by David James
As covid19 ravages our streets, laying waste to centuries of civilisation and introducing many to the idea of finitude for, apparently, the very first time, it is important to be thankful for small mercies. Yes, we may be “all in this together” (I am not sure exactly what “it” is, but I am sure it must be important, what with everyone talking about it and everything).
But thankfully the heart-warming togetherness does not include the Eurovision Song Contest, circa 2020.
In what may very well be a sign of divine intervention, the world’s most tasteless music parade has been cancelled. Once a gloriously artless piece of Euro-kitsch, in which performers from hitherto unknown countries in Europe showed off their amateurishness and gusto, Eurovision has in recent years become slick, professional, woke and disgusting.
Yes, the lighting, the costumes and the full-throated long notes are well executed (no doubt with bucketloads of digital assistance). But the art that lies in artlessness is now a distant memory. It is vile. Just as programs like The Voice are vile. They are to real musicality what World Championship Wrestling is to Swan Lake.
It is, sadly, how the music industry has developed. Instead of the actual music mattering – memorable melodies, strong harmonies, interesting textures and affecting rhythms – what is front and centre in these drivel fests is the narrative of “making it”. Performers are encouraged to invent whatever hard luck story they can: growing up in a soggy shoebox, “coming out” as a bearded transgender “woman”, spending your whole life being a citizen of Norway; so that a story of triumph over adversity can be spun to a television audience struggling to hold back the tears (in between drinks and toilet breaks).
There is no requirement that anything of musical quality might actually occur because that would interfere with the spectacle. In the case of programs like The Voice, there is also a layer of cruelty. It is not just that only one contestant can “make it”, leaving the rest to languish as useless losers who, if they become more committed to slaving away at their craft, might eventually get a record industry contract that will ruthlessly exploit them. There is also the pleasure that audiences can get (in between drinks and toilet breaks) from watching the singers and their families endure various shades of psychological torture.
It has long been the case that media coverage of musicians, at least in the popular arena, almost never concentrates on the music itself for the simple reason that most music “journalists” have no idea how to go about it. It not only requires knowledge of the elements of music, which most do not have, it also calls for an ability to describe what is resistant to description: “dancing to architecture”, as Frank Zappa memorably put it.
This is not to say it cannot be meaningfully attempted. Alex Ross, the classical music critic for the New Yorker is a brilliant exponent of the craft. Reading his descriptions of the music is a rewarding analogue of the actual experience of listening to the pieces, and his critical judgements are first class.
But lesser writers and marketing talents have turned to what they know: a good yarn. Rags-to-riches is always a good one. Recovering from addiction will generally do the trick. One’s personal belief about whether or not the universe has any meaning is a touch metaphysical, but “we can probably get away with it”.
Dedications to parents work. And of course there is always the opportunity to pick the right charity and lavish it with concern. Worrying about global warming is generally a show-stopper (no actual scientific knowledge required). And world poverty, although already done superbly by Bob Geldoff, still has mileage in it. Australia’s bushfires have also been a goody.
And so on. What is never given much attention is the music itself, let alone any larger significance it might have.
This writer knows an older gentleman (he has in later life become a superb violin maker) who is a devotee of Mahler. He can talk at length about individual performances he saw in his native Liverpool and the nuances of expression and penetrating meanings he witnessed. No one will ever do that with Eurovision or The Voice.
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.