The recent news that the form of music known as Reggae is to be added to the Unesco world heritage list of intangible cultural treasures received very little comment in the media. Many people, on hearing it will think ‘and not before time’. Who can forget the cultural richness of Max Romeo’s hit song Wet Dream with its catchy beat and moving lyrics, ‘Every night me go to bed me have wet dreams. Lie down girl let me push it up push it up. Lie down’.
The song, which was a hit in the sixties was, inexplicably, banned by the BBC. It has the typical and unmistakeable Reggae beat which originated in Jamaica and whose most famous exponent was Bob Marley. Reggae is not to be confused with Rock Steady nor with Ska which are other forms of popular music which have related origins. It is not to be confused with House, Rap, Funk, Prog Rock, Doom Metal, or any of the other hundreds of types of popular music that come and go on the pop music scene.
There will of course be the usual crowd of churlish curmudgeons, including me, who will argue that pop music shouldn’t be included on lists of the world’s cultural treasures. Rod Liddle, in a recent Speccie article referred to ‘the final crushing triumph of witless popular music since the 1950s, of music gradually denuded of everything which makes it valuable – denuded, in the end, of music itself’. (‘Save me, please from people “living life to the full”’). Mr Liddle was referring to the street drummers who are enjoying a certain vogue in Europe at the moment but his comments also apply to popular music in general.
I suspect Rod doesn’t mind a bit of Reggae now and again. Bob Marley at his best wrote some memorable and enjoyable songs. But putting a form of popular music on a world cultural heritage list is a bit like giving Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize for literature as it gives an art form which is in rapid decline, an importance it doesn’t deserve.
Allan Bloom’s The Closing of The American Mind has the subtitle ‘How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students’. Although Bloom was writing about American culture the book applies equally to contemporary higher education throughout the Western world. Bloom’s book contains a chapter on contemporary pop music in which he pours contempt on popular entertainers including Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Boy George and Prince. He makes the point that ‘…the Left, which …is unrelenting and unsparing in its analysis of our other cultural phenomena, has in general given rock music a free ride’.
There is throughout the Western world a concerted and widespread attack on high culture. The elevation of Reggae by Unesco, the award of a Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan and the fierce opposition by Australian academics to accepting funds from the Ramsay bequest to study Western civilisation, are all part of a celebration of philistinism.
Every time some drug-addled rock star is found dead in his bed from an overdose of drugs or alcohol (and there have been over 100 such cases including Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Sid Vicious, Michael Jackson, Prince) the media mourns the loss to humanity of a musical genius. In fact most of the ‘geniuses’ whose songs infest the airwaves today are musical mediocrities whose work will be forgotten in a few decades.
The Wikipedia article on Michael Jackson describes him thus: ‘he is regarded as one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century and is also regarded as one of the greatest entertainers of all time’.
It is a sign of our times that the normally reliable people at Wiki can allow such fulsome rubbish to pass without comment. That he was one of the most successful American entertainers in recent years is beyond dispute but to claim that this weird, self-obsessed singer is one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century says more about our current obsession with pop music and our inability to distinguish true musical genius from ephemeral rubbish than it does about Mr Jackson’s talents.
Those who disagree should look at the YouTube video of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit to get an idea of the potential power of popular songs. Compare the work of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Leadbelly with that of contemporary American black popular singers to see how far this form of music has degenerated.
Callas, Pavarotti and Sutherland are some of the great 20th century singers whose work, thanks to modern recording, will still be appreciated one hundred years from now while most of the pop stars that have emerged from the modern recording industry will become a musical curiosity. The Rolling Stones will be lumped with The Bay City Rollers, the Kinks, The Grateful Dead and the other 20th century pop groups and will be forgotten by all but cultural historians.
Exactly what popular music will sound like one hundred years from now is impossible to say and if the dumbing down of music continues, then what we shall have to listen to in future supermarket aisles will be genuine drivel.
Despite the fact that so much great music, brilliantly performed is freely available on the internet, the majority of us hardly bother to listen to it and the possibility that we are entering another cultural Dark Ages must be considered. The entertainment and popular music industries are churning out an incessant stream of musical bilge and the ability to discriminate between what is great music and what is rubbish is lost to most young people today because of this.
We owe it to future generations to resist the white-anting of the greatest moments in Western civilisation. Beethoven’s music is as important as Shakespeare’s plays and Plato’s dialogues. Unesco’s eagerness to celebrate indigenous cultures around the world should not prevent us from recognising that great art, in its various manifestations, is a celebration of all humanity while popular music is a commentary on a particular time and place.
Compare the YouTube video of Alice Sara Ott playing Beethoven’s third piano concerto with anything by, for instance, Elton John. Four hundred years from now Beethoven’s music will still be listened to with the reverence that we accord great performances of Shakespeare’s plays today. Popular music of our time will be forgotten.
Tony Letford won the 2015 Spectator Thawley Essay Prize. For this year’s $5,000 Essay competition theme go to: spectator.com.au/thawley18