Witnessing the extremely gifted at their work has the strange effect of simultaneously inspiring one to attempt to join them in what they’re doing (because they make it look effortless), and provoking one to quit one’s own efforts in that field (because one is made so painfully aware of how bad one actually is).
I was reminded of this not so long ago when hearing John Piper preach, which is both a spellbinding experience in person, and also immensely discouraging to someone whose profession is in large measure based on public speaking, as mine is.
I was reminded of this principle again some days ago when hearing a friend and his band perform. Derek’s sound is like a mixture of Jeff Buckley and Jack Johnson, and his obvious quality made me wish I had the stuff to be a performer. As I lack just about everything that is needed to be a rockstar, I decided to settle for thinking about why I couldn’t witness talent without wanting to have it for myself, and why it is that Derek isn’t famous yet.
The first issue is probably fairly simple. As with all things human, our desires are a tangled mess of the good and the evil. I want to be a rockstar because I’m jealous of the attention and praise that such people receive. And I want to be a musician because it is hard to be a human worthy of that name without a deep love for beauty, and witnessing beauty should legitimately provoke in us a wish to participate in it.
As for achieving fame, that’s not so easy to understand. Getting the attention of the public is something that countless unworthy people achieve and many great talents fail to do. Becoming famous probably is a combination of skill, timing and a generous helping of luck. The best one can do is to work hard, I suppose, because as someone once said, ‘The more I practice the luckier I get’. Or you could get yourself killed during a late-night swim in all your clothes, which did wonders for Jeff Buckley’s career.
What makes a song successful?
While I was thinking about how no-good I’d be as a sensitive acoustic guitarist, and reassuring myself that I should just stick to my rambling prose, I wondered at what it is that makes certain songs successful (this was probably during one of Derek’s less excellent numbers).
Art in general and music in particular are — in my opinion — relational activities. One can make art consciously ignoring the viewer in much the same way as you can talk to yourself, but by and large, art exists as a means of artist and viewer sharing something on a deeper level than conversation is able. Art keys into an experience or emotion that bridges the space between artist and viewer. It is put well in a largely forgettable film called The History Boys, in which Richard Griffiths’ character says:
The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.
I take it that these emotional connections are also the reason why we experience enjoyment of songs that we hated two decades ago, because what did not exist within that song 20 years ago that does exist now is the experience of nostalgia. So people lie and say, ‘Ah, I remember this song! I love this song!’ about tunes from Neil Diamond or whoever, but it is not the song that is loved; it is the lost era of life that it represents.
So how does the idea of shared experience and emotion play out in the music world?
Consider the following popular-yet-rubbish music categories:
It’s hard to fathom how it is that a song featuring a chorus sung by a falsetto cartoon frog can smash all Billboard chart records, but this kind of thing happens all the time. People love ‘doing the funky chicken’ and 3D dancing babies. We’re all idiots deep down, and more importantly for those hoping to capitalise on our stupidity, we love a shared joke. As long as the novelty checks enough boxes to win the right kind of approval, most of us want to enjoy what our peers enjoy (the rest of us want to be seen to be too good for what the hoi polloi likes).
Only slightly more credible than music sung by drunken sports mascots, dance music also achieves popularity for reasons largely other than its intrinsic emotional or intellectual quality. Dance music ought not to work when played on the radio, because people don’t typically dance to the radio. I can only account for the enjoyment of dance music in non-dance contexts because it triggers memories of club experiences, or perhaps produces some of the adrenaline and shared energy that one would have at a club.
I’m not sure that ‘pop music’ is actually a genre, but I’m thinking of the kind of music that lands up on Top 20 albums each year. It typically employs formulaic compositions that evoke the ‘right’ moods with a minimum of effort. It requires no exploration or digestion on the part of the hearer. It is immediately understood and appropriated. It is the fast food of the music world. It is a taste that requires no acquiring.
I loathe pop for exactly the reasons that makes it successful. It is entirely as engaging as a ‘Royale with cheese’. It capitalises on shared experience or emotion, but it achieves wide approval by being generic and superficial. Like the Cassanova, one feels the emotion, but in hindsight one curses oneself for falling for the self-interested insincerity with which it was delivered.
Pop music deals with extremely complex emotions, such as love, hate, happiness and even anger, but it succeeds in appealing to the many by ensuring that the treatment is shallow. Songs about love rarely go further than sexual desire. Even angry, shouty songs enjoyed by moping charcoal teenagers have to be classed as pop, because with few exceptions, they deal with anger for its own sake and with no target. It is a calculated ploy to appeal to hormonal children whose anger is chemical and directionless. Pop musicians get labelled as artists, but they do not in fact achieve genuine human relational contact with their audience. Their art is marketing, not exploration.
The difference between music that I would consider pejoratively to be ‘pop’ and music that I would consider good is the ability to escape superficiality and insincerity, and to involve the listener in a shared exploration of experience or emotion.
For example, I consider Radiohead to be my favourite artists, but on a certain level, it’s hard to justify why they should be. The lead singer’s voice is an acquired taste at best, and is often accused of sounding whiny or depressing. Their music is probably at home in a bleak urban UK winter, but rarely would be classed as feel-good or earthy or warm. Their lyrics are not especially linear, often seeming to be a stitched-together series of idiomatic expressions without a clear narrative.
And yet it’s not a masochistic tendency within me that causes me to love the unlovely. Radiohead are extremely successful, not only popular with millions, but also universally acclaimed by the critics.
I think what wins them wide appreciation is not the superficial beauty and accessibility that appeals in pop music, but rather a willingness to explore difficult themes, such as personal paranoia and alienation, as well as political and social issues, in an emotionally rich and intellectually stimulating way. The lyrics may not be a perfectly formed narrative, but by sketching the shadows and tones they invite the listener to share in the process by providing bridges and connections. In much the same way as a pencil sketch is usually over-drawn when every detail is captured, and better for what it leaves out, the songs give enough detail to capture the image, but not so much that the listener’s own heart and mind are not required. That’s the genius of any art.
I said at the beginning that it is a characteristic of true humanness to want to involve oneself with beauty. Maybe not everyone should be forced to agree that the music I like is some kind of aesthetic high-water mark, but there is certainly a level of tragedy when people get all Ga-Ga with the skin-deep, and never experience the deeper beauties of exploration, just because the singer has a face for radio.