I’ve just returned home after spending six weeks in Egypt. I can’t pretend I developed much of a liking for Egyptian pop – it featured voices flying all over the place at complete random with an annoying nasal tone, and songs that were desperately trying to be glossy and Western but that, because of a cultural divide that wasn’t fully understood, just sounded wrong (a bit like me deciding I have a perfect knowledge of the Quran after watching someone attempt to summarise it on Sky News) and also became something of a pointer to how sad and horrid the whole process of Westernisation can be. I was never going to get very far with the stuff, so frankly, I didn’t try. The problem was, it was everywhere. Completely unavoidable. Every shop, every bus, every taxi would have a knackered old tape player constantly turned on and constantly at maximum volume, and if, by some miracle, you somehow got out of range, some hormonal teenage boy would clearly be carrying a ghetto blaster (and proud of it) and be just around the next corner. You couldn’t escape.

But this isn’t travel writing, I know. I don’t want to bang on constantly about travelling around the world in some half-baked search for spiritual enlightenment. It’s just a device to let me talk about something I’ve been noticing for a long time now. In those six weeks, there was one song I kept hearing more than any others (I reason this entirely as it has embedded itself in my memory). Unfortunately, it’s going to be fairly hard to describe this song other than that, yes, it sounded like most of the other Egyptian pop I heard, and that it had a verse and a chorus, the chorus being quicker than the verse, both being repeated several times. It was, if you will, a pop song.

The first time I heard it, it annoyed me intensely, much like everything else I’d been hearing. I walked off, forgetting about it, not caring in the slightest. I’m guessing, however, that said song was a hit, because I kept hearing it, and every time it would become more and more irritatingly familiar. Eventually, our relationship was mutually agreeable – it would play, I would not complain about its existence.

The last time I heard the song I was strolling down the street on a hot day and a group of kids, lolling around outside on holiday, had it playing. At this point, I felt a spring in my step and a joie de vivre that I only seem to have when music somehow really connects with me. The thing was, I didn’t even think I liked this damn song. What (to put it mildly) was going on?

Then I thought – not the first time that this has happened really, now is it? (And I sincerely hope it won’t be the last). As the stereotypical mid-teen indiekid it was almost expected of me to dismiss out of hand anything in the top forty no matter how much I actually liked it, or could have liked it, if only I’d given it a chance. Then last year I spent some time temping at a warehouse. The daily musical accompaniment to my pet food lifting action was provided by ‘Berkshire and North Hampshire’s 210 FM, the best station to listen to at work!’ etc etc. They played about six different songs a day. After a few weeks, the only song I still couldn’t abide was Robbie ‘n’ Nicole. Even Westlife weren’t annoying me, and no one, however much they claim to like pop, likes Westlife. My judgement was completely down the pan, and I kind of liked it. But none of these songs really gave me the same kick as I got in Egypt. Why?

This is the bit that scares me. I’d realised a long time ago, if I listened to something enough, I’d either develop a liking or apathy for what I was listening to. It’s like trying to ‘get into a difficult record’. At least you’d know it backwards even if, at a guess, you never really liked it. It’s the same with the radio. Background music is just that – it provides a hummable, non-interfering, non-offensive background to whatever you happen to be doing, and as such you don’t mind any of it because it’s not as if you cared in the first place. You can sing along and be happy but it doesn’t really affect you in the way good pop should, it’s all such a blur. So…what’s the point in trying to listen to and like everything?

Because, occasionally, as happened to me in Egypt, an odd, surprise moment of connection suddenly occurs and it affects you somehow, like music should. This is why being objective about pop stinks. It’s also why you should listen to everything, but not too hard. I know this sounds cheesy as hell, but let it surprise you, it’s better that way.

 

written by Bill Carruthers, March 2002

Essays