How not to do it

Roger Scruton, in BBC Magazine, has written an article that is equal parts “Rah, rah, rah!” and “Wah, wah, wah!”

It’s pretty amazing—an extended whinge about how modern life is rubbish, and how everyone would be listening to classical music if music wasn’t everywhere.

It doesn’t deserve a serious response, so I haven’t given it one.

In almost every public place today the ears are assailed by the sound of pop music. In shopping malls, public houses, restaurants, hotels and elevators the ambient sound is not human conversation but the music disgorged into the air by speakers—usually invisible and inaccessible speakers that cannot be punished for their impertinence.

“Back in my day…” is not a promising way to start a column, so Scruton begins with the somewhat less conventional “Why can’t I punish impertinent electronics?”

Whole areas of civic space in our society are now policed by this sound, which drives anybody with the slightest feeling for music to distraction, and ensures that for many of us a visit to the pub or a meal in a restaurant have lost their residual meaning.

Remember when you had to be rich to eat in a restaurant that had musicians on staff? Even then, I’m pretty sure they weren’t all playing Haydn.

These are no longer social events, but experiments in endurance, as you shout at each other over the deadly noise.

Has he considered going to a different pub? Or maybe having some friends over for dinner? Then he could play what he likes—including nothing.

There are two reasons why this vacuous music has flown into every public space. One is the vast change in the human ear brought about by the mass production of sound.

sound of rapid typing as Scruton edits the Wikipedia page on the human ear to show the vast change brought about by the mass production of sound

For our ancestors music was something that you sat down to listen to, or which you made for yourself. It was a ceremonial event, in which you participated, either as a passive listener or as an active performer. Either way you were giving and receiving life, sharing in something of great social significance.

Or had dinner to, or danced to, or marched off to war with, or sang with friends, or ignored while walking up the street or talking in a restaurant. Seriously, it’s as if he thinks pop music was invented in the late twentieth century.

Incidentally, he may be the first lover of any form of music I’ve ever known to describe his listening as “passive”.

With the advent of the gramophone, the radio and now the iPod…

“Now” the iPod?

…music is no longer something that you must make for yourself…

More people are making and sharing music now than at any other time in history. It just happens to be music Scruton doesn’t like.

…nor is it something that you sit down to listen to.

Except when you do.

It follows you about wherever you go, and you switch it on as a background.

You do whatever you want with it. It’s your music.

You are rightly prevented from polluting the air of a restaurant with smoke; but nothing prevents the owner from inflicting this far worse pollution on his customers.

Pop music: literally worse than inhaling poison.

Of course, you can ask for the music to be turned off. But you will be met by blank and even hostile stares. What kind of a weirdo is this, who wants to impose his will on everyone? Who is he to dictate the noise levels? Such is the usual response.

“How dare this restaurant refuse to prioritise me above its other patrons?”

Has Scruton never left a restaurant or pub because it was too loud? I have. It was easy. I used a similar method to when I entered, only in the other direction.

Silence must be excluded at all cost, since it awakens you to the emptiness that looms on the edge of modern life, threatening to confront you with the dreadful truth, that you have nothing whatever to say.

Well, we don’t all have a magazine to publish the nothing we have to say.

I suspect that the increasing inarticulateness of the young, their inability to complete their sentences, to find telling phrases or images, or to say anything at all without calling upon the word “like” to help them out…

Criticising young people for using a different filler word from yours is, well, silly.

The magical encounter with the Beethoven quartet, the Bach suite, the Brahms symphony, in which your whole being is gripped by melodic and harmonic ideas and taken on a journey through the imaginary space of music—that experience which lies at the heart of our civilisation and which is an incomparable source of joy and consolation to all those who know it—is no longer a universal resource.

It never has been. For starters, you used to have to buy concert tickets. It also helped, then as much as now, to know something about the musical and social context in which the music was written.

The belief that there is a difference between good and bad, meaningful and meaningless, profound and vapid, exciting and banal—this belief was once fundamental to musical education. But it offends against political correctness. Today there is only my taste and yours. The suggestion that my taste is better than yours is elitist, an offence against equality.

No, the elitist part is when you’re a dick about it. Oh, look, Exhibit A:

The first step is to introduce the precious commodity of silence, so that your students are listening with open ears to the cosmos, and are beginning to forget their addictive pleasures. Then you play to them the things that you love. They will be bewildered at first. After all, how can this old geezer sit still for 50 minutes listening to something that hasn’t got a beat or a tune? Then you discuss the things that they love. Had they noticed, for example, that Lady Gaga in Poker Face stays for most of the tune on one note? Is that real melody? After a while they will see that they have in fact been making judgments all along—it is just that they were making the wrong ones.

Scruton’s three-hour lesson plan:

  • Hour one: silence
  • Hour two: some bewildering fifty-minute work
  • Hour three: Detailed analysis of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face
  • Not timetabled: deal with a lawsuit from the John Cage estate

I’m sure that Scruton was more than happy telling his students everything that was wrong with Lady Gaga’s Poker Face or whatever, and I’m sure they were even happier to get out of his class, and go home, and listen to it. (Poker Face? Really? After that and the reference to the iPod, I felt obliged to double-check the year on the byline. 15th November 2015. Also, in an article ostensibly about the superiority of classical music, Poker Face is the only named work. Wow.)

You have to wonder how many of his students were even willing to tell him honestly what they really liked, if all he was going to do was stand at the head of a classroom and bloviate about what was wrong with it. Did he even ask? Or did he just pick something out of the charts, and assume that that’s what they were into?

Picking apart a nonsense article like this is easy (and fun)—but it’s also important. This kind of rhetoric is short on substance, but prevalent and toxic. When people complain of elitism in music, it’s because of this: the notion that their taste will be declared insufficient or invalid by some jerk if they even bother to turn up. And who can blame them? Contrary to Scruton’s assertions, people form a real emotional bond with the music they listen to—yes, Roger, even pop—and being told that something you love is wrong or bad simply because it doesn’t conform to what someone else expects is not an experience anyone wants.

But people who listen to what Scruton calls pop (and he’s using it as an absurdly large umbrella term to cover, as far as I can tell, everything that can’t be categorised as classical, jazz, or traditional) have a far more powerful weapon than his magazine column. They can ignore him. That’s been happening for a hundred years, and people like Scruton just don’t seem to understand why. His take on people’s favourite music has no more effect on them than an old man yelling at a cloud.

For me, as a lover of classical music (and jazz, and some of what Scruton would call pop), there’s nothing that makes me want to stop listening more than the self-righteous, condescending, narrow-minded, empty—frankly, theological—rhetoric of its cheerleaders.

Fortunately, the allure of the music I love has always been stronger than the repulsive force of those who’d have a world with nothing else. But what about people who weren’t as lucky as I have been, to have had great teachers and musical experiences growing up? If every teacher was a teacher like Scruton, wasting time that could be spent talking about Barbara Strozzi to pontificate about Lady Gaga, classical music would already be dead.

One last bit, as an addendum:

When Metallica appeared at the 2014 Glastonbury festival there was a wake-up moment of this kind—the recognition that these guys, unlike so many who had performed there, actually had something to say. Yes, there are distinctions of quality, even in the realm of pop.

You can almost feel Scruton pausing for the collective gasp at this banal statement.

I’d tentatively suggest that some “pop” musicians—Radiohead, Kate Bush, The Beatles—have far more to offer in terms of musical substance and imagination than some canonical composers—Johann Strauss, Vivaldi, Kabalevsky—but then I suppose that wouldn’t be fair. It’s far harder for Scruton to make his argument if he can’t just compare Lady Gaga to Brahms.