The Rapprochement Between Pop Music and High Culture

Published in The Huffington Post, 9th May 2012

“Pop and thought don’t go together,” a BBC controller once said, resisting the introduction of pop music to his schedules. That battle was won a long time ago, but the sentiment behind it lingers still; pop music lacks the esteem accorded to other art. Poets, not pop-stars, win Nobel Prizes. But several recent developments suggest the guardians of high culture are carving an alcove for pop music in the pantheon of high art.

This month, The Mays“, Cambridge-based literary launch-pad of Will Self and Zadie Smith, appointed singer-songwriter John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats its poetry editor. The indie rockstar’s predecessors once included heavyweight poets like Ted Hughes and Andrew Motion. Last year’s guest editor, however, was Jarvis Cocker.

The Britpop pioneer has meanwhile been invited by Cambridge don John Kinsella to give a reading at the university’s English Faculty – part of a series that’s already featured Sonic Youth‘s Thurston Moore and this month hosting readings by Nick Cave-collaborator Blixa Bargeld and Lee Ranaldo(also of Sonic Youth). Addressing his critics, said Prof Kinsella: “I’ve always felt that poetry lives in many spaces and I’m not that interested in boundaries, other than crossing them.”

Cambridge has form here; a few years ago Dr Eric Griffiths, once denounced as elitist for mocking an admissions candidate, set Amy Winehouse to be parsed in a poetry exam. Pop music has scaled the heights of Cambridge University’s ivory tower.

And not just Cambridge’s. Oxford Professor of Poetry, Christopher Ricks, whose previous books had been on Milton, Tennyson and Housman, famously wrote a serious work of literary criticism about Bob Dylan, Visions of Sin, in which Sir Christopher dares to ask whether Dylan is better than Keats.

Pop music’s respectability stretches beyond academia to the august world of literary publishing. This year, prestige poetry press Faber & Faber, made Jarvis Cocker editor-at-large, a position originally occupied by that consummate high-culture contrarian, poet T. S. Eliot. Director Lee Brackstone insisted “Jarvis just seemed a natural fit with the Faber sensibility” – a sensibility that is publisher to 12 Nobel Literature Laureates.

Britain’s pre-eminent literary magazine, The London Review of Books, raised highbrow eyebrows, too, by including in last month’s issue alongside essays on Karl Marx and Sir Thomas More 6768 choice words on David Bowie. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the crusty Spectator, whose disdain for popular culture is well-known, last week had two posts celebrating Bob Marley, one exalting his “perfect songs of freedom, love and redemption.”

Is time acting as the great critical arbiter, pop music acquiring respectability just as the popular tunes of the operetta or Tin Pan Alley have long been elevated to exemplars of a highbrow sensibility? But from Johann Strauss II to Oscar Hammerstein II, popular musicians used to spend a lot longer in the waiting room before Radio 3 deigned to come knocking. There is something more meaningful afoot.

From Joy Division’s reverential mining of J. G. Ballard (The Atrocity Exhibition was a novel before a song) to Mark E. Smith’s post-punk band The Fall (named after the existentialist tome by Camus), well-read British pop has been a fluctuating phenomenon. But only recently has it garnered such wholesale acceptance by the high culture establishment. All the while we see in pop music a reinvigorated, pervasive embrace of literary influences, whether in The Klaxons’ allusions to Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow or in the literate lyrics of Betjeman-obsessed British Sea Power, reputed to be “the brainiest band in British pop”.

An engagement with poetry looms large, especially Betjeman. As Noble from British Sea Power put it: “Betjeman’s wit, furtiveness and charisma made him a prototype for some of pop’s recent best lyricists – Jarvis Cocker, Stuart Murdoch, Morrissey.” Yeats, too – last September, The Waterboys’ album An Appointment with Mr Yeats, was the latest pop interpretation of the Irish bard’s lyrics (a trend encompassing musicians from Idlewild to Carla Bruni).

