Posts from 14th November 1999

Nov 99

Music Of The Millennium – Find Out What It Means To Me

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Music Of The Millennium, Channel 4, 13th November 1999

Bob Geldof was unhappy. So was Courtney Pine, so was Miranda Sawyer. Courtney, plumply likeable in a snug hat, looked politely bemused. Miranda looked annoyed and uneasy, but Bob’s face was a picture of that rolling-eyed disgust which comes to certain people when they hear somebody deny the obvious. The reason for his discontent was that Madonna had been voted the female performer of the Millennium and Aretha Franklin had not.

The public were profoundly mistaken: Bob leaned forward and reminded the watching millions that Aretha had “lived”, that you could hear “who Aretha was” in her songs in a way you could never do with Madonna, who was just an amalgamation of what the public had been “taught to want in a female performer”. Nods all round. David McAlmont spoke up for Madonna, for her flexibility, for her easy grasp of stardom, spectacle and desire: “she invented fashion”. He was swiftly disabused by Courtney Pine: “With respect, David, in 30 years Madonna would not be on this list.” Jo Whiley, our host, nodded, the case was closed.

With respect: all Aretha wanted was a little respect, and that’s all pop wants too – otherwise why set up this colossal Aunt Sally of a poll, with its endless shrieking that what we were witnessing was the pick of the Last Thousand Years? “That’s a big number”, cooed Yoko Ono, speaking for her dead husband, the Millenium’s most influential musician, “John would have been very pleased”. Yoko knew as well as we did that John Lennon would have wet himself laughing.

Respect does to pop what napalm does to trees. Forty-five years in existence, this is a music thoroughly at ease with itself, a music with a commonsense structure and aesthetics which fit it like a well-tailored suit. Music for the Millennium felt appropriate, because pop nowadays carries itself as if it really is a thousand years old. As the results rolled in, Jo Whiley chewed them over with musicians and a token fellow crit: the Madonna / Aretha discussion stood out because it was the one time the public had offended this steady critical order of things.

I like Aretha plenty, I like Madonna more: choosing between them is fun and silly. My idea of pop – one of them, anyway – is that it should be unexpected, and I think a good way for a critic to help keep it that way is to work out which way the wind is blowing, have a think about why, and then head off in the other direction. That way you won’t ever catch yourself appealing to common sense, to the obvious, to respect.

Anyway, a lot of what Bob Geldof was saying was nonsense, mush-mouthed suffering-artist romantic jerk-talk. I don’t buy that Aretha has ‘lived’ more than Madonna except in the sense that she’s a bit older, because I don’t buy the dangerous idea that suffering makes you more alive than plenty does. I don’t buy the idea that you can hear this living in her songs, and that this means you can identify with them more – of course identification’s the key to pop but you identify with the song not the singer, and Madonna’s dramatic role-switching helps this precisely by blanking out her own ‘identity’ and opening up a space for you to step in. Most of all I don’t buy the idea of soul as anything more or deeper than just another style. We’ve been “taught” to think of the blues and gospel-derived vocal trickbox of soul as the best or only way of being ’emotional’ in music as surely as we’ve been “taught” to see Madonna as iconic.

I don’t care whether you agree with me, that’s not the point at all. The point is that without this kind of dissent, without critics poking around its founding assumptions, pop coagulates, becoming the self-satisfied, clotted music we’ve had to cope with for the last five years. Critics, like Geldof’s pop panel, like to believe that’s just what they’re doing through their tilting at public taste, sneering, sighing and scratching heads at Robbie Williams’ inclusion in poll after poll. Except of course the same public that puts the hated Steps as their 16th best band then puts the Beatles at first: the critics’ relationship to this public can shift in minutes from treating it as an ignorant lumpen mass to treating it as a guarantor of critical judgement. (The notion that people might use Steps and the Beatles in exactly the same way was too alien even to register with Geldof & co. In fact any idea of music having a context other than as a thing to be polled was utterly absent from this celebration of the form.)

The thing is that – quite apart from the brilliance of a lot of Top 40 music – there is simply no use in defining yourself critically against a chart. Music isn’t something you elect, after all, and it’s vastly unlikely any individual consumer would dig these twenty best bands in precisely this order. If they did, then we could talk, because pop criticism should be a dialogue between individuals: the most interesting and debatable lists, after all, are the ones which spring out of personal idiosyncrasies, prejudices and passions. Polls put the lazy critic in a win-win situation: they can be used to back up any received wisdom about the natural superiority of this album or that genre, and they can be used at the same time as punching bags, allowing the critic to pretend they’re individuals engaging in a debate when really they’re just opening their mouths to channel thirty years’ worth of critical cant: Aretha is the queen of soul, Dylan brought intelligence to pop music, the Beatles were first with everything.

