Saturday, 2 March 2013

Public NMEs

Being a teenager is no fun. It's a decade of badly-dubbed Clearasil adverts, the aching shift of orthodontistry, and poorly choreographed kissing. What's supposed to be the best time of your life, is actually a never-ending purgatory where you're too big to sit at the kids' table, and too immature to join the grown-ups on theirs. It's no wonder that these are the years when most of us first come to music, whether that's for expression, release or escape. Along the way are a series of milestones. There's the first album, followed promptly by the first piece of kit to play it on. Then come the recommendations and sharing. Soon, we've amassed something of a collection, and we're wanting to see our favourite acts in the flesh. And so it goes.

The funny thing is, that pattern is pretty much the same for everyone. Sure, the names and faces adorning the bedroom walls will change every few years, but the behaviours are constant. So it's curious to see how often people forget these universal rites of passage, and rush to condemn the folly of youth for their naïveté and poor taste. Even more worrying, is the tendency for the self-proclaimed arbiters of taste to attack the very acts that shoulder the responsibility for bringing the next generation of fans into the musical fold.

This week, NME held its annual awards ceremony, and with all the good grace of an ousted Tory councillor, announced One Direction to be the Worst Band, and Harry Styles 'Villain of the Year'. Predictably, the press were all over this, commenting that Harry had "beaten off stiff competition from David Cameron" which has left me with a bunch of mental images it'll take hypnotherapy to shake. Equally predictable, were the tedious comments left under each of the stories 'reporting' on this non-event, which suggested that much of the animosity toward the boys comes from the improper appropriation of the word 'band' to describe their musical collective. The second most popular argument for the pandemic of playground bullying is the fact that One Direction don't write their own songs. Now, I can't be arsed to Google it, but I'm willing to bet that Elvis never got compared to Ferdinand Marcos, just because he let the songwriters get on with it.

The problem here, is that it's far too easy to dismiss anything that isn't to your taste, as shit. But all art is subject to interpretation - one man's Pollock is another man's leaky bin bag. I don't care if Niall, Zayn and the lads have never picked up a guitar, because I don't see guitar-led rock as the only musical genre worth listening to. Great pop music is about so much more than the ability to play live instruments. Great pop happens when the sentiment, the melody, the singer(s), the charisma and the production all intersect in the perfect confluence. Berry Gordy Jr knew it. Benny and Bjorn knew it. And Stock, Aitken and Waterman knew it. Over the last fifty years they've all been criticised for daring to 'manufacture' music, as if an industry demanded anything other than a production line. Their output was condemned for being disposable, but since tastes change, that was never a problem for the people listening to it. Any enduring appeal was never calculated, it was simply a nice bonus if it occurred.

Take the 'Hit Factory' for example. While NME and its contemporaries were sneerily adding an 'S' to their monicker, they were busy churning out smashes with a success rate that would make Emeli Sandé feel like a workshy underachiever. When the criticism finally started to get them down, they wrote a 'fuck you' song about it. They gave it to a pair of hopeless Scousers as their debut single, and shot a video on the cheap of them dancing their way around Albert Docks. 'I'd Rather Jack' spent three months in the charts, because it understood how kids felt about having people talk trash about the music they enjoyed. It spoke to them on a level that wasn't condescending or contrived. Isn't that what music's supposed to do?

Of course, the S.A.W. formula, with its Calrec Soundfield Microphone-enabled vocal treatments, now sounds more dated than a Choose Life t-shirt. But the melodies and messages are as strong today as they were when they were being introduced by a CGI rollercoaster on The Chart Show. Last year, Kylie Minogue marked her 25th year in music with an acoustic album recorded at Abbey Road studios. Almost half the album was built around dramatically reconfigured versions of those 'disposable' songs, and they work far better than anyone might have expected. Aside from the odd lyrical banality, which we'll forgive since we're equally willing to cough politely whenever someone brings up Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, the songs sound fresh and timeless. You may still not like them, but in the end, that's your loss.

I find it hard to fathom why some music fans are willing to spend so much energy attacking pop. They want to portray Simon Cowell as some kind of high-waisted parasite, growing ever-more corpulent off the blood and sweat of ignorant teenagers, who dream only of fame and untold wealth. However much disdain you might have for the X-Factor and its ilk, it's important to remember that the baton has been passed to acts like Cher Lloyd, Olly Murs and One Direction, to bring new fans to music. I'm willing to argue that no thirteen year-old is going to make 'The Queen Is Dead' their very first iTunes purchase. Pop music is a gateway drug - its very accessibility is what gets young people in and allows them to experiment. Getting annoyed that people listen to pop music is like sitting in traffic behind a learner driver, and being angry that they don't already know how to execute a flawless three-point turn.

Pop music introduces people to the art form. It helps them define their tastes. Those kids who are heading out to their very first One Direction concert, are in the process of activating a lifelong love of live music. So does it really matter if Liam Payne thinks a plectrum is the fleshy bit under his cock-head?

The great thing about music, about all music, is that there's something for everyone. Some people find their way to Velvet Underground and Johnny Cash. Others, like me, got hooked on Dolly Parton and Swedish schlager. It's all part of life's rich pageant. If you've found the music that makes you happy, revel in that, rather than condemning the tastes of others. And if you hear something you genuinely don't like, then don't fucking listen to it. Find the off switch. Or the volume dial. Otherwise, you're no better than the pearl-clutchers who complain to the BBC every time they see a twat on the telly. And I don't mean Danny Dyer. On the other hand, if you like pop, be proud of that fact. Don't apologise for it, and stop trying to make excuses - I'm right there with you. Forget about guilty pleasures and drink-fuelled nostalgia. As a great pop star once sang, music makes the people come together. Let's try and remember that. 

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