According to some research gushingly extolled by two articles in today’s Times, Dostoyevsky, Gogol and the rest of Russian literature “are surpassed in sadness by a surprising genre. It’s the lyrics of English-language pop songs.”
That conclusion “ought to prompt a reassessment by cultural critics of an art form that is often misguidedly thought of as lowbrow…,” adds the paper.
One doesn’t know where to begin. Perhaps as good a starting point as any would be to comment on an obvious logical inconsistency.
Sad and lowbrow are by no means antonyms. It’s possible to be both, as anyone who remembers the old song Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road will tell you. It’s also possible to be neither, as any listener of Mozart’s Turkish Rondo will agree.
The implication that sadness is ipso facto a sign of refinement is quite simply false (my wife has made me promise not to use stronger adjectives), but then one doesn’t expect proper sequential thought from hacks.
What one does expect from them these days is vulgarity at its most soaring, and in this respect the two articles in today’s Times reach new heights.
Comparing great works of art with pop, whatever they are compared on and whatever conclusion is reached, is vulgar by definition.
At least apples and oranges are both round fruit, meaning they belong in the same category. Real art and pop excretions don’t. They don’t even belong in the same order of humanity.
Pop lyrics can’t be analysed by the criteria of art, poetry or literature. As an object of research they can only function in the domain of anthropology, sociology, the study of shamanistic cults, psychiatry, commerce or even pharmacology (its amateur practice).
They aren’t so much lowbrow as infrabrow. Pop is designed to be perceived not by the organ behind the brow but by the one between the legs.
Admittedly, I’m not a keen student of various pop genres. That’s why I’m ready to work with the exhibits helpfully provided by The Times.
These are pop lyrics “at their finest” that have the advantage of being “more personal” (if possibly “less dramatic”) over “such great works of 20th-century music as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Mahler’s Fifth Symphony”.
Exhibit One: Bob Dylan’s “Twenty years of schoolin’ / And they put you on the day shift.”
One can see how the poignancy of this heart-rending existential lament easily matches – nay, outdoes! – the musings of those Karamazov whingers. Now had the protagonist been put on the night shift after all those years of schoolin’, the personal drama would completely trivialise even Bach’s Passions.
Do you need me to comment? Didn’t think so.
Exhibit Two: Joni Mitchell’s lament on the destruction of the environment: “They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum / And they charged all the people a dollar and a half to see ‘em.”
What can possibly rival the sublime melancholy of this dirge? Mozart’s Requiem? Forgedaboudid.
Of course, a brief walk through London parks, to say nothing of the New Forest, would suggest that not ‘all the trees’ are now museum exhibits. Moreover, one could observe trees there free of charge, keeping the $1.50 in one’s pocket. But hey, true art is allowed poetic licence.
Exhibit 3: The Who’s “People try to put us down / Just because we get around.”
If words don’t rhyme, we can make them rhyme, can’t we? But one has to agree that one would be justified to feel rather sad about being put down without sufficient cause.
Then again, Mary was justified in lamenting Jesus being crucified without sufficient cause in St Matthew’s Passion. The latter lament may be more dramatic, but the former one is more personal.
Who’s to say which one is more melancholy? Certainly not The Times. In any case, they are supposedly comparable.
Exhibit 4: The Doors’ “It’s all over for the unknown soldier.”
It was also all over for Andrei Bolkonsky, his wife, Count Myshkin, Lensky, Anna Karenina, Stavrogin and other protagonists of Russian literature, so the parallel is unimpeachable.
As to The Doors’ indisputable observation, exactly what’s unknown here? The soldier’s name or that he indeed was a soldier? Clearly, the subtext of pop effluvia is as enigmatic as that of great literature.
Exhibit 5: Morrissey’s “Why do I smile at people I’d rather kick in the eye?”
Why indeed? It would be so much more angst-provoking, profound and interesting if Mr Morrissey did kick everyone he meets in the eye.
Of course, unless he holds a karate black belt, he’d have to knock those objectionable individuals down first, where their eyes would be within striking range of his feet – but we are none of us naturalists, are we?
Actually, one immediate answer to the question so provocatively posed would be that the law might take exception to such acts, but we aren’t after obvious answers here. We’re after plumbing emotional depths.
Raskolnikov and Bezuhov struggled with similar, albeit less personal, conundrums, but the sheer acuteness of Morrisey’s stark question reduces those characters to banality.
“These,” explains The Times, “are commentaries and explorations, not merely entertainments. They encapsulate the concerns of postwar generations.”
Here I have to pull my tongue out of my cheek and nod an unreserved agreement. These unmitigated vulgarities do encapsulate post-war generations – with their ignorance, anomie, tastelessness, materialism and absence of critical judgement.
One would hope that our formerly respectable newspapers would be scathing about this cultural and spiritual calamity, rather than dignifying it with sympathetic discussion.
Such a hope would be forlorn: the papers have to be sold and, even if the hacks knew what’s what, which they probably don’t, they wouldn’t be able to say it for fear of offending most of their readers.
The circle is complete, and boy is it ever vicious.