9
May 00

All Music Is Bad – Disco Dads and Event Reviews

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I was probably one of the last kids to grow up with parents who reckoned, unequivocally, that pop music was trash. Being liberal types they never stopped me listening to it, but there was a clear and unbreakable aesthetic line between pop music and ‘proper music’. Even now I half-believe Mum thinks I’m going to wake up one morning and think, “Oh my GOD! What have I DONE, wasting my life on POP MUSIC?”. ‘Proper music’ lived in a small record box kept near a record player so old I’d not feel pompous calling it a gramphone, and consisted of light-to-medium classics. Chronologically it went as far as an ancient Marlene Dietrich 78 (“the Marlene Dietrich”, my Mum would always add, as if there were records available by the Australian Marlene Dietrich), which got in because it might be ‘worth something’, and copies of Sgt.Pepper’s and Dylan’s Greatest Hits, my parents’ sole reminders of the decade they grew up in. But those two records were at the back of the box, and never played.

In fact none of it was ever played: when I was 15 I would regularly kidnap the family stereo and take it up to my room, and there would be protests at the unfairness of it: I was only one member in a family of four, did I not know that? When I pointed out that I was the only member with the slightest interest in music, and that the turntable top rivalled the lunar surface for dust, there was further sighing: the only reason my parents never played their records was that I was always selfishly controlling the stereo. Which was odd, since I was away from home eight months of every year. The conclusion I eventually came to was that my parents liked the idea of music very much, but not enough to ever play any. That seemed harsh and unfair, but I never saw much evidence otherwise until my Dad got a job half the country away and had to get a flat on his own: he promptly came out as a fan of country-lite and has been terrorising and wowing us with it ever since.

Anyway, like modern art and the entire output of ITV, pop music was rubbish. All pop music. Why was it? Don’t ask silly questions. Cultural debate across the highbrow/lowbrow divide was a hairsplitting waste of time: I wasn’t too bothered, since in every other sense my family was a fantastically stimulating one to grow up in, and since they’d never actually stop me listening. And, hey, that’s what parents were like, right? But it gradually dawned on me that that wasn’t what parents were like, at least not any more. My friends’ dads would sometimes go record shopping with them, or borrow their albums, or even go to Iron Maiden gigs with them. At the time I must say I wanted a Dad like that: now I think I was very lucky.

Some older music listeners may well be expanding and refining their tastes all the time, but all the parent pop fans I knew had pretty settled ideas of what good or bad music was. Maybe this: a throaty voice, a dab of pedal steel, a lazy rocking melody, production rootsy, yet classy, Steve Bastard Earle, and guitars everywhere. Maybe that: big fuck-off riffs, and men who knew how to rock, who’d paid their dues slogging it out on the circuit. Maybe the other: four cheeky young men changing the world, or a tousle-haired hipster poet, back when to be young was very heaven. And so on – I wouldn’t have wanted parents like that, not because their tastes would have ended up influencing me but because the very idea of them having tastes might have. When I started off on this whole stupid music thing the last thing I’d have wanted is the promise of ending up so comfortable with it all. I don’t want to know the answers: I don’t want to know what good music is. In fact I want to contradict myself all the time on the subject, to get confused and change my mind. Because I got told that everything was rubbish, I never learned about taste or discernment, and by the time I did I saw them as unneccessary, twin leg-irons which held your listening back if you let them.

Coming from a background where all pop music was bad put me on the back foot: occasionally I’d have to defend it, to think about it a bit. Mostly we didn’t talk about what I liked, but if something so important to you is under attack you can’t just agree to differ all the time. Maybe that wouldn’t have been true if I’d had parents who loved rock. I started admiring the writers who made the music come alive for me, and gave me the critical ammo I needed to fight back, easily as much as I admired the people actually making the records.

Gradually I got to realise something: there were reasons to like any record. You couldn’t take anything for granted as being bad or off-limits, you had to get in there and say why, and keep on saying it, keep on arguing. And of course the reverse is true: you can find reasons to dislike almost anything, too, and articulating them helps you find out more about the music, and why you listen to it in the fist place. My parents were right: all music is bad, if you look at it the right way.

Bad reviews of records fall into three categories. The first are Aunt Sallys, predictable slatings of records outside a publication’s demographic. No NME reader is going to care too much if an orchestral Pink Floyd record, or a new Elton John album, gets 2 or 3 out of ten. These reviews aren’t interesting, they’re not poking at anything much, they’re comforters for the regular readers. The second category are Disappointments, big-name records which don’t live up to expectations. These can be fascinating, though a lot of the time they pull their punches, focussing on specific shortcomings rather than asking wider questions about the artist and the context of a record. And finally there are Event Reviews.

Event Reviews are no-holds-barred demolition pieces, reviews which attack not only an album, but the people who made it, and most of all the music scene and culture that allowed such an atrocity to come into being and have to be reviewed in the first place. In the British music press, despite the build-em-up knock-em-down reputation it’s won for itself, they’re actually quite uncommon: a more common pattern is for friendly journalists to initially review a record, and then for latecomer writers to demolish said record or band, often in a live piece. As a reader, Event Reviews can be intensely exciting: willed attempts to move a debate forward and cynical reader-grabbers both at the same time, at their best they come on like thunderstorms, force you to start thinking about what you’re doing listening to this stuff in the first place. At their worst they’re petty and point-missing, but even then they might make you spend a half hour mentally composing a stinging rebuttal. “Sir, Was your reviewer listening to the same album…?”. And then you listen harder, too.

So that’s why Freaky Trigger had a Bad Music issue in the first place. To ask a few questions, bug people, put a stick in the spokes of consensus. If you read the I HATE MUSIC page and find we’ve disembowelled your favourite band, then don’t get mad, get even – suggest an attack on one of our favourites (that Stephin Merritt is due a kicking….). Bad Music keeps things lively: when you hear a song you hate it reminds you that music isn’t just there to soothe you or cheer you up, it’s there to believe in and fight about. We hate it and we need it.

And Mum, I love you very much, but I still like Neil Tennant more than Telemann. ‘Pologies.

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