Monday, 16 March 2015

Popular Culture?

A friend recently took it upon himself to trash my novel. It was very strange at the time because it seemed completely out of character (unless he is suffering from some sort of dementia or bipolar disorder, in which case I am truly sorry) because he's normally such a mild-mannered chap, polite and decent and suddenly there was this... I'm not sure what to call it - tirade? I sent him a copy of the fourth part of my novel, Fruition, as a gift. I knew he hadn't especially enjoyed the others but we'd been talking about it on and off and I just thought he might be vaguely interested. Instead it just seemed to have made him furious, that I had had the temerity to foist this thing on him. There was actually a kind of moral outrage, as if I had made him try to read it under false pretences, promising something that it was not, somehow betraying the whole endeavour of literature by having the arrogance to offer up this thing purporting to be a novel. It was like he'd been insulted by it. Very odd.
We swapped a few angry emails after that - the gist of my responses was 'fair enough, you don't like it, but that's just your opinion' but he seemed to want to make my failure somehow more of an objective fact - an offence against some - I think the phrase was - 'not entirely subjective' standard. My book was simply wrong in some objective way. I tried to have a debate with him, as we often had on other topics, generally amicably, but his position seemed to simply become more entrenched with no acknowledgement at all that he might be in any way out of order. What I'd written was not a proper subject for a novel he said. When I told him it was not reminiscences but made up he told me he couldn't think why anyone would bother to make something like that up. His only praise was that I'd had the stamina to push out such an enormous turd.
This is all especially odd given that our debates often involved me being the one claiming greater objectivity (my arguments being more reason and science based) while he would have advocated a more intuitive, subjective approach to life. But now here he was telling me that in the matter of the quality of my writing, he was simply right, based on some absolute standard.

Now, before I go any further I must just point out that I'm under no illusions about my writing. It's my first novel and although I love it that doesn't mean anybody else has to. Some people do, but I'm terrible at self publicity so the sample size is tiny so far. I wouldn't be surprised if this chap is telling anybody who will listen that I simply can't take criticism but that's not the case. I do reserve the right to discuss the criticisms - not just accept them at face value, but I'd have thought any real friend, as opposed to, say, a critic, would want that too, not simply to dismiss their friend's work out of hand.

His outburst has not especially worried me since. It's interested me a lot, which is why I'm writing this now, but it hasn't hurt me. A similar occurrence a year or two ago left me wounded for weeks, mainly I think because I cared far too much about whether people understood me or not. It used to really make me miserable when I felt unfairly judged or dismissed. This time it didn't, partly because I seem to have overcome that problem (see previous posts), partly because the attack was so obviously unhinged that I couldn't take it too seriously, and partly because my marriage had just collapsed and frankly it really didn't seem that important by comparison. It was a good time to cut out some dead wood. I don't need friends that feel it's ok to talk to me like that.


I suppose we have all, when given some new thing to assess (song, work of art, garden plant, plate of food) at some time or other dismissed it as rubbish, rather than simply not to our taste. I remember having this sort of conversation with my elders and betters when I was just beginning to get into pop music as a kid. It wasn't simply that they didn't happen to like my music, they actually thought it was wrong in some way - that nobody should like it - that there was something wrong with us - the younger generation - for liking it. I think at the time they'd have been comparing it with Sinatra and big band jazz, maybe the old singalong songs, the Hollywood greats and hits of the 40s and 50s. I don't know what I was listening to at the time. This was pre punk but there were plenty of black and gender-bending soul and glam-rock acts on Top of the Pops every week for them to get riled up about. Disco was jungle music and as for the rest - you couldn't tell if it was a boy or a girl!

