Friday, 19 September 2008

Muzak To My Ears (recent piece from The Times)

The Battle Of Evermore by Led Zeppelin is a song of perfect, spooky Britishness: the sound of Vikings howling in the night as folk banshees whisper sweet nothings in their hairy ears. No matter how many times I hear it, it transports me to some happy, bleak, primitive place. It’s utterly 1971 in all the best ways, but simultaneously feels infinitely, spellbindingly older. However, I realised something a bit strange about it recently. Something even more haunting than Robert Plant’s Scottish folklore-inspired lyrics or Sandy Denny’s backing vocals. That is this: in the last two years, I have almost certainly spent less than half as much time listening to it as I have to the plinky-plonky muzak that plays when you construct your avatar on the Ninetendo Wii.

I would be less surprised, had I switched my Wii on more than twice since I got it. Most of the time I just consume its games passively at friends’ houses. More alarming still is the realisation that in that same period I have only spent a fraction of the time listening to the Wii music that I have to the anonymous chill-out beats on my Sky Plus planner. I’ve learned to kind of appreciate the planner music and sometimes find myself mindlessly pulling a move or two to it as I try to decide whether to watch Big Brother or a repeat of Grand Designs, but that does not mean I can justify the fact that, in that same two year period, I have given it approximately four hundred times as much attention as Atomic Rooster’s prog-funk classic The Devil’s Answer.

In my grand plans for my musical existence, it was never meant to be this way. I spent years going to outrageous lengths to hunt and gather music, then as many years pruning that music down to the choicest selections. After such an effort, it’s somewhat dispiriting to find out that the soundtrack of your life has not become, as you’d always hoped, Exile On Main Street, but the Autoglass Repair jingle on Classic FM.

I’m told that I live in an age of infinite, luxurious musical choice, but I find that I choose less and less of the vast amount of music I consume. I could say that is because I no longer have the time to control the noises that surround me in the way that I used to, but that’s not the whole story. Even the lie of the iPod – nobody tells you just how much time you’ll spent uploading, downloading and charging the battery – doesn’t explain it. I wonder if the main part of the problem is simply music’s ever-increasing, draining prevalence.

I actually don’t mean to single out muzak itself here. The good thing about an old-fashioned easy listening version of a popular hit was that, soulless as it might have been, it wasn’t intrusive enough to use up your listening energy for the day. The New Muzak is more bombastic: it’s Homes Under The Hammer playing Mother And Child Reunion as a mum and her daughter bid for a house; it’s The X-Factor not being to just be a musical talent show but also endlessly playing Flying Without Wings between auditions; it’s Ten Years Younger underlining the shabby appearance of its unlucky subject by playing the part of the Scissor Sisters’s Filthy Gorgeous that goes “You’re… disgusting!”. Even the golf coverage now has the Ting Tings all over it.

Okay, you say, you need to get away from the TV and watch some quality filmmaking. Fine. But look: What’s this? It’s Zach Braff and his directorial ilk cluttering their scenes hamfistedly with the plaintive overillustrative whines of effete indie singer-songwriters. All right, so why not try getting out of the house? No dice: ringtones everywhere.

Bookshops? They play gentle, innocuous music there, don’t they? No. They play that that god-awful Duffy album over and over again, exhausting you so much with its humanoid soul bleating that you don’t even have the energy to perform an exorcism with Dusty Springfield when you arrive home. I’ve tried many remedies for this, but the only one that seems to work, in my exhausted state, comes from neither my iPod nor my vinyl collection. What I’ve decided to do to simplify my problem is let someone I can trust, with more energy than me, dictate my musical preferences. Specifically: an American Internet Radio Station called 3WK Classic Rock, which plays a lot of my favourite prog and psychedelic rock, and has the bonus of being far less predictable than my iTunes library. I find it baffling that in our modern environment there are still some people who seem to believe that by boasting, “I listen to all kinds of music, me!” they are saying something unique about themselves. Me? What I’d really like to do is be able to announce, “I only listen to a relatively small chunk of the music that’s out there” with the possible addendum “… but I enjoy nearly all of it.” It’s a crazy, far-off dream, but I’m working on it.