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The WILT Archive

What I'm Listening to

        Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.

        Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.

March 2017: Mainstreams, Alternatives, Tom Jones, and a Bit of a Rant

Lately I've found myself wondering whether it still makes sense to talk about a popular music mainstream – and how it can be defined. There was a time when it didn't really need defining; we just knew what it was. In the British context, it was what was featured on Radio One, or, on TV, Top Of The Pops. And it was always understood that this mainstream included an awful lot of disposable pap, but at the same time, a fair amount of good stuff got through. The ratio of good to bad varied over time. There was plenty of rubbish in the glory days of the 1960s, but there was also The Beatles and The Kinks. In the late 70s, we rolled our eyes through much of Top Of The Pops, but we still tuned in because at some point we'd get Bob Marley or Ian Dury. In the 90s it was amusing to watch the competition between Oasis and Blur.

 

Now that everything is available to everyone everywhere all the time, you could argue that there's no meaningful distinction between mainstream and alternative. (Not that 'Alternative' as a category, or genre, ever made much sense to me anyway. I mean, where do you draw the line? I recently went into a Berlin branch of the electronics chain Saturn - which still has an extensive range of CDs and LPs - on a sudden nostalgic whim, looking for a compilation of The Ramones. Failing to find one under 'Pop/Rock', I eventually tracked it down under 'Alternative'. The first Ramones album came out in 1976, for Christ's sake. What are they supposed to be 'alternative' to?)

 

If there's still a mainstream, it seems to me that it has shrunk. It has become something like Manhattan: a small island with a high profile and ridiculously expensive real estate. The rest of the music scene is like thousands of really tiny, mostly poor, islands, each a little scene unto itself. The mainstream consists of a relatively small number of the very biggest, most lavishly-promoted acts, and it's what's featured on the most desperately lowest-common-denominator self-defined Pop Radio. I go to a gym in Berlin where I get regular exposure to this, and 90% of it is the same as what I hear in a taxi in London or a supermarket in New York. And it puts me in a dilemma.

 

My dilemma is this. I'm not a cynic and I'm not a snob. I'm more open to new things than most of my contemporaries, and I don't begrudge anyone's success; as far as I'm concerned, 'popular' is neither a dirty word nor a badge of honour. I'd rather have people making bad music than, say, explosive devices - and if other people enjoy it, then good luck to them. If I have broader musical horizons, it's because music is my passion and my profession, not because I'm trying to be clever. In other words, I'm basically a mainstream kind of guy. But if I'm going to be honest, the fact is that I think the vast majority of current pop music is shit.

 

This is not confined to what I'm presuming to call the mainstream, either. If you're going to have a mainstream, it makes sense to have an alternative to it. But I'm not talking about, say, limited-edition Danish avant-garde jazz albums with an audience of about six people in Tokyo. Saturn's 'Alternative' section includes such Unsung Heroes of the Underground as REM, Beck, Fatboy Slim, and Oasis. In other words, it's still 'popular', and maybe just as high-profile; it just appeals to different people, people who have – or think they have - better taste.

 

But 'Mainstream' has, for quite some time now, struck me as lacking both creative ambition and a sense of fun. Instead of personality, it has a kind of shiny, calculated ersatz glamour, like a Donald Trump hotel tower. Meanwhile, 'Alternative' is no less self-conscious. All too often it reacts against 'Mainstream' by being jaded and 'ironic': sulking, smirking, or staring at its shoes.

 

These are generalisations, and there are worthy exceptions, including, I'm sure, some I'm not aware of. But that's not what I'm talking about right now. There's an awful lot of hand-wringing these days about how technology has devastated the music industry. Well, maybe the music being crap might have something to do with it, too. And the other side of the coin, the argument that technology makes this a great, exciting time for music, strikes me as vaguely oxymoronic. OK, I've spoken to a 17-year-old who, thanks to Spotify and his own curiosity, has become a fan of Louis Armstrong. I guess it could just as easily have been Black Sabbath or Stravinsky. It's possible, and that's great. But more access to more music is not the same thing as better music.

 

Getting back to my gym pop radio station: they will sometimes throw in an Oldie, and I almost fell off my exercise bike recently when I heard, of all things, Tom Jones singing It's Not Unusual. I don't know, maybe they played it as some kind of exercise in Camp or Kitsch. But suddenly, there was a Voice. Not one of my favourite voices, but definitely a Voice. And an actual song, with a melody, chord changes, different sections building from one to another, and a fairly sophisticated arrangement. This song, which had struck me as almost embarrassingly corny as a kid, suddenly sounded like something by Leonard fucking Bernstein. This is what we've come to, folks.

 

But spare a thought for the poor record companies of today! What are they to do with such paltry material? Why, it's obvious: (a) hedge your bets in every direction by putting as many big names as possible together on every project, and (b) throw more and more money at flashy videos to distract us from the music. I see hours of these at the gym, too. Most of them are either soft-core lesbo-porn with gorgeous chanteuses crawling all over each other (in the name of feminist self-empowerment, of course) – or sci-fi mini-epics in which posses of very fit girls in sexy X-Men outfits strut their stuff (in the name of feminist self-empowerment) while kicking the crap out of every male in sight (possibly for having the nerve to fancy them). It's all too silly for words and I want to curse my own eyes for being irresistibly drawn to it. 'Resistance is futile', which of course is the whole point. But it doesn't change the fact that the songs suck.

