arresting feature is a Chi-Lites horn sample dating from 1970.
To return to rock bands, sometimes the groups with the most clearly defined artistic visions end up causing the most disappointment, history often suggesting they can’t stay focused without falling out and things ending in tears. The Libertines are a case in point: the group that launched a thousand Shoreditch indie wannabes, and probably more than a few middle class heroin addictions. Their romantic dream of a utopia where band and fans could blissfully coexist stands in marked contrast to their all-too-early demise. On the 2002 single ‘Time For Heroes’, Pete Doherty sings ‘Yeah we’ll die in the class we were born/Well that’s a class of our own, my love’. He’s the same guy who crooned, on ‘The Good Old Days”, that “if you’ve lost your faith in love and music, the end won’t be near”; the same man whose career has spiralled downward so drastically that he is now more famous for his drug-riddled personal life than for his musical endeavours.
But in spite of the limitations of pop music as a genre and the disappointment caused by groups that meet a messy, untimely end, it is too easy to be cynical about the role that certain albums and songs can play in people’s lives. I still get a thrill from listening to the weirdos-of-the-world-unite sentiment in Smiths-era Morrissey lyrics, and the us-against-them passion of Clash songs like “Clampdown” and “Death or Glory”. Writing about London Calling, the album on which the latter tracks appear, Garry Mulholland notes that it is “one of the few ‘classic’ rock albums that says clearly … this music is not about the band”; that it is a record based on “an absolutely unshakeable faith in the redemptive powers of rock ‘n’ roll”. I will resist the temptation to comment on The Clash’s revolutionary posturing and say that, at its very best, popular music almost merits the praise it receives from journalists. Nowadays it captures people’s imaginations in a way quite removed from other forms of expression.
Still, my feelings on this matter are probably more accurately expressed in an interview with an anonymous hippie at the 1969 Woodstock festival included in its documentary film. “Everybody is really looking for some kind of answer, you know, where there isn’t one … Is music really that important? I don’t think so.” It is not for me to say if he is right or not. However, in a world where “Gangnam Style” has been viewed on PSY’s Youtube channel for a total equivalent to nearly 1,800 years, the argument for pop music as the most vital art form becomes harder and harder to make.