Monday, December 3, 2012

Musical memories

There was a television show on a few nights ago, in which the British public had voted for the top 60 number one music hits of all time. I find these programs quite interesting. For one thing, they reveal which songs are the real stayers. I am always a little sceptical about the more recent hits that are inevitably voted amongst them. Will they still be remembered in ten or twenty years time? Some of them probably will; others almost certainly not. The previous night there had been another show, tracing the history of the Rolling Stones, through their eyes (at least to some extent). Both of these shows were in celebration of an anniversary. The first, in celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the British pop charts. The second, in celebration of the Rolling Stones’ fiftieth year together. It’s difficult to imagine!

British television features a multitude of these kinds of shows, which, perhaps in a simplistic fashion, explore the cultural history of the nation. I’m not sure if the United States has the same fascination with its cultural history; or perhaps we just don’t see that nation’s versions of these programs here.

There is naturally a degree of nostalgia involved when watching these shows. Of course they evoke memories of where we were and what we were doing at the time. We have the opportunity to laugh at our outrageous (or boring) fashion sense at the time. Remember when “big hair” was in vogue? But there is, at least potentially, a slightly more serious side to this interest in popular cultural. The music, fashions and popular culture of the time are not divorced from the politics and social issues of the day; as indeed is still the case today. For instance, there are very profound reasons why reality television has been so popular over the last decade or so. I could speculate about those reasons, give my opinions. My intention is not so much to do that, on this occasion, but simply to point out that it is an important question to explore.

Returning to the top hits program, there were some really moving moments for me. For example, can anyone not be moved by the raw emotion of the video in which Sinead O’Connor sings Nothing compares to you? And then how could anyone not be delighted by the elfish, slightly crazy, but delightful Kate Bush, singing Wuthering Heights. These pieces, not just the songs themselves but the whole video and performance, are really significant works of art. I would be happy to see them “hanging” in an art gallery. The song by Procol Harem, A Whiter Shade of Pale, is not just a cleverly crafted pop song, but, as one of the writers observed, “a duet between organ and voice”, and as another person commented, “an impressionist painting in words”. The central melody of that song is, of course, a reworking of a piece by Bach. Using that piece in such a different context is itself a very creative idea. I am sure that there are songs being written and performed, videos being constructed, at this very moment, that will be every bit as enduring as these earlier songs. As with many things, time will decide.

Some among you may have no idea what I have been talking about in that last paragraph. Kate who? Procol what? That’s ok. Just know that in 30 or 40 years time, you will be looking back and doing the same thing with the music that is big at the moment. At least, I hope so.

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