 

Most of the time I prefer to leave such harsh judgments to critics, and to think positively, or just bite my tongue. I can't always convince myself I'm right, and besides, I'm getting sensitive about coming across as some kind of aging crank. If I had to name a couple of things about moving into my sixth decade that have taken me somewhat by surprise, they would be, firstly, that it's much more enjoyable than I imagined it would be when I was, say, in my twenties; but on the other hand, that the more wisdom, knowledge and experience you accumulate, the less anyone wants to hear about it. A young man can make a shallow and stupid criticism of something old, and be seen as edgy and challenging and cool. But an older man can make a reasoned and intelligent criticism of something new, and it's attributed to sour grapes, a resistance to change, and here comes that awful word: curmudgeon. It comes from the old French coeur méchant, meaning 'evil heart'. As we age, apparently, our hearts become evil.

 

Well, evil or not, I don't walk around with a musical black cloud hanging over my head. There's often something good out there, somewhere, and if there isn't, I can always go to my record collection and pull out something great from five, or twenty, or eighty years ago. But here's another curious and melancholy thought. When I think of the new stuff I've enjoyed and written about over the last few years, it occurs to me that very little is either American or British. It's Stromae from Belgium, Peter Fox from Germany, or Die Antwoord from South Africa. It's Regina Spektor, Balkan Beat Box, and Pedrito Martinez, all New York-based but originally from Russia, Israel and Cuba. It's The Hives from Sweden, Gaby Moreno from Guatemala, or Shantel, a German of Romanian extraction (see WILT May 2015) whose latest album, Viva Diaspora, is uneven, but includes several intriguing tracks recorded with Greek musicians in Athens.

 

Then there are two whole other continents, namely South America and Africa:

 

SYSTEMA SOLAR: Systema Solar / Rumbo A Tierra

 

I discovered these guys while checking out some compilations of music from Colombia (see WILT August 2015) and I just love them. The self-titled album is a generous compilation of stuff from their previous releases in Latin America (where I believe they would be considered pretty mainstream) and is probably the best place to start; the other one is brand new. They're both wacky, eclectic, catchy, clever, and you'd have to be in a coma not to want to dance to them. (Not that I'm asking anyone to imagine me dancing, God forbid, but I do sometimes sort of shuffle about a bit when no one's looking).

 

Speaking of videos, Systema Solar's look like they cost about $4.99 to make, but they manage to be both entertaining and to make you appreciate the music more. The video for Bienvenidos shows the band dragging a sound system through the streets of Barranquilla on a horse-drawn wagon, gathering fans and partiers along the way. The dancing crowd includes toothless grannies and little kids. There's also a funny fantasy sequence with knowingly cheesy special effects in which band members fly through space (their name means Solar System).

 

In the video for Yo Voy Ganao, they're seen paddling a canoe to an idyllic tropical cove, where once again they set up a sound system, toothless grannies and little kids dance, fishermen mend their nets, and in another fantasy sequence, brightly coloured fish rise out of the sea and fly. I can't quite put it into words, but I feel like there's something going on here that's missing from Anglo-American pop.

 

LE TOUT-PUISSANT ORCHESTRE POLY-RYTHMO DE COTONOU: Madjafalao

 

I'm listening to more and more African music these days, though I don't pretend to be an expert, and I don't like to generalize about the music of such a vast area. But what amazes me over and over again is how uplifting African music often is, considering how often it comes from some pretty downtrodden places. For instance, there can't be too many countries more tragic and screwed-up than the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly the Belgian Congo and Zaire) and yet Congolese music is known throughout Africa and beyond as just about the most joyous sound imaginable.

 

I want music to be uplifting. I don't mean it should be happy, or should be anything: it can be whatever it likes, including angry or melancholy or downright tragic. But I want it to be something. I want it to communicate something other than just 'look at me'. Systema Solar's videos are meant to be happy, and they work because you can feel that they actually are. Stromae's video for Papaoutai, a sad song about absent fathers, works because it touches a genuine raw nerve and expresses it an original way, through dance and mime featuring father-son pairs. Again, the music has been amplified, rather than sidelined.

 

Ultimately, there are only two things I really hope for in music, and cherish when I find them. The first is some spark of originality, or at least character, or personality. The second is that indefinable quality known as Soul.

 

Anyway, if you're not smiling within two minutes of Madjafalao, then quite frankly you are a miserable bastard. (In fact, a kind of euphoric delirium sets in somewhere between about 0:30 and 1:15). This is the latest release by a group from Cotonou in Benin, West Africa (where I believe they would be considered pretty mainstream) who've recently taken to calling themselves Tout-Puissant ('all-powerful') but who've been around for so long, they're really more like a franchise than a band, some of the original members having actually died. I mean died of old age, not drug overdoses. What you see in their current pictures is a dozen or so blokes of widely varying ages, all of whom are dressed-up, smiling, and apparently having a great time. If anyone knows of a band from, say, Manchester, about which anything in this paragraph could be said, please let me know.

 

We must not despair. All is not lost. Is it?