Noël Coward was so right that his words have become a cliché: it is indeed extraordinary how potent cheap music can be. Its potency, however, is not innate. Amanda Prynne, from Coward’s Private Lives, would not have been especially struck by ‘Some day I’ll Find You’ had it been playing on a wireless in a shop; its impact came from hearing it as she again encountered her ex-husband. For cheap music to be potent, context is everything. Without a wider meaning, a cheap little pop song is just notes and chords. With meaning, the most throwaway frippery can become an object of fascination.
That’s often true of the best known of songs.‘All You Need Is Love’, for example, would be a trite and condescending nursery rhyme without the existence of the worldwide TV broadcast, or the tenor of its times. If you just look at the bare facts — how it was recorded, how long it took to write and so on — it becomes another dull song.
That much becomes evident listening to an array of podcasts that have considered songs as individual artefacts, rather than bricks in the wall of an artist’s career. The long-running Song Exploder series takes one song at a time, and offers what are in effect monologues by the makers of those songs about how they came to pass. When it’s a song you care about, it’s fabulous — I had shivers listening to Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koening talking about ‘Harmony Hall’, my favourite track of last year, and demonstrating how it had evolved from him first dreaming up a single melodic phrase. When it’s a song you don’t care about, though, it’s nothing: for me, at least, hearing about the bass tones on ‘Money Machine’ by 100 gecs holds the same level of excitement as reading the instruction manual of a Black+Decker angle grinder.
But the worst of songs — ones so unbearable that reading the instruction manual of a Black+Decker angle grinder promises substantially more pleasure than listening to them again — come to life when located within wider culture.