Genius, pop Svengali, theoretician of cool: Mark Simpson gets to grips with the man who really listens to ‘La la la, la la la-la la…’
(Originally appeared in Independent on Sunday 03/08/2003)
What do you hear when you listen to ‘Can’t get you out of my head’? This is a bit of a trick question as you probably don’t listen to ‘Can’t get you out of my head’. Not because, like most hit pop singles that are played endlessly on the radio, in shops, pubs, hospitals and clubs for a while, it is now something that you would never actually play yourself, except maybe at a drunken New Year’s party. But because it was never meant to be listened to in the first place.
It was pop music assembled with fiendish cunning and calculation out of over-familiar cliches (rather like Kylie’s voice, and rather like Kylie herself) to be a hit. By being something you hear but don’t listen to, don’t need to listen to. Background music to dance, drink, shop and die to. If you find yourself actually listening to a pop single, then it has failed. Pop music today is something people hear while doing something or going somewhere more interesting.
Unless your name is Paul Morley. Mr Morley has actually listened to “Can’t get you out of my head”. And as the beginning of his new book ’Words and Music: A history of pop in the shape of a city’ (Bloomsbury) makes clear, he was not dancing, drinking, shopping or dying to it, but sitting in his room. Alone. Mr Morley, to be sure, is something of a genius; he is also a very strange man. He appears to have actually listened — not heard, listened — to almost all the music you might file under “Popular”. This is no mean achievement; arguably it’s a very perverse one. What’s more, Mr Morley has done it with a very large brain indeed.
Here’s just one of the many, many fecund paragraphs in Words and Music about what he hears when he listens to ‘Can’t get you out of my head’:
“The song is a fluid thing of deep, deepening mystery, perhaps because what could be so corny, a pop song about love and desire, which doesn’t mean anything beyond its own limited world, has become something so profound. A pop song about love and desire that succeeds in communicating millions of unique things about the unlimited worlds of love and lust. It’s about how everyday life and love are a shifting set of compromises between the ordinary and the extraordinary…”
I’ve always admired Paul Morley, and for that reason I have never actually, properly listened to Paul Morley before. I have often heard him and been very glad to hear him while I did something else more interesting, but I’ve never really paid close attention before. Words and Music is the first time I’ve sat alone in my room with him and really listened. Unlike Morley’s journey with Kylie, I’m not so sure that this has only enhanced my affection.
It isn’t the way that he writes — which is all too frequently stunning. Or the inexhaustible connectivity of his mind, which has more ideas per sentence, per phrase, per comma, than most writers have in their entire lives. It’s just that, like the meandering narrative and deliberately über-pretentious conceit of this book, I’ve lost track of what the point of Morley is. Perhaps though, this is my fault. You see, I have also lost track of what the point of pop music is.
Once upon a nostalgic time, pop music was invested with far too much meaning. This was the late 1970s and early 1980s, Morley’s heyday as a rock critic, when he coined the phrase New Pop to describe a kind of pop that was smart and superficial, profound and commercial all at once. In other words, pop music at that time was made in the image of Paul Morley. Little wonder then that he actually entered the Matrix, via projects he was involved in to varying degrees such as Art of Noise and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and transfigured himself into a pop star/Svengali/theoretician of cool.
However, since then pop music, which once seemed so important, so precious and so other-worldly at the same time as deliciously vulgar, has swallowed everything and become the world, and has inevitably become, like us, rather less interesting than we thought. Like Kylie, it is bland, shiny, serviceable, very professional and for the most part entirely undeserving of serious thought.
Morley knows about this problem. It is after all his problem. Hence the poser on the back of his book: “Has Pop Burnt Itself Out?” Hence the book is (very) loosely based around the (deliberately über-pretentious) conceit of Morley driving in a Smart car with Kylie towards “a virtual city built of sound and ideas” while trying to convince her to allow him to write a book about her. It’s all very ironic, but it is also, I’m sorry to say, ultimately a bit pathetic too.
Morley of course knows this as well. His very large brain understands everything, but it most particularly understands that writing about music is as stupid as “dancing to architecture”. In fact, it’s rather easier to imagine Morley dancing to architecture than actual music, which would be really ridiculous. Actually, the trouble with this book is not that it’s like watching someone dance to architecture, but that sometimes it’s like watching your dad dance to architecture.
Music is a form of architecture. Especially the kind of popular music that Morley is most interested in: the cool, structured, mathematical electronic music which began with Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, and which influenced his favourite bands New Order and Human League. And also ‘Can’t get you out of my head’, which steals from all of these.
As Morley puts it in his groovy architect boogie:
“It is an elegant demonstration of the way that all great music is about a relationship between sound and silence, between holding and letting go, between motion and pause.”
The architecture of Morley’s own book is, however, a mess. Even the blurb has no structure: “part novel, part critique, part history, part confessional, part philosophical enquiry, part ultimate book of musical lists”. If it were a building, Words and Music would be condemned. As a piece of pop it would not be requested on the main dancefloor, but it might possibly make the chill-out room.
Of course, this is deliberate too. Words and Music is ambient, often dazzling prose that never really arrives anywhere, least of all a “virtual city built of sounds and ideas”. Morley is Eno via a wordprocessor rather than a synthesiser. As Morley writes on his hero: “Eno, to edit a long story short, coined the word ‘ambient’ to describe a kind of intellectual easy– listening music. An easy-listening music that has certain levels of difficulty in its make-up. A background music that you could take — as a weighty provocation — or leave — as a sound drifting around its own pretty pointlessness.”
Likewise, to edit a long, long story short, Morley’s prose drifts around its own pretty pointlessness.