Saturday, 1 June 2013

Towards a different aesthetic

The problem with a canon of popular music

Lots of experts try and identify a canon of the great works. Partly because this is a handy way of imposing order on a bunch of creations that often stem from differing artistic impulses and values and seek to offer divergent views of the world, of humanity or of nature; and partly because it is a means of enhancing that expert’s reputation and imposing their ideas on a corps of work. I do not really have too much of a problem with academics doing this with literature or with European classical music nor with cinema as these are art forms which have some established and delineated grounds for making judgments. They have an aesthetic in other words. But I do have a problem with critics doing it with regard to popular music because there is no established aesthetic. What is it that makes Bo Diddley and Bob Marley and Iggy and the Stooges and Beck good and that makes Phil Collins and Dire Straits not good (though Collins is an excellent drummer and Sultans of Swing is terrific)?

Individual writers set their own rules in creating their canon. Some writers value authenticity, or what they mistake for authenticity, in artists such as Dylan, or Van Morrison, or U2. Others champion the outsider vision of a Syd Barrett or a Skip Spence or a Keith Hudson. Others believe that the 45 is the only true artistic medium for popular music and that albums only ever consist of one or two good tracks padded out by filler. Some think that the 1960s represents the highwater mark of pop while others like to think that modern music by the likes of Jay Z or Beyonce can be held in the same regard as The Supremes or The Chiffons.

Writers’ justifications for their canonical choices are invariably suspect. There is no authenticity in popular music, outsider vision is just someone doing the best they can with whatever, sometimes limited, means that they have at their disposal. The overwhelming majority of popular music does not merit repeated listening. Everyone agrees that The Beatles are significant and they are, culturally. But are they really the most significant, musically? Why are The Beatles with their mix of inferior cover versions of American material and music hall bathos seen as a superior group to The Hollies? Why are the Rolling Stones seen as superior to The Tremeloes? And why is Joni Mitchell not talked about in the same terms as Dylan?

(I did not like The Dialectic of Enlightenment when I read it but the more I think about it, the more I see my views following those of Adorno and Horkheimer. What I am interested in, and what a different aesthetic might be about, are those works of popular music which negate the passive impact of the majority, if such works exist. This is what I am trying to find out.)

I think that imposing a canon on popular music has no validity. Between 1950 and now, more music has been written, performed and heard than in all the years before 1950 added together. Popular music is so vast and so varied that it makes no sense to try and pick what is best. How can you compare Chuck Berry with Toots and the Maytals and either of these with Hank Williams? And why would you even try?