‘Pop pollution’ as ‘pornography’? I can’t even

Last week, the philosopher Roger Scruton used a 10-minute talk on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Point of View’ programme to rail, once more, against popular culture. His talk, entitled ‘The Tyranny of Pop’, attacked what he sees as the denigration of culture, social interaction and education by the ‘banal melodies’, ‘mechanical rhythms’ and general ubiquity of ‘vacuous’ popular music. In what has become his typical style, Scruton blamed the ills of society on pop music, demonstrating little understanding of popular culture but rather extolling a monolithic notion of what ‘Music’ is.

The first part of the talk concerned the ubiquity of popular music in public places and the ‘banal’ noise ‘disgorged’ from hidden speakers. The resulting chaos has led to a situation, apparently, where human interaction is no longer possible and public space has been conquered by inhuman sound. Ignoring the fact that all the disastrous developments he finds abhorrent are the result of human interaction and invention, Scruton posits a timeless notion of the ‘human’ that has been destroyed by an inhuman ‘them’ (‘they’ are left unnamed except for a reference to the now-defunct Muzak company).

‘Anybody with the slightest feeling for music’, argued Scruton, is now driven to distraction when undertaking a visit to the pub or restaurant and has to struggle to endure the torture afflicting their ears. The problem, apparently, stems from the invention of the phonograph in the 1870s and the subsequent decline in musical understanding throughout the twentieth century as new technologies were accompanied by new cultures of listening and performance.

There are problems with this chronology, however. The idea that (annoying) noise is an invention of the twentieth century shows little historical awareness of sound in society. As Emily Cockayne has shown in her wonderful book Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England 1600-1770, early modern English cities were constant sources of assault on the senses. And, as numerous other studies from the disciplines of musicology, history, literature and sound studies have also shown, sonic and other sensory nuisances are not restricted to urban centres. Societies are noisy things and have been, it seems, for as long as people have been making critical noises about them.

But Scruton is not really interested in sound in this sense. Instead, social noise is used as the Trojan horse from which he can build, yet again, a set of elitist views on music, its culture and values. Pop music’s melodies, rhythms and recycled ‘stock harmonies’ signal ‘the eclipse of the musical ear’. Pop doesn’t need to be listened to because it has nothing serious to communicate. Rather, it has become the cause of, and not just one of a long historical line of ingredients in, the contemporary hubbub.

Scruton also used his talk to attack the language and culture of young people, citing the over-use of the word ‘like’ as an example and claiming that this inarticulacy of today’s youth was due to listening to pop. As the extremity of his views escalated, he stated that ‘pop pollution has an effect on musical appreciation comparable to pornography on sex’ and that ‘pop addicts lose the capacity for genuine musical experience’. Classical music is no longer a ‘universal resource’ and younger generations are left impoverished by this. There is no question here of whether, or where or for whom, classical music was a ‘universal music’, no recognition that there could be anything of musical value outside the Western European world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is a timeless ‘Music’, for Scruton, just as there is a timeless ‘Human’.

As Scruton’s attack on noise, pop and young people reached its midpoint in one rapid reactionary point after another, my mind switched to a phrase a younger generation has adopted to articulate a sudden onset of shocking, unpleasant, scary or otherwise alarming information: ‘I can’t even’. While this may seem like proof of Scruton’s points – a signal of a real inability to process ideas – ‘I can’t even’ can also be seen as a witty and self-aware status and place marker posted temporarily while its user prepares a more time-consuming response. I also thought of how Scruton’s attacks showed so little contemplation on or awareness of the ways language evolves. Far from being the death of language, young people’s communication practices are products of, responses to and new inventions of the multiform possibilities allowed by language. When David Crystal wrote a piece for The Guardian some years ago in which he defended text messaging against accusations of linguistic degeneracy, he showed how the accumulation of knowledge gained from a lifetime’s study of a discipline can and must be allied with a sympathetic understanding of contemporary, cross-generational society. Unlike Crystal, however, Scruton would seemingly have us all stuck permanently in a cultural nineteenth century.

Since at least the 1960s we have witnessed an often brilliant succession of critical responses to rock and pop music in popular magazines, newspapers, books and digital media platforms, work that has shown the vitality of the music and the culture from which it emerges. As an academic discipline, popular music studies has grown over the last few decades into a vibrant international forum of ideas, approaches and discoveries. Pop music does not emerge from such analysis unscathed or uncriticised, but it does show itself to be an object worthy of serious, informed discussion.

Given the success of such endeavours, it may seem unnecessary to rise to the bait of a talk clearly designed to stir, albeit from the fairly safe environs of a Radio 4 morning slot, a bit of controversy. After all, not only is Scruton entitled to his ‘point of view’, but there will doubtless be a large number of listeners for whom he is speaking good sense. But my concern lies not only with the fact that Scruton’s views serve to undermine the work of fans, critics and scholars who are trying to take popular culture seriously. I worry too that there are residual, often dominant, forces within the academic and critical community who are unable or unwilling to take popular culture seriously even in late 2015 and who are shaping the cultural understanding of culture and the educational environment in which it is understood.

As a self-confessed ‘pop addict’, I may, of course, have lost ‘the capacity for genuine musical appreciation’. Even so, I take some comfort from the knowledge that – as pop fans have always known and as pop criticism and cultural musicology attempt to reinforce – pop can be a launching pad for thinking every bit as ‘erudite’ as Scruton’s but of a richer, more relevant and more inclusive sort. Hopefully those voices can ignore the moral and intellectual bullying propounded in attacks on what they hold to be valuable and make themselves heard as part of, not above or beyond, the hubbub.

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2 thoughts on “‘Pop pollution’ as ‘pornography’? I can’t even

  1. I think you slightly mis-represent Scruton’s argument in that he does encompass musical appreciation within the genre of pop music, citing Metallica’s performance at Galstonbury. There is clearly good and bad within the pop industry but it is extraordinary how that one genre dominates our lives: on the radio, in the shops and restaurants.
    It has even infiltrated the Classical music world in the form of cross-over where neither pop culture nor art is served, I would argue.
    Pop music dominates for a reason: It demands almost nothing of the listener.
    99% of it is in 4/4 and based on three chords. Listening to Pop music alone is a bit like saying: “I’m only going to read books that have pictures and words of no more than three syllables”
    If you still can’t face the idea of listening to Classical music, do give silence a go, it’s terrific.

    • For me, Scruton’s attempt at differentiation within pop is tokenistic and comes very late in his talk, after he has already done the damage (as I see it) of equating pop with porn and denigrating its listeners as mindless addicts. It’s the cause-and-effect argument I take issue with, along with the arrogant elitism. I also dislike the way he talks about young people. I love silence, have no problem with it whatsoever. But Scruton’s talk is only tangentially about that – the more pernicious part (the loud, annoying and tyrannical part!) is his put-down of the vernacular and youth culture that he clearly abhors. If he’d really wanted to talk about silence, he could have done so without making those uninformed pot shots. As for your other comments, there is nothing in what I’ve written that says I want to listen ‘to pop music alone’ or that I expect anyone else to. And at no point do I say that I can’t face listening to classical music. On the contrary, it’s part of my job: I teach a second year university course called ‘The Rise of Classical Music’.

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