Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Burned with an inferiority complex, lovers of popular music have an overbearing concern to locate content and depth in something that is generally dismissed as inane and shallow. Consequently, analysts look to the “high” cultural terms of literary criticism, political theory and cultural studies to validate and break down musical culture. The chaotic, indeterminate nature of music seeks to highlight that the true value of music cannot found in its meaning, but in its noise. Music writer Simon Reynolds described his own critical experience of pop music to be moments of perplexity, “when the mouth and the mind gape, when you’ve yet to sort out your responses, or get a firm grip on what a group is "about" or "trying to say"". Reminiscent of an illicit love affair, musical pleasure acts an intoxicant, inflaming our passion for love, expression and identity. Synonymous with my faith in love and music, the reasons and motivations behind my passion for the British musical identity are varied and difficult to articulate.

I believe my personal background has a significant role in my fascination with the musical culture of Britain. I first fell in love with music when I was five years old, during a six-month family holiday to England. During our many weekend adventures to historic stately homes, churches and castles, our family consistently listened to four cassette tapes: Erasure, the Carpenters, Milli Vanilli and Cat Stevens. For years to come, I would indulge in the beautiful medieval imagery of Erasure’s album The Innocents in an attempt to recapture memories of the trip that largely remained untapped. Such wistful yearning, homesickness and nostalgia are redolent of Morrissey’s romantic lamentation for lost loves and times past in the music of the Smiths. Lined with a rich seam of the Victorian Gothic, Morrissey was captivated by a melancholic romance with the mythical "lost Britain". This allure of Morrissey’s wounded patriotism would later inspire Britpop: a movement in which nostalgia for Britain’s musical heritage would result in groups such as Oasis becoming a cultural hologram of their heroes, the Beatles.

Three years after returning from England, my brother introduced me to the British rock band Queen. I was immediately awe-struck by the band, developing an unyielding fascination for their late singer, Freddie Mercury. I was inextricably drawn to his beautifully expressive voice, flamboyant stage presence and passionate devotion to his art. It wasn’t before long that I was collecting albums and rarities, watching music video clips, memorising lyrics and reading biographies about the band. I was particularly drawn to the immense vocal harmonies, mythological imagery and conceptual devices employed in Queen’s earlier works. Inspired by William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Richard Dadd’s painting The Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke, the lyricism of Queen’s early work is evocative in its intricate depictions of beautiful mythical landscapes. Similar to fantasy literature, their lyricism inspires the listener to retreat into their imagination to render their own feelings, meanings and interpretations of the music.

Roland Barthes argues that musical pleasure is derived from the act of creating meaning within the rock text. In a sense, the true meaning and significance of records have almost always been more clearly articulated by fans rather than by musicians. The act of identification would often occur in a highly solitary environment, such as a bedroom or a car, where fans can privately engage with music. Drawing influence from the language of art history and literary criticism, musical publications would be used to gain a broader understanding of the artist within a cultural context. Among other things, the act of creative interpretation is dependent upon the analysis of the rock musician’s personality and temperament in interviews. My private impression of musicians such as Freddie Mercury would be inspirational in that I would desire to have his motivational drive, single-mindedness and musicality. Years later, I would come to interview Mercury’s personal assistant, Peter Freestone in an attempt to clarify my own conceptions about the character that had inspired me so greatly.

Originally, concepts of rock meaning, authenticity and artifice were derived from the British art school sensibility. The first wave of art school musicians in the 1960s combined the bohemian elements of artistic life with the romantic ideology of creativity. Paying homage to the "genuine black American dance sound", British art school musicians were taken by the authenticity of rhythm and blues. According to musical historian Simon Frith, "the blues was the most honest music and so blues performers must be the most honest musicians". Over a decade later, the original punk movement would reiterate similar ideals of individualism, freedom and passionate self-expression. In many ways, the punk movement became a means of self-discovery for both the artists and their audience. I contend that the listener’s desire for engagement with authentic artistic expression fuels identification with the artist. Subconsciously, I believe that the listener yearns to articulate an authentic and unique sense of self. In the emotional engagement with an "authentic" musician, the listener can feel confident that their close identification is based on something "true".

