Friday, May 09, 2008

Both Kinds of Music

Last night, as is often the way with me, I found myself pondering. It's activity fraught with peril, as it is basically an internalised version of pontificating down the pub, without the benefit of a) a pub or b) a selection of increasingly bored bandmates looking at their watches every twenty seconds.

There may or may not have been a glass of wine involved, and my girlfriend may or may not have been pretending to be asleep to avoid being drawn into the argument.

What I was pondering was this: What is it that makes us write off a "genre" of music as being something we just don't like? I'm not judging anyone for doing so in any way, I swear, I'm just curious.

Country music is an excellent example. I have many friends, all of whom have demonstrated a remarkably developed taste in music, who, at the first hint of a pedal steel guitar, begin to gesticulate wildly, foam slightly about the lips and run screaming from the room, a curse on the head of George Jones zipping from their heads in a Doppleresque fashion. You may have had similar experiences. Perhaps, in your case, it was rap, reggae or the heavier varieties of metal.

Now I wouldn't suggest, for a moment, that personal taste in music is even remotely quantifiable. I accept, wholeheartedly, that a song that can leave me weeping in a soggy heap or dancing badly atop a kitchen surface may cause you, in turn, to vomit long-forgotten pies. Within the band, for instance, I have known veins to throb in barely concealed annoyance depending on whose iPod is plugged into the stereo system. That much is writ. Music either hits you where you live, or is misdirected to the central sorting office to lie untouched and browning.

But to disallow an entire subgroup of music - however arbitrarily genre umbrellas are erected - seems strange to me. I'm the kind of Elvis Costello fan, frankly, who isn't bothered whether he's making a rock record, or writing a ballet score. I listen because I find his methods, his ideas and his execution persuasive. Like all artists he will, from time to time, stumble at the gate, but I never think to blame the form. And I'm never as frustrated as when I read reviews that denigrate artists for daring to stumble blindly out from their supposed area of expertise into another. To me eclecticism is a badge of honour, not a sign of weakness.

Of course, arguments are made on behalf of the power of playing to one's strengths and against artists trying too hard to be taken seriously. Warning flags are raised to alert us to the dangers of dilettanteism. So far, so sensible.

To me, a song is a song is a song. It's either - within my own specific taste parameters, of course - a good song or a bad song, a fine piece of music or a clumsy, malformed one. This is not to say I have never found myself falling prey to my own personal prejudices - I'd put fallible on my passport if I could only spell it consistently. Nonetheless, as I've said, I've been pondering, and while no good can possibly come of it, I ask the question again.

What is it about certain "types" of music - and I'm going to stubbornly contend that musical "genres" ought to be abolished - that make you turn off before you've really given them a chance?

I raised another question to myself in the course of this argument as well. Where is the dividing line between passion towards a subject and blind polemic? Very often, these days, I find myself tacking "of course, that's just my opinion" on to the end of every conversation, for fear of being branded intolerant, inflexible and, let's face it, insane.

There are times, however, when I despair of the phrase, "not my cup of tea" or "just not my kind of thing". It's polite, it's sociable and it shows an agreeable willingness to compromise.

Sometimes, however, just sometimes I would like to say and hear the sentence, "I hate that in its face, and I'll tell you why" a little more often, or, indeed, "I adore this like a newborn child, or well-groomed puppy and I can barely contain myself from sharing my joy."

Passion isn't reasonable. Love isn't reasonable, whether it's for a woman whom we worship yet who appears to our friends as a shrieking haridan who has been beated soundly around the chops with a claw hammer, or for a piece of music that has made our spirits soar but our listening companions gnaw off their own arms just to have something to throw at the CD player.

Do we pretend to be grown-up a little too often, to survive within ordinary social circles? Has "High Fidelity" given us a fear of becoming cliches when we wax lyrical about, er, lyrics?

I fear I have dropkicked myself into the middle of a tangent, so I shall depart. But please, feel free, in your replies, to rant and reign in said rants in equal measure. As the spirit takes you.


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