My journey into pedantic and head-crunching middle age continued last week when I found myself shouting at the television at another dim-witted daytime telly quiz contestant. To be fair, I felt that this time I was justified. Asked to name a famous John from a list of clues to many famous Johns, this young lady only knew one and, even then admitted to only making an ‘educated guess’ that John Lennon was a member of The Beatles.
I was pretty much of the opinion that, when it came to modern music, The Beatles are up there with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry on the top table, everything coming from there and traceable back to there. John Lennon is iconic, even for me – someone who wasn’t that au fait with his later output or a fan of his solo stuff. How can it be that a women able to stand, breathe, manage a lovely head of hair and form sentences cannot be sure that John Lennon was part of the biggest music phenomenon of the last century, even after being given his first name. You can see, I hope, why I felt justified.
But then, we are of an age where Simon Cowell dominates the contemporary musical world, and digital downloads and the instant accessibility of music is absolutely taken for granted. Simon Cowell is a man who recently disclosed to a national newspaper, via David Walliams, that song lyrics meant nothing to him; they were just words. This is why he doesn’t blink when an 11 year old belts out Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’, a song so heavily doused in emotional oil that it would destroy a city if someone lit a match, a song so heavy with the bitter experience of love that it’s hard to see even how Adele, in her early twenties, was able to write it down in a form that was quite so accessible. The songs lyrics, their meaning, the incongruity of it being sung over and over by anyone and anybody, is lost on Cowell.
Further, we’re in an age where anyone can have whatever music they desire easily, often at the click of a button. The magic of music before this point was not only in the poetry of the notes and words, strung together, expressed and heard, but in the expectation, the searching, the anticipation, the gradual building of a song you loved into something that everybody loved as word of mouth spread, or that you cherished as a rare and unknown nugget. Songs like New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ developed over years; REM released several fabulous albums before their real breakthrough in the late ’80s with Green. Tracks would gradually creep up the pop charts week on week, and there’d be a genuine excitement about what would do well and what would fail.
And music in the past could have an impact simply because it was able to hang around. Protest songs could prosper. The words and meanings of songs could be debated. From Dylan, through punk, the massive famine and poverty relief efforts in the eighties to, perhaps, the wave of left of centre artists cheer leading the incoming Labour government of 1997, music was able, on it’s own terms and merits, to influence thinking and sway opinion. Can music form a protest and influence politics and protest now? I suspect not, not in the same way. Perhaps this is why the very successful musicians – with Bono leading the charge – have to engage directly in politics, rather than belting out another ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’.
It’s not altogether a grumpy old man rant. The world is not what it was, and music isn’t the great provocateur it once was or I think it should be. There are still great writers writing great emotional, thought provoking, challenging songs. The beauty of today is that everyone can find their niche and there is room for many musicians and artists. Those wanting to avoid Cowell and the charts can do, without really missing anything of great note. Mainstream music has, certainly, taken a nose dive but with the benefit that niche music can prosper.
But I still find it very sad that a woman exposing her general knowledge on national television also exposed the fact that John Lennon is becoming a distant historical figure despite his profound influence on music, the way we live and the way the world operates today.