Whilst listening to BBC 6 Music one lazy Sunday morning I was delighted as the opening guitar riff of ‘The Smiths’ This Charming Man bled into the room. The intricate guitar work of Johnny Marr which is perfectly glued to the recording by Andy Rourke’s liquid bass line along with a vocal track and lyrics which are full of humour and beauty make the song absolutely faultless. With a track like This Charming Man, or pretty much anything by ‘The Smiths’, the one thing you are struck by is effortlessness. Marr’s guitar work dances over a rhythm track which is driven on with great fluidity by the’ Chic’ influenced Rourke. As the song finished I was left with an empty feeling. Will anyone make music as original as this again?
I continued to ponder this whilst walking Oliver (my Labrador) to our favourite coffee shop for a read of the Sunday papers. Whilst slurping at my coffee I recalled the ten minutes of television I had viewed the evening before whilst waiting for my partner to apply her make up. It was a show called The Voice. The Voice is the BBC’s reaction to the X Factor and if you haven’t seen it the premise of the show is very simple. Contestants perform songs to a panel of judges who sit with their backs to the stage. If they like what they hear the judges hit a large button that rotates their chair. The idea being that it is a talent show that’s all about talent rather than looks. Having said that all contestants have been carefully hand-picked and the obligatory obese quota filled. But it wasn’t the sheer insincerity of the show that caught my attention but something quite bizarre. Just like the X Factor the contestant’s performance is intercut with footage of parents, grandparents, spouses and friends cheering them on back stage. Nothing unusual about this you may say. But it’s the nature in which they are cheered on. The relatives back stage hold their fists clenched and behave like spectators at a sporting event. And the live studio audience greet every woah-a –woahand trill with rapturous applause. Something quite strange seems to happening to the way that we watch music. No longer is it about mystery, atmosphere, intensity or for that matter originality but the power of the voice. And as the contestants finish their performance panting and coughing up blood all that the panel of judges seem to be interested in is the diversity of vocal range.
I have never claimed to be a fan but I do recognise that Frank Sinatra is perhaps the greatest male vocalist of all time. And from what I’ve heard, which isn’t a great deal admittedly, Mr. Sinatra wasn’t one for vocal acrobatics. In my opinion what made Sinatra’s voice so great was the understated nature of his delivery. You may read this I think I am missing the point. The Voice and the X Factor are both singing competitions and of course the contestants are going to show off what they can do vocally. That’s all very well except due to the nature of these shows we now have an intrinsic link between television talent shows and the music that produced and distributed in short the top 40 singles at any given time are now largely generated by television talent shows. As a result of this popular music now falls in to two categories. One being vocal artists trying to portray themselves as soulful by filling every bar of the song with trills and vocal acrobatics and the other is music that consists entirely of young men listing their possessions.
Television has also fallen in to this abyss on non-differentiation. From The Voice right through to Strictly Coming Dancing on Ice with Talent Factor, British television appears to have devolved in to a series of people desperately trying to seek the approval of others. This would be forgivable if the end product was that a truly gifted songwriter or performer was discovered and then set free to write, record and distribute their music or art at their leisure. But this is never the case. The emphasis of shows like the X Factor and The Voice isn’t music but fame. And this is a reflection of wider society as now there doesn’t appear to be a sense of art for art’s sake but art as a vehicle for fame.
I can vividly remember the 18th of July 2000. Although I was only 19 I was curiously intrigued by the launch of an interesting new television show on Channel 4. To me Big Brother was an interesting Social experiment. Twenty four hour surveillance of a group of people from varied cross section of society it had shades of Foucault’s Panopticon and general theory of the conditioned body which is an exploration of how social and domestic circumstances physically alter bodily form and posture. How would people cope under these circumstances? Channel 4 employed Psychologists to analyse the footage and relay the findings in Big Brother debate shows which were surprisingly high brow by today’s standards. But being 19 I was naturally very naïve. I didn’t realise sitting on my parent’s sofa that I was witnessing the beginning of mass cultural deterioration. For the birth of Big Brother was birth of unfounded fame.
Art must have solid foundations in order to be worthwhile. These foundations are usually a burning desire to create or express an opinion or emotion. Upon these foundations the best music, literature, films, paintings and even television is made. I truly believe that there are records and books on my shelves that were created by people who simply did not have a choice in their making. They were driven to make them by a natural yearning that couldn’t be held back. That is to say that behind every great novelist or musician the driving force is self-expression. Sadly this is a notion that is rapidly deteriorating and once vanished all that will be left with will be our battered old paperback books and scratched C.D’s and vinyl. All of which will be drowned out by the sound of agile but bawling voices coming from the Nation’s televisions and radios.
Xavier Dwyer is 31 years-old and has a small dog called Oliver. He is a paid-up member of the Labour Party and used to play bass in semi-legendary Hull band Sal Paradise. In his spare time he makes his own wine and watches rugby league. He once claimed his favourite album was Electric Warrior by T.Rex, which was a complete lie. He holds a degree in Philosophy, but you’d already guessed that. You can find him at http://www.twitter.com/XavierDwyer1