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Why does music matter?

Updated Tuesday 11th March 2014

Nearly everyone likes music - but is it important? And have cultural theoriticians been turning it down when they should be pumping up the volume? Laurie and guests consider.

Laurie Taylor:
Hands in the air during a Plan B set at Wireless, 2007 Creative commons image Icon Mic Wernej under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license The crowd at a Plan B festival date Hello. I can remember afternoons at the University of York when my sociology teaching seemed about as tightly tethered to the real world as a mid-Atlantic cruise ship. It was, I recall, at such times, that I tended to over-compensate by urging my students to get out into the streets and the pubs and the clubs of York and make their own observations; do their own sociology. ‘Get your boots dirty’, I’d say, leaning forward across my large well-polished desk.

But my injunctions had little or no effect and I was left to assume that my students had rather better things to do, like playing bar football or listening to Joy Division. So how refreshing to receive this from Stephanie Allan and Ashli Mullen:

“Dear Laurie. We are sociology undergraduate students at the University of Glasgow who took your comment a few weeks ago about “doing sociology in the real world” very seriously. Thought we would share our article about working for an anti-poverty charity based in Glasgow that has just been published online in Discover Society. Love the programme and always feel very enthusiastic after listening.”

Well thank you both and in fact I found it a very interesting and provocative article, it was quite a powerful antidote, by the way, to Benefit Street.

But although Joy Division has now no doubt been replaced in student lives by Highm and Arcade Fire – do I sound authoritative? Mmmm – it seems highly likely that the massively increased availability of music now means that it has become an even more ever-present feature of young lives – perhaps of all our lives.

So is that omnipresence of music a cause for celebration or concern? Well it’s an ideal question to throw at the author of a book with the splendidly assertive title Why Music Matters. And that author is David Hesmondhalgh, who’s Professor of Media and Music Industries at the University of Leeds. And he’s together now in the studio with Casper Melville, who’s a Lecturer in Cultural Industries at SOAS - the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

David, well your book – your book is what you call a critical defence of music – why does music need defending?

David Hesmondhalgh:
It needs defending because a lot of people and institutions seem sceptical about the value of cultural forms such as music compared with more practical activities and pursuits such as business and I think that scepticism is manifested in the fact that arts funding and music funding is often the first to go when it comes to some public expenditure cuts. But I think it’s also about the way in which people over the last 50 years or so have found it increasingly difficult to talk about the value of the culture and art that they enjoy because some traditional ways of talking about the value of culture have been eroded based on the notion of culture as some kind of civilising force, as the embodiment of the finest achievements of Western civilisation. And that’s why it’s a critical defence because I actually agree with some of those criticisms of the traditional way of defending culture and defending music – I want to take those into account and find a slightly different way of stating the value of music.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay, the value of music. What do you think about this Casper, I mean do we need to talk more about the value of music, perhaps about emotion in music?

Casper Melville:
Well I was always struck by a piece that Simon Frith wrote back in 1996 I think it was where he said that academics have a terrible time discussing value in music. And what they don’t take seriously is the way that they talk about music outside the classroom which is it’s always about arguing about its value and asserting its value and the music that you hate in a very lively and engaged way. But when it comes to the classroom value of music becomes to be defended on the grounds of whether it’s politically a good thing or not, whether it expresses the right kind of identity or it’s captured by ideology. So it’s actually quite brave, what Dave does in this book, which is to bring notions of value, notions of love and notions of the emotional…

Laurie Taylor:
I mean part of the problem seems to be that our incapacity or our unreadiness or our inability to talk about emotion because you’d want to say that – I mean we talk about other art forms, I mean how does music differ from other arts forms in terms of the kind of experience that it offers?

David Hesmondhalgh:
I think it’s been recognised and discussed for centuries that music has a special relationship to the realms of feelings and emotion. And in many ways the most extraordinary thing about music is its ability to combine that very personal sense of musical feeling, that music means something very special to me, with this other aspect of music which is its ability to offer intense feelings of sociability and collectivity. So it’s that double sided nature of music that’s so interesting to me – that it’s both intimate and collective at the same time.

Laurie Taylor:
And you pick out some – you pick out some interesting pieces of music to try – in the course of your argument, I mean I want to just expand on talking about how we can talk about music by means of a song. Candi Staton’s 1976 disco hit.

Music – Candi Saton – Young Hearts

Now David why did you pick on this particular song, it’s hardly a political or exactly change making song is it?

David Hesmondhalgh:
It’s a disco classic, many people will have heard that song lots of time, it’s still played at parties, on the radio. But I think there’s a lot going on in the song actually. As you say it’s 1976, it reflects the emergent feminism of the time. The situation is a woman exhorting younger women to be true to their desires, to be true to themselves. But there’s a poignancy in the song too – the chorus that you’ve just played captures that. There’s young hearts run free, which is an imperative, it’s a command, make sure you do that but then never be hung up, hung up like my man and me – the sadness and disappointment in it. And that’s there in the music too – the music alternates between a kind of almost anthemic quality, a celebration of freedom and this rough edge in Candi’s voice and the sadness of some of the music.

Laurie Taylor:
That strikes me as very interesting because I mean the idea of – like looking at the lyrics of songs and being disappointed by looking at the lyrics of songs but I mean Casper the – the notion that really that we want – the power of music isn’t always in the lyrics.

