Music to Feed the Soul
Watching the footage of Michael Jackson performing at the 1995 MTV Awards, for a few seconds I thought the camera was showing stilted frames or somehow distorting the recording. I then realised that what I was watching was a human being in full reality. Many people have performed what is known as ‘the robot’. Some have done it well, some not so well, some have been outstanding, but they have always looked like a person performing as a robot. Watching Michael Jackson feels like watching a machine. It feels more than human, too perfect to be human, and yet somehow merging clean precision with dirty, animal imperfection and magnetic sexuality, polished and raw at the same time. His performance was flawless but the man and powerful humanity glimmered through in the hint of stubble on his chin and the wildness of his hair, the knowledge and experience in his hips, something simultaneously immaculately mechanic and deeply human.
There are artists who create the trends that others follow and true originality rarely occurs, even when it seems to. Even when people appear to be unique and original their originality can often be traced to somewhere far back, to someone who did it first. There are however rare artists who change how people feel about music, how people perform music and what music means. To all the ten year olds buying Justin Timberlake’s albums and concert tickets, he is almost certainly original. To them his style of dancing and the titled trilby hat are no doubt trendsetting and cutting edge. I remember only too well being told by my parents (both music lovers) that they’d seen it all before whenever I enthused in raptures about the latest one hit wonder in the number one slot.
Music is something powerfully personal, something we dance to in our bedroom when no-one can see us and one of the few things in life that we are able to choose for ourselves. When we are begging our parents for the latest trainers so that we fit in with our friends at school and struggling with the dilemma ‘all my friends are smoking so I should’, no-one tells us what song to listen to when we go home after school or what album to spend our last ten pounds on. Music is one of life’s rare choices. We form our decisions based on how specific music makes us feel. It’s one of the only things in life that one can make ‘my thing’, to have ‘my band’ and ‘my song’. It is profoundly our own. The songs of Oasis and Liam Gallagher’s voice for example, though I don’t particularly rate them as technically extraordinary, will never lose an almost mystic quality able to transport me instantaneously back to the 90’s and my teenage years like a sepia photograph, and will always ‘do something’ to me which I will never succeed in confining to words. Cold breath on the spine doesn’t begin do it justice. The last few seconds of Feeling Good by Nina Simone, no matter how many times I hear them, will never cease to take my breath away, and the way I feel about these pieces of music is something personal and unique. It may be similar to the experiences of other people, but never quite the same.
As someone who forgives Amy Winehouse her shambolic breakdowns on stage because of her talent, I find it impossible to understand the appeal that manufactured music has for so many people. Whether you enjoy her music or not, artists like Amy Winehouse are genuine and real. They wrote the songs they sing, the words are written about their own experiences and emotions and when they sing those emotions are vivid in their voice. Bands who play their own instruments are able to create something; a completeness and a sincerity which is completely missing from bands who simply sit on stools. Why do so many people, young and old, proudly state their musical preference as, for example, Westlife; a group of admittedly good looking young men who wear either identical or co-ordinating outfits (usually suits), mine plastically to their own pre-recorded, inoffensive, anodyne voices singing songs that have been covered by every band to come along for the past thirty (or more) years? The only word to encapsulate bands like this is ‘nice’. They look very nice and have very nice voices and are certainly very nice men. I can half-forgive (though reluctantly) the teenage girls who swoon and daydream over the polished, chiselled features and squeaky clean image, but I cannot understand the appeal for grown adults. True music should not be perfect or polished. It should be raw, sensual and unafraid. Another story altogether is the reason for people stating their musical preference as ‘dance music’, that I cannot understand.
I suppose it would be hypocritical to claim that music is a choice and then condemn those with different opinions to my own, but the clue (as they say) is in the question. How does one define music? For me, music is a real, human voice which demonstrates the life it has lived in its imperfection and inimitability, a voice that doesn’t hide pain and the exertion of life. Lyrics that tell their story poetically and beautifully, and rhythm and beat which makes me want to move, which vibrates and speaks to the body. Whether it’s live performance or listening to a cd, music has to ‘do something’ to you, has to make you feel, even change. If Westlife is what elicits that experience then who am I to argue?
Watching Michael Jackson in 1995 was to watch a demonstration of physical transcendence. The music in that instance served more as a backdrop to the dancing but was in any case outstanding, but that performance was a master at their very best. Billie Jean is one of a small collection of songs which have this elusive power I have been attempting to define, the power to ‘do something’. The beat makes the body pulse and urge to move. You can’t help but want to dance. Do people really feel this when they hear a Westlife song? Two songs by Dusty Springfield; Son of Preacher Man and Take Another Little Piece of My Heart are among the songs which urge me to sing, though none of the notes will be right. Certain songs make me want to sing and sing loud and have a power to fill me up from head to toe with an energy, a power, something indefinable. This is what music should do. It shouldn’t be ‘nice’ and safe, it should challenge the listener to a fight and win.
Music should have power, whether it’s the words, the beat, the voice or the instrumental performance, music should make you want to talk about it, to dance, to sing, even cry. I find it difficult to understand why there is such a place in society and in the music business for the manufactured music and android ‘bands’ which are evidently popular but in my opinion definitely not music.