Nowadays, interestingly, my peers yearn for the music they grew up with which mostly means the punk and new wave of the late 70s and early 80s but also Bowie, Lou Reed and Bob Dylan and tend to dismiss everything since as pointless commercial pap. I tend to disagree with them, because I think there's always been a lot of commercial pop acts in the charts (The Osmonds? David Cassidy? The Bay City Rollers? Boy bands have been around for an awful long time) and the good stuff you've always had to dig a little deeper for. I'm not so nostalgic but the late 70s/early 80s was an insanely productive time - not just punk and new wave but ska and electronica, goths and new romantics and then just a little later on, world music and rap. It was a time when everything from before was recombined and pushed to new limits and established norms were overturned, especially for gay performers, but at the same time a lot of it was just rock 'n' roll, but in new outfits.
But I like a lot of new music and don't often listen to anything more than ten years old. I think the stuff I listen to now is every bit as good as anything I listened to back then, but it's not just commercial pap nor hopelessly obscure. It's just a bit off to one side, as it's always been. Back then I liked The Cocteau Twins and Propaganda. Now I like Emiliana Torrini and Unkle.

The point though is that there is still this commercial pap. For most of the music I've mentioned above (and I haven't even mentioned classical music, some of which I like a great deal), even if I don't want to listen to it personally I can appreciate it. Whether you like it is purely a matter of personal taste but I would never dismiss it out of hand, or condemn it as rubbish (even opera, which frankly I don't get at all). I can see why it matters. I can understand why other people like it. But then there is this commercial pop music and suddenly I don't want it to just be a matter of taste (because clearly a huge number of people like it very much) no - somehow I want it to be objectively, actually worse somehow - and liking it to be a sort of moral failure, or at least, laziness. Of course I don't want to give people a hard time for it, but I sort of pity them for it. I indulge them. I tolerate it. And this is just the sort of pompous arrogant high-handed manner I accused my friend of in my last email to him.

It's not even Pop per se I'm against. A really well-crafted pop song, catchy and enjoyable as well as musically original and meaningful is an extraordinary achievement - I'm thinking Abba most obviously, but also Waterloo Sunset, Penny Lane, God Only Knows, but that's not what we're getting from Simon Cowell's production line. Sure the girl can sing but is she singing anything worth hearing? No. Almost never. Maybe it's a great song but is he doing anything fresh or meaningful with it? Almost invariably no. But why should I care? It's Popular. People like it. It makes them happy. And it makes money. Emiliana Torrini is probably making a reasonable living doing what she's doing but I doubt anybody's getting rich on it. This would have been my uncle's argument - the music he liked (Sinatra et al) must be better than mine - look at the sheer number of people who like them, and how long they've been popular, and all the money they make. The numbers don't lie. Everything else is just self-indulgent noise.
So do I have a legitimate not entirely subjective basis to dismiss Simon Cowell And All His Works? Is Emiliana Torrini in any way objectively better?

Popular is a funny word. We tend to assume that if something is quantifiably popular that it must in some way be good. It's a sort of democracy. Lots of people buy this product, therefore it must be good. If nobody ever buys a product (my book for example) is it therefore no good? I think most people would say 'no it's not as simple as that' but I'm not sure they'd be able to say why. I think the answer is that popularity is actually a measure of inoffensiveness, not excellence, averageness, not exceptionalness. Most people buy music as something to have on while they do something else, at a party, to sing along to, to jig around to. Most people aren't really that into music but they like something on in the background - something not too challenging, that doesn't say anything too way out, and above all something where they can tell right away whether they like it or not - not something that takes several listenings to get into. This is not a criticism. Most of us are like this about most things. I can't be bothered to look for stylish clothes. I'd like to but it's just not a high priority. I'm the same about interior design, and even garden design. I like what I like and tend to stick to that. In particular I don't want to spend a fortune on it. I have other things that mean more to me. Food I know a bit more about but I still get most of my groceries from a supermarket or the local farm shop. I don't source exotic ingredients from tiny mail order firms in the east end of London. Music I do know more about but I'm a total beginner compared to some people and I don't understand the technicalities of actually playing a musical instrument at all. Plants I do know about - possibly as much as anyone in the country. I seem to have become one of a small number of nurserymen that people go to when they want to find something that nobody else has ever heard of. And we're all like this. We all have things we are really into and know a lot about, we have other things we like but don't know much about and we have yet other things we aren't interested in at all but still have to buy from time to time. Popular music falls into the middle category. I'm sure some people really really do love it, find it deeply meaningful and attach their whole identities to it but for most of us it's background noise. The fact that it sells as much as it does is a measure of how innocuous it is and how unremarkable most people's tastes are, not of how exceptional it is.

