DON’T KNOCK POP MUSIC
Published in Young Guard No. 27 June 1964. Many thanks to John Rudge for locating and transcribing this article. It was originally commissioned by Gus (now Lord) Macdonald.
Most of the articles that have appeared in YG on the subject of music have dealt with either folk music or jazz. Nobody would dispute the importance of these subjects, even though modern jazz is degenerating into feelingless sterility, and a great deal of folk music is quite without tune or melody, and has incredibly artificial words.
What does concern me, however, is the contemptuous attitude taken to so-called “pop music” by so many people on the Left. Partly this contempt seems to spring from a belief that any form of art that has an enormous popularity must be necessarily inferior – a curiously elitist position for socialists. Partly it derives from the idea that highly commercialised art must be worthless – but in our society everything is commercialised, and throughout history much of the best art and literature has been produced by men who were largely concerned with financial gain.
The theory that the pop-music market is manipulated by commercial interests does not stand up to examination. If the tastes and ideas of young workers could be as easily manipulated as many “Left” pseudo-sociologists claim then our hopes of socialism would be vain. But a study of the Top Twenty charts over a period shows two things. In the first place, there is no predictable and repeatable formula for success: second, for the most part it is records that have the highest technical and aesthetic quality that sell best. Some shoddy and sentimental material gets to the top (e.g. Billy J. Kramer, the Bachelors), but surprisingly little. There are certainly a lot of commercial trappings to pop music which we should be better off without: but we must not reject what is valuable on their account.
Bourgeois moralists complain that pop music embodies negative anti-social values. So it does: for in a fragmented society like ours these values are dominant, and the strength of pop music comes from the fact that it is rooted in the world we live in. Such Trafalgar Square favourites as “Family of Man” are dreary and sickening because the “family of man” has no relation to our experience. Pop music, from Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes” and Chuck Berry’s motor cars to Cliff Richard’s “Dancing Shoes” and the Searchers’ “Sugar and Spice”, belongs to the world of material possessions and sensual experience.
Yet pop music is also, and above all, music of revolt against this world. The driving beat of rock and roll, the great musical break-through of our generation, is essentially aggressive and assertive. A song like Brenda Lee’s “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” cuts scathingly through the false sentiment with which the bourgeoisie has surrounded Christmas. Nor is it always negative revolt. Take the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel”:
“He’s a rebel and he’ll never be any good,
He’s a rebel ‘cause he never ever does what he should.
Just because he doesn’t do what everybody else does.
If they don’t like him that way,
They won’t like me for sure to-day,
I’ll be standing right by his side.”
Such rebellion is isolated and fragmented; yet it has human quality that is warm and valuable. It is worth noting that this record held the Number One spot in U.S. during the Cuban crisis of 1962. Commercial culture is not monolithic; and many aspects of it deserve sympathetic study from socialists.