Words by Ed King
“What are you in to?” I’m never certain how to respond, a bad position for a writer.
I usually joke “everything from Tori Amos to Techno”, which is an adequate description of my iTunes account whilst allowing me to disguise my disdain behind alliteration. “MARACAS”, I should shout, or some equally asinine distinction; “I like all music from Sheffield”.
But there’s a darker question, one more judgmental than fatuous, steeped in the tribal politics that purport to guard certain corners of our cultural landscape. “What should you be into?” Where do you belong?
And it’s a question I still hear being asked. Walking into the wrong room, wearing the wrong clothes, saying the wrong things about the wrong band is a particularly teenage pitfall – but it’s not reserved for ‘the youth’. As I march from the pimple soaked shame of my formative years to a more grey haired solace, this ugly headed inquisition rears up more and more. Sure the genres are different, the tone is refined, but the need for validation by numbers remains the same. Red or blue? Left or right? Blur or Oasis? Radio One, Four or Six?
My recent foray into contemporary classical (if such a phrase can exist) has brought a few testing conversations. I’m a novice, happily ploughing my way through new ground and overplaying the small number of composers I happen to successfully dig up. I pay attention and I know what I know. I’m not a master of the classics. But on mentioning my new musical zeal, in certain company, I seem to unleash a passive aggressive pissing contest. Stories about child protégés (there seemed to be a lot in the 18th & 19th centuries), the influence of Vienna and lies about poverty or jingoism roll across the conversation when all I said was “Arnalds”. Frowns and tuts when all I said was “Nyman”.
Opera is another one, with a vast portfolio some would expect you to know verbatim before daring to converse. Jazz has its army of aficionados, Hip Hop has its lexicon, Rock has so many sub divisions I think some of them are joking, and the fashionistas of Dance still maraud clubland looking for anyone who once met Judge Jules. Are you, or have you ever, been into Trance?
I even remember being called up for a (deservedly) negative review of Peace, the once promising pastiche who seem to have sold it all for an NME blow job. It was a bad gig from a band with much more to offer, especially on home turf, but on daring to publish this I was told ‘You are over thirty aren’t you??? Go put your Screamadelica CD on and ignore us.’ So Andy Weatherall is now the stamp of anachronistic bad taste. Who knew.
From playgrounds to staff rooms, to chat rooms and forums, the cliques are still there – carving out what’s acceptable and the rules of engagement. It bored me when I was ten but now I’m nearing forty I’m landing, thankfully, somewhere closer to pity. For example, on Wednesday it’s my birthday and I’m going to the Town Hall to hear Tamsin Whaley-Cohen perform The Lark Ascending – Vaughn William’s more widespread musical homage to Meredith’s original poem. The Lark Ascending has always been a bit busy for me but it’s one of my mother’s favourite pieces, so to celebrate the horror of age we’re going to hear together.
Neither my mother nor I are experts on 20th century composers, we have our own reasons for going. But somewhere in the room, hopefully, there will be someone who is – brimming with knowledge that could add to our continued experience of this composition; a piece of music which has attracted new listeners for nearly a hundred years. Appreciation through understanding, I couldn’t welcome it more, and I’ll educate myself at the appropriate time and pace. But a mid week afternoon is a mid week afternoon, and the moment I’m told what’s the correct opinion to have…
When I was a teenager I use to by t-shirts with The Doors on, or NIN, I had a pretty psychedelic Godfodder one too – and standing in The Hummingbird on a Saturday night used to speak for itself. Then I painted smiley faces on my school bag and had tired eyes in the mornings.
Now, hidden behind respectable shoes and a professional mandate, perhaps I’m less easy to read. But again I have to ask, why would you want to? Maybe next time I hear those five-words-and-question-mark perhaps I’ll just respond with a web address.
Ed King is editor of Birmingham Review. Follow him @EdKing2210
*Tamsin Whaley-Cohen performs The Lark Ascending at the Town Hall on Weds 22nd Oct. For further info, visit http://www.thsh.co.uk/event/the-lark-ascending-with-tamsin-waley-cohen/