British pop’s conciliatory overtures to high culture have provoked a counter-reaction from its old-fashioned scions, amusingly coming to the fore in Liam Gallagher’s dismissal of the bookish Bloc Party as a “band off University Challenge”. Bloc Party frontman Kele Okereke, an English graduate, had a riposte typical of pop’s intellectual turn: “It is really daft to reinforce the idea that there is something cool about being dumb.” The packed crowds at the concert-cum-literary-salons organised by Bands and Books are inclined to agree.

All of these developments exhibit a welcome contemporary rapprochement between the worlds of pop music and high culture in Britain. All that lacks now is, in true pop-fashion, a bold gesture that could cement the union. Nobel laureates in literature are a curious company, encompassing a Tory statesman, a leftie logician, even a communist comedian. Perhaps it’s time a pop star, too, acceded to the honour – as a certain guitar-strumming Minnesotan minstrel very nearly did last time round…

Cambridge in Literature: G. K. Chesterton’s “Manalive”

Published in The Cambridge Student, November 2010

G.K. Chesterton was his friend C.S. Lewis’s only real competitor as England’s greatest Christian apologist, but unlike Lewis, his career as a novelist seems to be less widely acknowledged than his bestselling polemical works, like Orthodoxy and The Eternal Man. But always underlying the novels of both writers was the spirited attempt to affirm a decidedly Christian worldview of fallible Man who by the grace of God might lead a meaningful and fulfilled life. In his 1912 novel, Manalive, Chesterton affirms the Christian message in the character of Innocent Smith (the name is hardly subtle), a Prince Myshkin-like Cambridge graduate, ‘a holy fool’ who is falsely accused of burglary, attempted murder and polygamy: hardly Christlike. After letters from his contemporaries at the fictional Brikespeare College are mined (sarcastic descriptions of which suggest Chesterton’s contempt for 19th century liberal Bible Criticism), it transpires that the house he burgled was his own, the attempted murder merely his habit of firing bullets near people to make them cherish life and the polygamy his kinkily Catholic hobby of eloping with women who are actually his wife posing under various aliases so that they may repeatedly re-live their thoroughly chaste courtship. This irony-laden extract lambastes Cambridge’s spirit of what Chesterton viewed to be a nihilistic scientific skepticism (knowledge of which was likely culled from conversations with Cambridge fellow CS Lewis).

He had been sent to Cambridge with a view to a mathematical and scientific, rather than a classical or literary, career. A starless nihilism was then the philosophy of the schools; and it bred in him a war between the members and the spirit, but one in which the members were right.  While his brain accepted the black creed, his very body rebelled against it. As he put it, his right hand taught him terrible things. As the authorities of Cambridge University put it, unfortunately, it had taken the form of his right hand flourishing a loaded firearm in the very face of a distinguished don, and driving him to climb out of the window and cling to a waterspout. He had done it solely because the poor don had professed in theory a preference for non-existence. For this very unacademic type of argument he had been sent down. Vomiting as he was with revulsion, from the pessimism that had quailed under his pistol, he made himself a kind of fanatic of the joy of life.  He cut across all the associations of serious-minded men.  He was gay, but by no means careless. His practical jokes were more in earnest than verbal ones. Though not an optimist in the absurd sense of maintaining that life is all beer and skittles, he did really seem to maintain that beer and skittles are the most serious part of it. `What is more immortal,’ he would cry, `than love and war? Type of all desire and joy–beer.  Type of all battle and conquest–skittles.’

G. K. Chesterton, Manalive (1912)

Greatest Cantabrigians: Jawaharlal Nehru

Published in Varsity, November 2009

Not only did Jawaharlal Nehru achieve one of the highest ever firsts in Cambridge’s NatSci tripos, but he also defeated the British Empire. Gandhi’s protégé and de facto leader of the Indian independence movement, he spent over a decade in British jails fighting for freedom for his 300 million countrymen. Elected the first and longest-serving Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy, he set the impoverished nation he inherited onto its path to prosperity and became a key figure in post-war international politics. A hero to millions, this Cantabrigian is undoubtedly one of the towering figures of world history.