Thursday, 27 October 2011

I must stop sneering at modern music and the people who love it

I recently borrowed a copy of Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs from the library. I’ve occasionally tuned into Later… With Jools Holland, hit the red button for interactive music events on the BBC and listened to what are considered trendy bands on Spotify. But none of it worked: it all sounds like a pile of derivative crap to these jaded old ears.

Now, that’s pretty much as it should be. Modern pop and rock music isn’t generally aimed at fat old men – taxes, energy costs, bad investments, inflation and school fees have long since disposed of our disposable income. Besides, what could we possibly have in common with the concerns and enthusiasms of kids who are thirty or forty years younger than us?

At the same time, I find it hard to take musicians of my generation churning out lumpy, over-amplified (or even worse, acoustic) versions of their old hits, interspersed with new material that just proves how good they used to be.

But, before turning my face to the wall, musically, I decided to give it one more go. My knowledge of Nick Hornby is confined to watching the film High Fidelity, which was okay, so I brought few preconceptions to the exercise. The book is eight years old, so nothing too modern is recommended (my son assures me that the Noughties were a musical Sahara). Apart from the old stuff – The Beatles, J. Geils Band, The Marvelettes, Bruce Springsteen etc. – which I knew already, and some of which I liked, I tracked down every song Hornby mentioned and listened to it online (there were only two I couldn’t find).

I’ve now heard at least one track by the likes of Ani DiFranco, Teenage Fanclub, Soulwax, Mark Mulcahy, Röyksopp, the Avalanches and Aimee Mann. I would not willingly listen to any of them again, and have no interest in seeking out further examples of their work.

Part of the problem is that Hornby is a self-confessed ballad-lover, and there's something about  youngsters singing feelingly and slowly about their relationships over strummed acoustic guitars that makes me tired. I don't want to feel like they feel, and I don't want to hear how it feels to feel like they feel. Please keep it to yourself!

Normally when I listen to songs on YouTube I assiduously ignore the video. I belong (and how!) to the pre-MTV generation, I find it hard to admire or identify with droopy kids with silly hair-dos or fat black rappers dissing women, gays or the police. 

But when I checked the screen while Paul Westerberg's snoozy "Born For Me" was droning to a conclusion, something about the slide-show the poster had created to accompany the song snagged my attention, so I hit the play button again. As I watched a succession of images of a pleasant, ordinary-looking, extended  American family - and their various pets -  the words of the song suddenly took on a meaning which had utterly eluded me.  I must admit that this time there were tears in my eyes when it ended - and they weren't caused by boredom.
Much modern music appears to have been created with the assumption that there'll be a visual element to snag the first-time listener's attention. Years of pop videos have turned popular music into a hybrid audio-visual medium - and I'm still stuck in pure audio mode. 

My reaction reminded me of a scene from a Brian Sewell (him again!) TV series in which he followed the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. In a segment shot in Lourdes, Sewell spends at least ten minutes railing against the place's vularity and the credulity and general frightfulness of the pilgrims. He then stops for an impromptu chat with two female visitors, and their lack of cynicism, their devoutness - their sheer goodness - makes him so ashamed of himself that he starts to cry.

Well, I didn't cry with shame, but I did wonder who the hell I was to sneer  the music of performers like Paul Westerberg when it's capable of eliciting such a  heartfelt, decent and evidently profound reaction in people I have absolutely no desire to sneer at.

But I won't bother listening to any more modern music. I'm not feeling that guilty!


  1. I think Hornby is one of nature's more endearing nerds. I don't agree with a lot of his choices in 31 songs but his enthusiasm is catching. The Ben Folds song he selects - Smoke - is good lyrically (not by Folds) but musically one of his weaker songs. He ended up writing an entire album with Folds - Lonely Avenue - which is as good as anything I've heard in the last couple of years, if you don't mind the occasional profanity.

    Don't give up. Try Arcade Fire, a Canadian band of genuine originality whose last two CDs have turned even Christopher Howse, the Telegraph's Religious Correspondent, into a fan.

  2. I've tried Ben Folds, without joy. And I'd love to report that i'd now listened to Arcade Fire and experienced a Damascene conversion - but I really cannot "hear" this sort of slow-to-mid-tempo "sensitive" acoustic guitar-accompanied music: I just don't get it! I don't want to feel like they sound - vaguely depressed. I don't feel I have anything in common with them. And I'm amazed Christopher Howse "gets" them. Do you think he's a rockabilly fan?

    I won't give up, EX-KCS, no matter what i wrote - and thanks for the suggestion. Just sorry I was unable to respond enthusiastically.