Are these statements wrong? No, but they’re not right either. One reason for being a critic, I’d argue, is that pop culture (which is to say culture) ought to be that part of life where most things remain up for grabs, where your choices are least constrained by social realities, and criticism is a celebration of that. When pop demands respect, it is asking to be or become respectable. Critics collude in this every time they hold up the verities of pop history without examining them.
The Beatles come top of the Music of the Millennium poll, of course, and not one of the panel is stirred to even one iconoclastic word. “The Beatles were first with everything” says Geldof – what does this mean? Clearly the Beatles weren’t the first to write their own songs, to peddle pop as entertainment, to inspire screams, to lay down a killer backbeat, to cut and mix between turntables, to use synthesisers, to attempt kitchen-sink realism or symbolism or surrealism in their lyrics, to turn the world into teenage melodrama, to sample James Brown, to be James Brown, to rap, to surf, to sell out, to go over 140 bpm, to make a hellish fuck-off feedback racket, to hold one chord for minutes, to compose music on a laptop, to swear on national TV, to make good records, to kill themselves, to get killed, to split up. They didn’t do a lot of this because they couldn’t, of course, but what Geldof is really saying is that the Beatles were first with everything that matters, and that the reason it matters is that the Beatles were first with it. Pop criticism – the pop criticism we saw on Music of the Millennium, that chokes pop music under a tidal wave of respect – evolved as a way to talk about the Beatles: it understands nothing else.

Two things saved the programme. The first was its obvious lunacy, the immensity of the concept ‘millennium’ causing much bluster in pundits and presenters alike as it became clear the public had absolutely ignored it. “This should be music from the last thousand years, not the last twenty” thundered Billy Bragg, not stopping to think that on a thousand-year-scale the Rolling Stones just look like slightly bigger ants than Steps do. The least respectful – in other words the most pop – moment came when the very likeable Richard Blackwood introduced Beethoven’s 5th Symphony as “Symphony No.5, like Mambo No.5 but without the boogie”.

And finally there were a handful of clips which crackled, which didn’t so much reflect their positioning on the poll as throw the very idea of comparison into an absurd relief. There was Morrissey in a tie, fronting an unplacable blur of jangle with his arrogant, desperate howlings, his very existence an arch rebuke to pop history and a compulsive reminder of much it would leave out. There was Billie Holiday in her last years, when everything she sang sounded terrifying. Already a legend, swallowed and caricatured by history, her undead eyes as she sang suggested how much she thought of the notion. And there was Elvis Presley, running through “Heartbreak Hotel”, every so often letting his whole body shudder: what I never noticed before is how creamily knowing his voice is, how unnatural his delivery of the song. Of course all three of these people are stars, will appear in every pop history book you could pick up, but all of them had something self-sufficient about them too (even if only here), a contempt for tradition perhaps, rather than endless respect.

Respect is killing pop, smothering it not under endless polls but under the identical self-perpetuating commentary that goes with them, infinite, anonymous retellings of the same fucking story. The critics who murder it on a monthly basis are the ones who should be keeping it moving: all that needs respect isn’t common sense or collated opinion but the hopes and delights of the individual listener. Aretha wanted respect, Madonna said respect yourself: her version makes more sense to me.

27. SMOG – “Ex-Con”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles of the 90s

“Whenever I get dressed up, I feel / Like an ex-con trying to make good” Not coincidentally, the most ingratiating thing Bill Callahan’s ever done, and the most awkward. “Ex-Con” starts with Jim O’Rourke’s solitary and rueful trumpet, chopped and processed to sound almost like a synthpop line. It’s a sound with a creepy pathos – unlike certain alternative mopers, “Ex-Con”s protagonist doesn’t blame society for how he feels. Hell no, he’d love to fit in! It’s just that every time he steps out of his flat he turns into a stalker or a (paranoid!) android, his suit feels bad, his tie’s trying to strangle him, he’s looking at kids in the supermarket and making vague plans to snatch them….if a shy, shuffly character from a Dan Clowes strip made a record, “Ex-Con” would be it. Come to think of it, in a Dan Clowes strip “Ex-Con” would go to number one.

In our duller, kinder world, no chance, but you can still pick up the single if you look. And the chances are you’d like it whether or not you can empathise. The soundworld O’Rourke and Callahan put together for Smog’s masterful Red Apple Falls album is a thing of severe beauty. Bill’s spartan, sardonic phrasing picks its way through Jim’s haiku production, which turns each track into a temple where every note is sacred. In this context “Ex-Con” is party music, though it’s been put together with just as much care as the rest of the LP. I think it’s fragile, catchy, charming and sad. Every indie band that doesn’t just insult the public makes the bogus claim that their music is really ‘commercial’, people just don’t buy it. “Ex-Con” is one of those rare, self-sufficient records where that assertion comes out touching instead of irritating.