A short while ago, I unexpectedly found myself with a girlfriend. Whilst this is obviously a desirable situation to be in, it does present its own set of challenges. Among the most pressing of these is the task of persuading my dearly cherished to share, or at least appreciate, my (as I see it) more adventurous taste in music, ranging from Palestrina to Slipknot in its diversity. Essentially, I am concerned that my particular penchant for what might be described as the “coarser” styles of music inevitably has a strong chance of offending her acutely Take That-conditioned ears. So in order that I can play Appetite For Destruction at full volume, without having to wait for an empty house, action must be taken. Should I be successful, maybe one day I’ll be able to experience the joy being asked if we can listen to Led Zeppelin II again, instead of:
“You know what I feel like right now? Busted’s A Present For Everyone!“
Introducing her to my mother was easy; introducing her to Jimi Hendrix will be an altogether different prospect. The problem, as I see it, is to give my perspective without coming across as a music snob. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem was I not, in fact, a music snob. To further complicate my conundrum, I don’t think there’s actually that much wrong with the likes of Busted. Their records are tuneful and the singing’s not off-key; their song structures might be conventional but this in itself makes them accessible. In other words, they’re “commercial” – but that word is an absolute no-no if one doesn’t wish to come across as a snob. “Busted are so commercial” implies that real music is two-hour atonal keyboard doodlings that one has to sit back and think about. But music doesn’t have to be intellectual to be great. I love Beethoven and Wagner, but I also love “Jumpin’ Jack Flash“, “Anarchy in the UK“, Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “That’ll Be The Day” by Buddy Holly and the Crickets – basic in terms of structure, perhaps not even as tuneful or as well sung as Busted, but they all hit me on a gut level, pulsing through me with the dynamic joy of someone picking up an instrument and creating music. All I am trying to do is to share that same joy with her.
Of course, this tends to be interpreted as an attack on her personal taste. She’s reluctant to let me look through her iPod, but I need to know what I’m dealing with. I persevere until, in order to keep me quiet, she yields. She needn’t have worried though: as I scan through the list of artists, I don’t encounter the vacuum of musical ability that I had expected, and my cynicism remains on its leash. There may be a raised eyebrow at Razorlight, or a wince at The Kooks, but on the whole I’m reasonably encouraged by the material that I have to work with. Ah, Elvis. Good, sweet, brave, true, dependable Elvis: he might give me the opening I need. Just as he took the blues to White America, so will he take the blues to her. The blues is a vast room just filled with great artists creating often very simple, but totally addictive, expressive, visceral music, and Elvis is the key to the door of that room. Still, she obviously has some taste – after all, she is going out with me – and there’s very little on here that’s actually terrible. It’s full of polished, catchy or slightly annoying unit-shifters: fine for a quick hit of musical energy, but they don’t have that sense of creation, that raw dynamic of something like The Doors or The Velvet Underground.
“Raw dynamic”, rather than “rough sounding”, is just the sort of language that’s going to be crucial if I’m ever to spin her round to the merits of truly creative music – the same spin that will render “tuneless” as “unconventional”, “loud” as “powerfully expressive”, and “tediously repetitive” as “entrancingly primal”. “The problem with McFly,” I mention casually, “is that they lack the raw dynamic of, say, The Doors.” I’m met with silence, and understandably so. There’s only one thing for it: to play her a Doors song. But she doesn’t like “creepy” things, and Jim Morrison’s a bit too creepy, sending her scuttling back to the cosy sunshine-and-flowers world of Noah and the Whale and the reassuring-as-grandma’s-carpet-voiced other Jim Morrison, of “You Give Me Something” fame. A second random shuffle on my own mp3 player fares little better when she throws the earphone out at the first “oink-oink” of that swing classic, “Barnyard Boogie“. It seems we both have musical prejudices to overcome.
Having conducted a preliminary examination of her iPod I decide to start big, and send her, through the post, a copy of Mozart’s Great Mass In C Minor. Maybe it’s too much too soon, but there’s no harm in trying. This is music’s Swiss watch, every part in its place, flowing seamlessly with perfect harmony and precision. More importantly, it’s just gorgeous to listen to. Whilst I’m not expecting her to be wholly enraptured by it after just a few listenings, if she finds it in any way soothing or harmonious, or indeed has any reaction other than outright rejection, then my gift will not have been in vain. Her response is to send me Robbie Williams’ Greatest Hits. This musical education, it would appear, works both ways. What Mozart is to me – almost inhuman, transcendent and spiritually resonant – Williams is to her, for in her own words “Robbie is a god”. I don’t share such an exalted opinion of the man, but for the sake of my own education I’m prepared to give it a go. It’s not too bad: there are the iconic nineties’ classics “Angels” and the (rather presumptuous) “Let Me Entertain You“, along with the pleasingly idiosyncratic “Rock DJ” and “Millennium“. Her favourite is “She’s The One” – ironically, the only track on the album which he didn’t write (it’s a World Party cover). Still, he mostly writes his own stuff, sings it well enough and there’s a surprising degree of variety on the compilation. It might not be my sort of thing, but it’s commendable enough, and if I can share these positives with her then my snobbery might just melt away. Now if I can apply the same positives to Hendrix, all will be well.
Later, the BBC2 broadcast of a live performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto proves a fortuitous breakthrough. She’s really into it, perhaps as enthralled with the story as the music, but the latter can hardly be ignored. I prattle about the nuances of the orchestra, the sublime union of the instruments and the spine-chilling thematic power, but my words are pointless – the music has to reach her on an emotional level, away from the theory of cadences and acciaccaturas. Whether it’s soothing or exciting, dramatic or melancholy, it ought to be capable of speaking, or singing, for itself.
And if she does get into orchestral music, perhaps heavy metal isn’t too distant a possibility. Maybe the mighty Metallica, with their classically influenced intervals and harmonies, are lying in wait. As it was for me, Metallica might open the door to a whole world of heavy guitar-based music which, beyond all the screaming and devil imagery, is often packed with creative ideas and astonishing musicianship. But there’s no real hurry for that, not just yet.
Maybe she’ll never come around to enjoying The Smiths, Dead Kennedys, Ray Charles and The Clash, but at the very least I’ll enjoy the attempt of introducing them to her immensely. My hope is that this musical education will grow and mature from its promising start, and that we have a long future ahead of us to see it bear fruit. The important thing is to not try too hard, but let each other be carried away by the experiential nature of this thing that I love so dearly. That goes for the relationship too.