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Bowie, Zappa, Adele & The Purpose Of Contemporary Music

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Thu 06 July, 2017

With Glastonbury reactions highlighting the debate over elite and popular art, Alan Parry ponders the purpose of contemporary pop music.

There is an age old debate which rages over elite and popular art.

If we look back through history, its apparent that much of what is deemed ‘high’ or ‘elite’ has been presided over by a very small minority who believe that they better understand, and/or appreciate art than the grubby masses.

But why do they get to tell us what we should or should not like?

At the outset of the twentieth-century, it was common to hold the position that this small number of academics ought to reserve the right to declare what is good and what is inferior, a point promoted by F.R. Leavis when he wrote in 1930 that ‘Upon them depends the implicit standards that order the finer living of an age’. This is a position which came under great scrutiny as the 20th century advanced.

Throughout the 60s, this position was challenged by both younger, cultural critics and creative artists who had their fingers firmly on the pulse. We saw a great deal of experimentation with popular forms, think about the legacy left behind by Jackson Pollock; think about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968); think about Doctor Who; think about Frank Zappa and The Beatles and the birth of the concept album. It was a matter of out with the old and in with the new. Creative artists everywhere were looking to push boundaries and challenge the establishment.

Nonetheless, there is still some worth in attempting to define an art and literature, and musical canon. However, after this momentous shift in what was deemed valuable, it’s difficult to stomach some of what is on offer to us today.

How can we be expected to listen to, watch, admire that which is on offer as we live in a world filled with social, political, economical and religious injustice? I mean, have you seen the news? There was a time when an artist could respond to the world around them, they could hold up a mirror and show their audience their own failings. There was a time when this was what popular music, literature, film and art was about. There was a time, before I was born I might add, but not all that long ago, when the very best art instructed us and gave us agency to change the contingent world in which we live.

So, what the fuck happened? When did Adele start to speak for me? When did everything become so safe? So beige? Have we relinquished control? I am a father of three young children, one of whom plays guitar, (and quite well too), but why is he sat in his bedroom teaching himself to play Galway Girl?

There is a debate about the purpose of art, in all its forms. Should it be instrumental, didactic or merely, to coin a phrase ‘art for art’s sake’? The answer to this is multifarious. Indeed, it is far too great to explore every possibility here. But what I will say is that art should in the very least make us feel. The risk of opening up what is deemed elite up to more popular forms and genres was, in part due to the fact that the great and the good would be diluted. There would be less quality music and film out there for us, which is why I contend that it remains important to sift carefully.

I mention my children because I am particularly interested in how I can use contemporary art and the canon to shape their moral compass. I believe that music can be feel good, that there is room for that. However, what is more important to me is that I and my children, and anybody else that I can have influence over will go in search of something which challenges their beliefs, which challenges authority, which will transcend time and tastes.

I can recall getting in my old man’s gold Ford Princess and listening on cassette to Zappa‘s Sheik Yerbouti, to Dylan‘s Desire and to The Best Punk Album in the World… Ever. More than introducing me to some great music that continues to sound fresh and exciting now, he was introducing me to music which was fighting against the status quo. I see it as my duty now to do something similar for my children and anybody who cares to read this, to urge you to look a little deeper, to look for meaning and true fulfilment from your music, art and literature. It is possible to do this without disregarding the music which makes you dance, but the discovery of that which will make you think and act differently has, in my opinion, to hold more value.

However, it is also possible to go too far the other way, and you don’t have to look too far to find people making an utter fool of themselves. It is possible to be too choosy, to morph into a snob. And all the while I urge you to seek out music, art and literature which makes you think, I urge you to be careful you don’t fall into this trap.

I once had a friend who refused listen to female vocalists, he was turning his back on Aretha Franklin, The Ronettes, Janis Joplin and Carole King among others, based purely on this ridiculous gender bias. I have read others complain about the simplistic form that pop music is supposed to have, its utter bollocks. I am wary of repeating myself at this point, but it is ridiculous to look down on people and their taste, art is personal, but I honestly believe that it has a resonance beyond, ‘That’s nice’ or ‘This is catchy’.

I’m going to end by quoting David Bowie, who once said of work, but this rings true of in the search for artistic gratification too, ‘Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting‘.

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