What I learnt from the Rolling Stone Challenge – Part 2

Where was I? Oh yes, I was trying to think what I learnt from the Rolling Stone Challenge. Let’s try and find some positives.

Music is a many splendored thing

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but music is GREAT. In the week in which the world has united in almost universal grief over the death of one of the people who made up this list, I think that’s pretty clear. But the sheer, overwhelming volume, variety and breadth of choice available to us, as consumers of this wonderful art form, never fails to take my breath away. This challenge has only served to confirm this to me.

From the delight of discovering just how amazing Aretha Franklin really is, to finding the cultural progenitors of so much of my taste in Big Star, to the little discoveries along the way that I’d never have listened to otherwise. Manu Chao, EPMD, Creedence, Suicide, hell, I never even truly realised just how bloody good B.B. King was. And yet, this list floats as a single snowflake atop a gigantic glacier of music history. There will never be enough time to discover all the wonderful music you could hope to discover, so I’ve learnt to give in, ride the waves, and let them take me where they will. Or something.

I need to listen to more jazz

One area which the list only ever skirts the surface of is Jazz. But whenever it did skirt it, with albums by Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and a few others, I really fell in love. Jazz has always seemed a bit of an impenetrable beast from the outside, a world where they speak a completely different language, drink funny looking cocktails, and generally sneer at you across the room for standing there looking like a newb. It’s a lot like metal, really.

But, like any scene that looks like too big a beast to really sink your teeth into, it’s not an impossible task. Sure, you might not have an ‘in’, like you did with the older brother who got you into New Wave, or the uncle who gave you a Morrissey LP for your eighth birthday, or the friend who found you listening to Kylie on the swings at school and suggested you get a Guns N Roses album ‘because they swear a lot’, but that’s no longer the be all and end all. We have the internet now, and when it comes to discovering music, there’s really no greater tool. Curated playlists, blogs, lists and social media are all great ways of getting into music.  

So, since completing the challenge, I’ve been dipping my toes into the murky world of Jazz. It’s a wonderful thing, so divorced from the familiar templates of verse-chorus-verse, yet so familiar in its immediacy, its vitality, and the surges of emotion it generates. Put simply, I’m falling in love with it, albeit slowly, tentatively.

I don’t need to listen to any more country music

The same cannot be said, unfortunately, of country music. Now don’t get me wrong, I love me some Johnny Cash. I have dabbled in the alt-country of Bright Eyes and Ryan Adams. I have even enjoyed a few of Taylor Swift’s pre-pop-behemoth songs. But nothing could really prepare me for just how much I disliked the ‘proper’ country music I found on this list.

It was Merle Haggard who set this off with his interminable, sprawling retrospective in which every single song was a little nugget of down-home white-boy pain wrapped up in questionable views and a bewilderingly samey musical template. After that, every endless retrospective was like nails on a blackboard, albeit Freddy Kruger’s nails on a blackboard made out of my own nervous system. It’s just all so fucking tedious and twee, and awful, and nowhere as funny as it thinks it is. So it’s quite possible that I just identify with it on some personal level. Anyway, that’s a learning; just because you like country when it’s mixed with blues, folk, soul, or rock, don’t take that to mean you can stomach it in its pure, undiluted form. Beware the undiluted form.

You can’t rank art

It’s fairly obvious, really. Every piece of art that exists, out there in the world, is alone. It’s a chimerical meld of talent, circumstance, commerce, production, genre, influence and sheer, dumb luck, so how can you even begin to rank it? There’s no definitive criteria to mark against, because the job of any art is to illicit from its consumer an emotional response. The quality of any art is in its reception, as much as in its creation. How can you possibly chart that, without plugging all of humanity into some great big Matrix-style nonsense? And who’s got the time these days to do that?

Nirvana’s Nevermind became the galvanising emotional yardstick for an entire generation, and yet the flawed but arguably more nuanced In Utero is (in my mind) a much better album. But how do you judge them against each other? Artistic merit? Subjective. Record sales? People have terrible taste. Cultural significance? To which culture? Trying to rank art is like trying to juggle boiling water; it’s impossible, and will leave you looking pretty stupid. Also, burns. I get that this is completely against the point of this whole endeavour, but when an exercise is so inherently flawed from the outset, perhaps that’s what can account for so much U2.

In the end it really doesn’t matter what you like, or where you find it

In the age of nuclear streaming proliferation and massive, widespread access to music on a basis completely unparalleled, you see an awful lot of people grumbling on about the value that scarcity brought about. They fetishize the experience of stumbling across a tape in a bargain bin, or traded with a friend for their own discovery. This new availability of music robs people, they say, of that joy. No longer have you that moment of getting your purchase home, peeling off the wrapper, and touching yourself with you. Well, yes and no. You can fetishize your history all you want, by all means, but don’t discount the experience of the next generation. Not everyone lives near a decent scene. Not everyone has friends with taste. Not every online interaction is worthless.

I enjoy a more robust music recommendation network online than I ever enjoyed in real life. I don’t need an ‘in’ anymore. My children will grow up in a world where this is normality, and I’m tremendously jealous of them. And to those who say that this overwhelm will cheapen the experience, you try telling my daughter she doesn’t love One Direction with every bit of fervour that I loved New Kids on the Block with at the same age. Music has been part of the fabric of our very beings for as long as we’ve had language, and it’s not likely that it’ll change just because Spotify lets you shuffle eleven million songs.

All we can do is be responsible for our own relationship with music, and not denigrate anyone for theirs, either in its content, or in the way they indulge that relationship. As I said before, music is a many splendored thing, perhaps the greatest achievement of mankind’s brief tenure of this planet. Just look David Bowie, whose death has united the world in ways that, quite frankly, I didn’t think were possible in this endlessly polarised world. World leaders to ordinary peasants, parents to children, young to old, for a few brief days all were united across ideological barriers. Why? Because Ziggy played guitar. There can’t be any greater testament to music’s potential than that.

In the end, that’s what I’ll take from this challenge. No longer will I sneer at the taste of others (okay, so I probably will, but it’ll be with an ironic detachment, so that’s fine) because if you’ve got that thing, that thing where you can put on some music, and have it touch you instantly, make you happy, sad, want to dance, or want to fight dance with a truck, that’s all that really matters.

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