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…


Introducing… Hemanta Mukherjee

Published in The Cambridge Student, November 2010

Chances are you won’t have heard of the late Dr Hemanta Mukherjee, but I’m in good company in insisting on rescuing this singer-songwriter-composer from obscurity; Salman Rushdie, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Amartya Sen have all mourned the disappearance of Hemant from popular consciousness, even in the Indian subcontinent, where once he reigned like an all-singing, all-dancing musical hydra combining the gifts of what can only be compared to Frank Sinatra, Daniel Barenboim, Irving Berlin and Ennio Morricone all rolled in one. He was: a singer whose wholesomely orotund voice no subcontinental could mistake, India’s foremost interpreter of the musical canon, a legendary lyricist whose songs inimitably captured the newly-freed country’s imagination, and a composer of the most acclaimed Indian film scores in cinematic history, from Saptapadi’s tragic Bengali ballads to the Hindi hit Nagin, whose chart-toppers won him a Filmfare (an Asian Oscar) in 1956. OverIndia the distinction between “high-brow” poetry and “low-brow” popular song has traditionally had no hold, and Hemant’s verses reached millions through the popular platform of theCalcutta andBombay film industries, beaming his voice – as often imbued with heart-rending pathos as with heart-warming whimsy – to the masses. Palpably a product of revolutionary Calcuttan cosmopolitanism, his idiom was multicultural and sophisticated but its meaning never beyond comprehension (a talent honed as a founder-member of the 1940s Indian People’s Theatre Association). You need no linguistic acquaintance to appreciate the sonorous savour of his voice and the old-world charm of his music, whose acoustic crackle now carries you away to a long-gone age of the transistor radio and an orient of magic carpets and petticoated princesses. Hearing Hemant is a lesson in history, music and literature. Unlike most lessons, it’s fun.

Introducing… Pink Martini

Published in The Cambridge StudentSeptember 2010

This 12-member soi-disant “little orchestra” could be dubbed an elixir of quietude just as aptly as the cocktail comprising its name. Pink Martini can lull a restive child to sleep or heave the fuddiest duddy to take to Tango. Venturing such a veritable potpourri of genres, from the Portuguese sea-shanty to the Arabic love-ballad, it’s difficult to identify a unitary sound to Pink Martini, but their music carries the scents of the Mediterranean, the Far East, Latin America and Mitteleuropa. Unashamedly polyglot, Harvard-educated vocalists China Forbes and Thomas Lauderdale have sung in at least 9 tongues as varied as Japanese and Czech, besides their recurring repertoire of sexy Latin beats and Piaf-esque francophilia. In Lauderdale’s words: “if the United Nations had a house band in 1962, we’d be that band.” But this isn’t your standard ‘world music’-fix, nor the orgy of pretension it admittedly seems (hear their unashamedly poppy hit single Hey Eugene). Trendy, sure, but no less old-fashioned; their tunes consciously recreate lost sounds, of classic Broadway, say, or 1940s French radio, and historically-literate titles like Andalucia, Syracuse and New Amsterdam nod to previous centuries’ cross-cultural meeting points. Which is what Pink Martini is: music for the aspiring cosmopolitan.