It seems to be a converging in my mind of at least two events that spurs me to write something down with the intention of putting it up on this blog. Often when my time would be better spent writing something else I’m sure, but it seems I am, as ever, unable to resist from making public the kind of knee-jerk reaction to something that could well be left alone without consequence. On this occasion it is a young singer and guitarist that was employed to sing cover songs outside the water sports centre that sits benign opposite my house. I was, quite happily spending my Saturday playing Cyril Tawney’s ‘the ballad of Sammy’s bar’ on banjo and mini accordion, in different time signatures, trying to work out the nicest before trying to make a recording of it, when the PA struck up, making my efforts too frustrating to continue with. It’s not for me to sit and make snide comments on the quality of this young woman’s output. It was not to my taste, but she was not without skill. By which I mean, she had what I have often heard described by people who I assume have no real interest in music as, ‘an amazing voice’, which she employed to spew out falsely emotive singer-songwriter versions of a range of endlessly bland hits and standards. I am assuming that everyone reading this knows exactly what this sounds like. Yes? Good. Maybe that is snide, but it is also accurate.
But this set me to thinking about music’s value. Not it’s financial worth, but rather what it is that is valued within musicians, and I fear that often the answer can be found in that ‘amazing voice’. I do not mean just the creeping and hideous legacy of talent shows where the startled gazelles of the public are thrust onto screens across the world to perform meaningless midi covers of songs, chosen by a cold bastard with a snake’s tongue, where the arrangement and meaning seem not to matter at all, but the judgement of the prowess of their vocal chords and their ability to appear moved is all that requires mention, in the forked sibilant hiss of the business. But the almost institutional primacy of virtuosity that leaks into popular culture from the thin and vicious gaze of ‘high’ culture. This is where skill is valued above meaning. But do trust that I am making generalisations here; I do know that this is not a black and white thing. However, I do think that the primacy of virtuosity has had, in it’s way a negative impact on popular musics. Because it is this primacy that has lead Eric Clapton to be lauded while Alex Chilton worked as a janitor. It is what has meant that ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ as valued above ‘Relics’ and why Enya sold more records than the Pogues. What is it really that means the Martin Simpson is so much more successful than Charlie Parr? I can only assume that it is the speed and dexterity of his fingers, rather than his ability to move his audience (which is certainly Parr’s finest skill). Do most of us really prefer to be simply impressed, than to be shattered, made to weep, caressed and put back together again by waves of pathos, empathy, melancholy and understanding? I refuse to believe that. The question then, is of exposure and ignorance (in its prettiest form, that of simply not yet knowing). How can we know a song is beautiful if we have not heard it?
I will not start bleating here about the industry, because surely some responsibility must lie with the artists themselves. What are they doing? The misguided belief that more notes in a vocal line means better, that notion that a certain theatrical demonstration of ‘pain’ means good. I am not sure that this kind of emotion can be deliberately ‘performed’ in such a way, I might come down on the side of Roland Barthes in ‘The Grain of the Voice’ or Artaud’s theatre of cruelty. Integrity and the response it profits must surely come from something real, something occurring within the performance, some substantial physical event steeped in perhaps experience, or perhaps just in the physicality of noise? Which brings me to the secondary event that suggested I write something down. A link to Nick Cave’s letter to MTV, refusing a nomination for an award, in which he expresses a fear that if he engages in this competitive aspect of music his muse will ‘bolt’. He describes the culture of awards as a ‘bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes’. Cave has not always been the most tuneful of singers, but he remains one of the most convincing. If we are making music, we must surely question our motives and the extent to which they impact upon our output. I certainly have of late.
I went out walking until the singing had stopped and then I made a recording of the Cyril Tawney song. I have no place for it in any project I don’t think. I will send it to two of my friends, and perhaps leave it there. I just wanted to learn and sing a beautiful song, however badly. To me there is more value in that than a thousand grace notes or speedy solos. A lesson that perhaps, I should have learned sooner in life, and one that might, if taken on by more people, turn the shape of commercial success upside down. I apologise for not addressing all of the many greys in this line of thinking, but I ask you to question, just for fun if you like, what it is that you like about your favourite songs and singers. Try to locate that intuitional seed that makes you listen or write. Because it has a place, somewhere in the wet chronology of your identity, from the earliest imitations as an infant, and so, try to see past the ‘amazing voice’ and listen instead for yourselves.