Casper Melville:
No that’s clearly the case, unless you’re the kind of person that says I can’t listen to instrumental music, I need to have a song lyric. I mean lyrics are obviously a part of the story. I mean it may be your temperament, I mean while that was playing I couldn’t help but notice the baritone saxophone on the chorus and to me that – that carries a kind of bottom end, it ties it into a jazz tradition as well as it being a new piece, as it were, technological pop, which is what disco was. So the texture of the sound, the melange of sounds, the way that they’re contrasted has meaning to it as well and of course you can dance to it and actually you could dance to – it may be that has a flipside which is a disco version without the lyrics or many tunes have no lyrics.

David Hesmondhalgh:
I think it’s a mistake to think that when people are dancing to records they aren’t intensely focused on the emotions and the meanings of the song. If anything when it’s playing loud in a club or at a party you’re all the more focused on what it’s about. And so what I was trying to do in the book was suggest that it’s not just the wonderful classical musical tradition that is able to offer the people to have some kind of access to an understanding of their inner life through music and emotion, that’s also there in popular music and popular culture.

Laurie Taylor:
But you see there’s a word which is hovering in the air a little bit, that word is pretentious isn’t it, because if you start to apply this type of in-depth analysis to something like Candi Staton or something like that it’s – often in this area it is an area where people are asserting their sensibilities and their taste and their distinction and if you want to talk – I mean this is quite a divisive thing really isn’t it, I mean the way – I mean we don’t need to go back to Bourdieu and questions of distinction and everything but what you like musically is a way of asserting who you are and so it interferes with questions of taste that doesn’t it?

David Hesmondhalgh:
Yes it does and this is another reason why I use the term critical defence, that we want to get away from any pretence that music can escape the difficult things in society and the difficult things in the human psyche. Music is bound up in certain strange features of modern life such as one writer has put it: the duty to have pleasure. Music gets bound up in rivalry over your set of – trying to assert your superiority, your greater cultural and emotional sensitivity than others.

Laurie Taylor:
It nicely gets bound up with biography because I was just remembering Rob, the main character in Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity. Let’s just hear him – here is the hero Rob busily reordering his record collection.

Reading – High Fidelity:
I try to remember the order I bought them in. That way I hope to write my own autobiography without having to do anything like pick up a pen. I pull the records off the shelves, put them in piles all over the sitting room floor. Look for Revolver and go on from there. And when I’ve finished I’m flushed with a sense of self because this, after all, is who I am.

Now this, in a way, plays into my concern about the solipsistic nature of musical choice. I mean you mentioned the idea of collective and the way music brings together – I mean you use that word community – but so often, it seems to me, it’s about divisions. I mean give me an example where you can talk about the potential in music creating a sense of community then, rather than this self-reverential stuff.

David Hesmondhalgh:
I think it happens all the time, I think there’s a great deal more, what you might call, collective flourishing through music in modern life than some commentators would have us believe. Just a few months ago – I tell this story in the book – I was arranging to meet some friends in a pub in West Yorkshire, not far from where I live, there was an Elvis impersonator on, our hearts sank at the thought of our evening’s conversation being drowned out. Half an hour later we were singing along at the top of our voices with 60-70 other people to Sweet Caroline, Suspicious Minds, the great Elvis Vegas repertoire.

Laurie Taylor:
Well it all sounds – romantic – nice romantic picture but surely Casper it is true that people now are increasingly locked into their own individualistic sort of set of music that they play endlessly to themselves rather than bringing anybody else in?

Casper Melville:
I think that actually in one sense that is certainly true – when you think of the iPod, you think of the idea that we privatise music listening – or the phone actually which has taken over from the iPod, people carry their record collections or their music around with them, they listen to them on their little headphones solipsistically, singularly. However, I think actually in the modern world there’s much less hyper investment in individual genres – hating some genres and loving others – because actually genres blend and mix so much more easily online, genres aren’t so obvious – the divisions aren’t clear, there’s not insiders and outsiders, there’s much more availability. So I think that’s actually changed, it’s not become much more individualised, in some sense the digital world is more individualising, in other ways it actually enhances greater collectivity.

David Hesmondhalgh:
I’m not sure if it’s technology, these kinds of technologies that are really the threat to music’s capacity to enhance our feelings of sociability and togetherness. I think a much greater problem is inequality – it’s gentrification in the way that gentrification is eroding those spaces where popular music needs a crucible in the centre of cities, it’s the ghettoization of the poor, it’s the retreat of wealthy people into gated communities and apartments and so on, it’s that kind of social process that I think is a greater threat to music.

Laurie Taylor:
Well you’re making – you’re making a quasi or a political point but what we haven’t mentioned about the sort of power or importance or the significance of music is about music and politics and you don’t really want to make a great big thing about that do you, I mean we’ve had plenty of sort of tracks talking about the enormous power of Joan Baez or Bob Dylan or whatever or the revolutionary lyrics – you’ve not made a great point about that.

David Hesmondhalgh:
I think that there’s too much focus on a moment of rock rebellion in the sixties and seventies and on protest songs, some of which are wonderful and inspiring and there’s some great books about that, but I think focussing on that too much consigns too much music to a residual political status. And it’s the rich form of sociability that music engenders that can remind us that we have a set of mutual obligation and dependency which then gets translated into a set of political values and ultimately into action.

Laurie Taylor:
David Hesmondhalgh, Casper Melville – thank you both very much.

This discussion was broadcast on Thinking Allowed, BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday 22nd January 2014. Find out more about the programme, or listen online.

 

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