Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Against rockism

[Written late on Monday night]

Today, taking advantage of the glorious London weather, I worked from home, sitting in my garden. (I had a piece of work to do that required concentration, away from the distraction of the internet and telephone.) Unfortunately, however, the evil rentier property magnates who own the freehold of the house next door to me have decided to turn the tiny garage at the end of their 20 foot garden into a two-floor “luxury townhouse”, conveniently blocking out half the light that reaches my small garden. So, today, the builders (one of whom is appropriately called Bob) were there. Although likeable blokes, they played Virgin radio.

Virgin radio, originally part of the Richard Branson empire (but now, I think, owned by Chris Evan's Ginger Media, or the conglomerate that now owns that), was, I believe the second national commercial radio station in the UK, arriving fairly early in the period when FM radio gained dominance over LW/MW. For those of you lucky enough never to heard, it was the UK pioneer of the format broadly known as Adult Oriented Rock. My hatred of Virgin stems from my years as a warehouse worker, when Virgin tended to be the least hated station amongst the workforce, and hence the default choice of station. (I would do my best to sneak it on to BBC London, then known as GLR.)

Subjected to it all day today, it brought back the suffering, one of the factors, I think, which motivated me to switch to a white collar profession, a choice vindicated in the age of the mp3, when I can now work to the accompaniment of whatever I want to listen to.

Virgin features all of the bands I hate: U2, Brian Adams, REM, Oasis, David Gray, Counting Crows, Alanis Morissette, Coldplay, Radiohead, INXS. The artistes (is that the right word?) on the playlist today were, without exception, white. Most were male. There are earnest hoarse-voiced troubadours, swaggering long-haired types, lots of sweat and leather and testosterone, “classic” tracks that bring back bad memories, “new” hits that are recycled versions of the old ones. The only moments of respite were a couple of lite-metal songs (Guns ‘N’ Roses, Bon Jovi) which at least have a sense of irony and fun (or am I imagining that?) and some beautiful pop music during the “eighties hour” (ABC “When Smokey Sings”, a Madness song).

Listening to ABC, it came into focus what is wrong with Virgin FM: rockism. Pop music aspires to nothing other than providing the soundtrack for having fun, dancing and falling in love; rock thinks it is above the trivialities of pop, thinks it is more serious, more “adult”. Rock thinks it is more “authentic” (epitomised by rock’s preference for “real” (i.e. electric) instruments over electronic sounds). Hence rock’s masculinism: rock thinks pop is only good for girls.

In its honesty, though, in the universality of the affects it evokes and provokes, pop actually reaches a poetry that rock rarely manages. Compare “When Smokey Sings” to Virgin FM staple “Isn’t it Ironic”. The former describes, with utmost simplicity, what it is like to listen to a beautiful pop song. The latter claims to be pondering seriously on deep metaphysical issues. Which one is actually the more profound?

Previous: Bono is a wanker; Chris Martin rolls in it; No Music Day.


Graeme said...

I don't buy it. I could turn this the other way around and compare, say "T.V. Eye" by The Stooges to...I don't know...some Robbie Williams song or something like that, "Angels" or whatever...and I promise that you'd be far more moved by The Stooges. To make a completely banal observation, it's less about rock vs pop than it is about good vs crap.

Andrew Brown said...

You've got to let a little rock into your life Bob; just not the stuff that's on Virgin.

bob said...

OK, it's not rock music as such I hate so much; it's what I call rockism: the ideology that goes with rock music, the blokishness, the posturing, the pretence at being cool and transgressive.

Or maybe it is just AOR rock that I can't stand, and I'm just being an intellectual snob/reverse snob, and over-analysing it, and I need to get over it.

Some of my favourite music is, of course, rock: the Stooges, Motorhead, Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, the Eagles...

chris said...

You're speaking for England, Bob.
You might have pointed out that the notion that there's anything authentic about electric instruments is pish. Only acoustic is that. But then, rock relies on volume for what effects it aspires to have.
Am I alone in being depressed by Alison Krauss's collaboration with the prat Robert Plant?

bob said...

Thank you for that Chris! Speaking for England is not something I do often.

On authenticity: I don't think acoustic instruments are any "authenticer" actually. You could equally say only the human voice is "authentic", but that's not true either. There's no such thing. We are humans, and humans create and innovate and distort.

On Krauss and Plant: I have heard some of it, and I found some of it worked for me and some of it didn't. I would venture to say that the bits that didn't work were the bits that smacked of rockism!

Mike said...

nice post