Friday, August 1, 2008

Words and Music

I suspect it's brilliant (and the premise certainly is - using Alvin Lucier's I am Sitting in a Room and Kylie Minogue's Can't Get You Out of My Head to tell the history of pop) but I'm having trouble getting through Paul Morley's book Words and Music. I respect his knowledge, admiration and pure love of pop music, but his writing style is more akin to free-jazz. The book suffers from pretentious prose experiments, excessive list-making, and digressions upon digressions.

These are all, I understand, exactly (italics, please) what people admire about this book, and what sets it apart from humdrum music journalism. I could take a few cheap shots to make my case (quoting unfortunate lines like “from the hip of Elvis Presley to the lips of Eminem”) but that's sort of besides the point. The book is authoritative and scholarly, just highly idiosyncratic. It's almost as if he's trying to emulate his mentor Tony Wilson, who Morley eulogized as being "so full of life, so full of himself". The phrase could easy describe the book. It's alive and overflowing with ideas but also has its head up its own ass. Morely comes across as a better thinker than communicator.

Also, I've just never particularly cottoned to the type of gonzo music journalism that sprung from Crawdaddy and Cream in the seventies, with writers like Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches and Richard Meltzer (though I have friends who swear by them). They always felt like music-writers' writers, forever forging new ground for - and subverting - the genre. Meltzer, for example, is known for reviewing concerts and albums that he did not attend or listen to. Part of me appreciates the piss-take, but mostly it comes across as indulgent. Yes, I want my music journalism smart and insightful, and I want it well written, but that's about it.

And then I realize that I may have inadvertently hit upon a central theme in the book (I don't know, I'm not far enough in). This is quite probably the same thing that most listeners require of their pop music. They simply want it to function, whether that means something that they can dance to or something that they hum along with. They don't require that it be 'important' or break any new ground. They're looking for something utilitarian, not an art form.

So the book has been useful for that small revelation, at least. I'll continue reading it, but I may start to skim.

Flaming Lips version of the KM song:

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