There’s too much love to go around these days

How much do you think I like music? Sometimes I get e-mails, angry about this or that, telling me I don’t like it at all. Sometimes I’m inclined to agree. Every now and then a poster pops up on our discussion board, I Love Music, and tells us the same kind of thing. We don’t love music, they say – if we did we’d know how great this band is, or that band, or we’d be so dumbstruck by music’s shocking beauties we’d rightly find no words for it at all, at least not the dry or sarky or clever ones we do come up with.

Fair enough. We don’t – I don’t – love music, not all the time, not even most of the time. I like music, it’s important to me. It maps out my life and it plays with my moods. But it’s also fun and trivial and a lot of the time just there, hanging around being better than nothing. People who say they love music, though, like to keep a distance from other people who use music just as “background”. That’s one message I get from the new rock zine Careless Talk Costs Lives – music should matter, should be believed in, and passionately. It shouldn’t just be ‘nice’. “If you don’t care, fuck off” says co-founder Steve Gullick in his two-line editorial.

But what if you only care – care in this fire-spitting sweary fashion – some of the time? Does the rest of your listening not count? Like the ‘dark matter’ which scientists can’t see but which the equations say must fill up the universe, the vast majority of music listening takes place well out of the line-of-sight of the pop journalist. We all use music as background – sitting down and really concentrating on it is a rare luxury. Most of the time music fits into our everyday lives – we work to it, bump into it in shops, listen to walkmans while jostled on the bus, dance to it or put it on at parties. Are we listening to it? Sometimes – but sometimes it’s just on, dark sonic matter. Those same songs that journalists offer us, promising us they’ll turn our souls inside out, become something that happens to be playing while we do the washing up.

Careless Talk doesn’t like the idea of music slotting into a lifestyle – on at least two occasions in its first issue it takes the piss out of the NME for running features asking kids what their mobile phone ringtones are. The implication is that asking this kind of thing is trivial, grubby even – turning music from art into something debased and used. I think the NME’s questions are a bit desperate, and silly because they don’t go anywhere, but I sympathise more with them than with CTCL‘s impassioned outrage – music is used in all sorts of ways, after all. It’s never pure, never arrives free of context in the golden holy moment that is a record reviewer’s favourite fiction. And anyway I like trivia. When you hear “Get Ur Freak On” on a mobile phone you might start hearing the record differently, or you might want to never hear it again. Or you might just want to give the guy with the phone a smack. But these reactions are part of what makes the record exciting, part of what makes it a public event.

I’m more interested in hearing about them, anyway, than in hearing some musician and some journalist get into pissing contests about who loves music best. Which is what ‘passionate’ music writing ends up as, mostly. Careless Talk thinks – I’d guess – that there needs to be more passion in pop writing. I think there should be more feeling in pop writing, and more honesty and charm, but I think the passion in most rock writing is second-hand and studied. So first you talk about how fuckin’ much you love music, and how music made you shit your pants/sell your house/save your sorry life. Then you’ve established your cred so you can write about the music in question, how it’s so amazing, how wrecked it leaves you, how transporting and new it is. You drop in a reference, maybe, to a more famous band, mention how they’re so damn flabby and weak compared to this fantastic fantastic new thing. And then next page, next week, next month you do it again.

hIf anything there’s too much passion in rock writing – every critic has to prove how much they live for the stuff they write about, which piles on the temptation to go crazy over OK bands. And this happens at every level of rock journalism – fans go wild on websites, Careless Talk boils and froths as it tries to carve out a new underground, the NME throws superlatives like confetti, and the big boys in the big city papers hear new discs from U2 or Dylan and it’s like they’re sixteen again. And then the PRs get in on the act – sheafs of press releases telling us how much Fred Durst and Geri Halliwell adore music. After a while it all gets a bit tired and hectoring. Yeah, you love music, we know. This record’s a revelation. How’s it going to sound when you’re waiting for a bus, though? Loving music stops being a blessing, and turns first to a boast and then to a bore. Worse, all the chest-beating ends up covering failures to say anything insightful – about the record or the writer: it’s soul-baring as a conjuring trick.

I was brought up on the NME, of course, and old ways die hard: I’d still rather have blind love than bean-counting and list-making (although generally the music press these days combines the worst of both). And I’m just as guilty as anyone: a dash of hyperbole can spice a forum up, a love of the POP THRILL NOW – ‘specially in a 4-minute single – can push your writing towards the rabid. But my relationship with pop is a lot more complex and I think yours is too. The passion victims want listening to music to be like the start of an affair – giddy and intense, filling your whole world, always on, wearing you out. But loving music, even your favourite records is much more like a marriage – you have the times when you can’t get enough of it, you have the times when it pisses you off, and you have the comfortable times when you understand music and it understands you, so much so that you can take it lightly sometimes, just let it be and not pay much attention. And then, when you do say you love music it might actually mean something.