People who really love music on the other hand, although probably numerous all added together, break down into multitudes of genres and sub categories all voting for different things - classical, opera, choral, early, folk, blues, jazz, soul, rock, dance, and any number of sub genres (big band, bebop, trad, modern, acid etc etc) and each will have its own aficionados and its own pinnacles of excellence which will probably be broadly agreed upon (but endlessly discussed) among those aficionados. I would argue that it's those pinnacles that are closest to being the best, even if they hardly sell a copy in any given year, rather than whatever has sold the most copies in any given week. That would be like saying a Big Mac is the best food in the world. It maybe sells more than any other but that's because most people who buy a Big Mac just want something to fill a hole - something cheap, predictable, sort of tasty. Some people seem to really enjoy a MackieDee but I think a lot of people just really aren't that bothered about food. And that's fair enough. Probably they care deeply about something else.

This still smacks of some sort of elitism though doesn't it.
Partly I think this is a sort of inverted snobbery from those who feel their tastes are being looked down on. I had it with my family. Coming across someone who's tastes are more 'sophisticated', more 'developed', more 'refined', makes some people feel that that person thinks they are better than they are (and sometimes they do of course) but in fact this is a natural consequence of being really into something. Almost always, the more you get interested in whatever it is, the more the things you look for in that thing become subtle and not immediately obvious. You begin to look for things that are unusual. I've certainly found this with my plants. Most people just want something colourful to fill a space in the garden. Ideally they want it to be evergreen, possibly with colourful foliage, make big brightly coloured flowers all summer, grow rapidly to a certain size (not too big) and then stay that size and put up with most conditions and need very little up-keep. That's what a Popular plant looks like and you can get any number of them from the local garden centre and they sell by the million. My taste in plants though has changed and developed over the years. It was probably never exactly ordinary. Nowadays I can't even tell you what exactly I like in plants - some subtle thing or other. I like many different things - I'm not a specialist. I certainly don't eschew colourful flowers but that's nowhere near enough on its own. I have no problem giving space to something that flowers only fleetingly (usually in spring) as long as it's not ugly the rest of the year and plants that flower all summer bore me, like eating the same dinner every evening for months. I tend to like plants that would not look out of place in the wild, rather than heavily selected and hybridised cultivars. A lot of popular garden centre plants look plasticky to me. Some of my favourite plants have black or green flowers (Hellebores, Fritillaries, Arisaema...) and I'm far from alone in this. This is why I find the whole notion of Ideal Beauty a bit bizarre. I'm not sure what the Greeks would have had to say about flowers. Did they write about them? I don't know. I know they wrote about ideals of beauty in music and people and that now seems just as absurd. Either they were simply noting a form that happened to be popular at the time or elevating their own personal taste to the level of objective (or not entirely subjective) truth, which, I guess, because of their status or hubris or whatever, they thought everybody else should abide by.

There are some objective facts that inform our opinions - we'd probably not rate a flower or a human body that was sick or deformed very highly (although I don't doubt there are some who would dispute even that. Some very popular variegated plants just look sick to me.) We tend to rate expertise very highly. Being able to play your instrument makes a big difference to how highly rated a musician is, or a piece of recorded music, but the fact that the punks supposedly couldn't play their instruments (or the fact that Dylan can hardly sing) has not prevented them from being very highly regarded, and there are lots of excellent musicians playing jingles and elevator music for a living, not doubt very well. Modern artists are always lambasted for not being able to draw.