Such feelings of identification and connection may be closely linked with the fan’s desire to find a "musical soulmate". The yearning for kinship not only encompasses notions of intellectual identification and musical affinity, but it embodies ideals of romantic unity. These ideals of romantic unity are often drawn from standards derived from the musical subculture. A manifestation of this quest for a "musical soulmate" may be seen in the cultural romantic phenomenon of the mix-tape. Within indie subculture in particular, the act of organising, recording and exchanging a mix-tape may be directive of an implicit compulsion to be musically and personally understood by others. Although there is little academic literature owing to the existence of such a cultural phenomenon, the concept of the "musical soulmate" is highly prevalent within British musical culture. The desire for such an affinity is reflected in the culture’s fascination for musical writing partnerships such as Lennon and McCartney of the Beatles, Tennant and Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys and Morrissey and Marr of the Smiths. Perhaps Johnny Marr described the nature of such an affinity best when he said: "there was intrigue and understanding that as different as we were, the thing that was paramount inside of each of us was pop records and their absolute promise of escape".

The desire for musical affinity is also played out in the collectivism of musical subcultures. Membership to a specific musical subculture has the capacity to secure the listener’s sense of "social identity" over time. The concept of the "social identity" predominantly refers to the social categories in which people belong, aspire to belong or share important values with. You only need to look at the sophisticated 1960s’ Mod movement to recognise the pervasive social influence of musical culture. Later accounts of the archetypal mod would be of a latter-day dandy gent: he would "wear achingly smart clobber… like old-school American R&B and a small clutch of beat groups, swallow fistfuls of amphetamines at the weekend and ride a scooter that was weighed down by 3675 lights". In his seminal book, Subculture, Dick Hebdige cynically argues that to be a mod was to embrace the mod themes of consumerism, image, cliquishness and male chauvinism. However, many mods recall the personal empowerment of being apart of a gang: "we were all made to feel at one with this family of individualistic personalities, where everyone is different, where everyone is particular, and that’s what I call being a mod!"

Personally, I identify with the British "indie" musical subculture. Many people find it difficult to reconcile the nature of "indie" subculture, as it appears to have a greater breadth and broader currency than a highly caricatured subculture such as "mod". To have a contemporary understanding of postmodernist indie culture is to accept that the culture is derived from a collision of innumerable styles. Due to the sheer breadth of such a term, it is entirely reasonable to have two "indie kids" who share no common interests whatsoever. Consequently, members of such a subculture become acutely aware of the many variations contained within the culture. I have the tendency to believe that I most strongly identify with musical subcultures of Britain’s past. I take personal inspiration from the perfectionism of mod, the corrosive belligerence of punk, the heady romanticism of new wave and the knowing reverence of Britpop. I love being a part of an overwhelmingly musical environment, where it is openly encouraged to draw upon obscure and sometimes incongruent musical references. In the words of a visiting Italian dignitary, "there are few countries in the world where music is made the object of such enthusiastic worship. It might even be said that music is a vital part of English life".

Perhaps the most empowering feature of music is its capacity to inspire self-expression. I believe that fan culture, in its essence, owes itself to the idea of honouring a musical group by means of creative self-expression. The fact that there is a culture surrounding music lends itself to the idea that it is there is an inspired dialogue of love, knowledge and enthusiasm about music. There are people writing articles, stories and poetry about their inspired love of music. Similarly, there are people who become motivated to learn an instrument and form a band in a manner resembling their musical heroes. There are also those who express their enthusiasm for music in a more abstract manner, perhaps by designing clothing or painting. As a lover of music, I am engrossed in a number of these sorts of activities. The most challenging of which is voicing my passion for music on the radio. I enjoy the challenge of coherently articulating my views in the hope that it will capture the imagination of the listener. Despite my fear and trepidation during the interviews, I openly embrace the chance to intellectually engage with the musicians that I find inspirational. As a result, it may be fair to assert that the most valuable thing that music has given us is the courage to express ourselves.

Despite this analysis, I feel that I am yet to truly understand the reasons and motivations underlying my passion for British musical culture. However, it goes without saying that a significant part of my passion is very much devoted to deciphering the truth behind this fascination. However, there is another part of myself that is simply content in being swept up by the noise of music, losing myself in the beats and melodies. It hardly seems right to deny the importance of the sound of music and its capacity to engage our emotional and physical natures in the face of such primal affinity. We should wholly embrace the uniquely "chaotic" and "indeterminate" nature of music and its culture, because if anything, it reminds us of what it is like to be in love.

1 comment:

Dr. FrankenRock said...

A truly inspiring, intelligent, and comprehensive analysis of the value of music! Nowhere else are the justifications for music fandom so succinctly defended and the work of musicians so lovingly protected. This is such a valuable piece of writing it should be prescribed text the day you turn 13. “…it reminds us of what it is like to be in love.” Is there any better way to describe why we love music or bands the way we do? This is what C&CM is all about. I fell in love reading this article the way I had when I first heard my favourite songs.