I don't want to go into all the criteria we may or may not use to assess a thing as beautiful or good or right but one dichotomy stands out for me and that is the value of both freshness, self expression, energy, originality and even roughness on the one hand with experience, purity, control and technical excellence on the other. When I was a teenager I as put down for having any opinion on what was going on. I was accused of thinking I knew everything but in fact it was them that were acting like they didn't need to know anything new. At the time, adolescent as I was, I became defensive and dismissive of their ways but since then it has become obvious to me that we need both. The adult who has done whatever it is many times knows pretty much what is likely to happen and can anticipate the problems and get the job done without much fuss, true, but a new pair of eyes can see things afresh and might well spot how the way it's been done all along is not the best way. The adult might have missed something that is obvious to the child and so it is with creativity.

I had a brief debate with a friend about that earlier time when someone trashed my writing and upset me so much. The piece I'd submitted was intentionally rough and a little chaotic. The sentence structure was somewhat loose and flowing, almost like a prose poem but veering back and forth into proper prose as the view rushed up and down the house, stopping here and there to look at something or to have a thought. The main criticism, predictably, was that the grammar was wrong. I tried to debate this but my critic simply insisted that without proper grammar there was no point in even looking at anything else.
I complained about this to a friend and she tended to agree with him but her argument was a little different. She quite liked the piece (although she thought it could be improved, and I agreed) but told me that I was not in a position to break the rules yet. I had to do my time writing in the way people expected, maybe get some recognition, and only then, maybe, I could (as I put it) write in a way that meant something to me. Perhaps she thought the thing that I wanted to express was some idea that only needed the correct English to say it, whereas my point was that the style (grammar, sentence structure, use of tenses) is part of what I want to say and surely any real writer would agree - every comma has to do the right thing, it has to mean something, not just be there because that's where we put commas.

Why couldn't I just shut up and do my time? Wouldn't life be a lot easier? Yes, but only if I don't feel very strongly about what I want to say. And only if when I finally come to write what I really want to, in the way I really want to, I can still remember why it was important. And that's even assuming I ever get any recognition. Dad tried to teach me guitar for a bit. Like many boys I liked the pop music I heard on the radio and like many boys I could have figured out a few chords and banged out a few basic songs, but no. That way he said you pick up bad habits and then you can't get rid of them later. The upshot of that is that I never took up music and he never finished a tune that I can recall. Instead of just having a good old go, bum notes and all, leading a good old sing-song at a party (which was all he wanted to do) he fretted over the frets, going back to the beginning when he made a mistake, endlessly trying to get it 'right'.
Sheer energy - just getting it out there - whatever it is you want to say - some big idea you've had and can't contain. It all has its place. I learned about plants from tropical house plants. I filled my bedroom with them and most of them died. If it had been my dad he'd have started me out on peas and tomatoes and I'd have been bored almost as soon as I'd started and I certainly wouldn't be where I am now. I didn't want to grow mustard and cress. I wanted to grow a Philodendron. Bad habits? Maybe. I don't know. I've gained in expertise over the years but not by doing my time. I've put myself out there - jumped in the deep end, said 'to hell with it' because it couldn't wait. There isn't time. You just have to give it a go and the expertise can come along when it's ready.

And so, by a long and circuitous route I come back to what my ex friend said about my book. Basically he didn't get it - that's fine. We're from different generations. It didn't fit his preconception of what a novel should be like. Maybe it's just a generational thing that he thinks that his personal preconceptions are a reliable guide to truth and that people (including friends) should just accept that, and possibly even be grateful that he has taken the time to give us the benefit of his wisdom. But I'm sorry, I can't. I don't have time. I have things to say, and I need to say them my way. You may not like that. That's fine. Nobody's forcing you to read it. At least I've written my book, which is more than can be said for many of us, even if it does turn out to be an absolutely enormous turd.

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