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What Happens When a Giant Brain Meets Kylie?

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…

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 uber-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, turned out to be, 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 uber-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.

(Originally appeared in Independent on Sunday 03/08/2003)

2 thoughts on “What Happens When a Giant Brain Meets Kylie?”

  1. Morley definitely notices patterns for their own sake – and traces them beautifully. He has a keen ear and an even sharper mind.

    It may even have been Morley who used the phrase ‘dancing to architecture in ‘Words and Music’.

    It’s been a while since I read it, but I think you may have put your finger on my problem with this whacky volume and with this kind of criticism in general – and ‘cultural anthropology’ is as good a name for it as any. That and my general lack of imagination.

    But Morley is actually less abstract than me. In the Noughties he was a regular guest on a popular TV show talking about the week’s events in the Big Brother House.

  2. “Dancing to Architecture”. An intriguing phrase. I imagine, Mark, you used it to suggest something patently absurd.

    But like so much absurdity, imagine it, and it suddenly appears.

    Like all good middle-class Japanese, my husband religiously watches the new year concert from Vienna. Orchestras, for all their many charms, don’t make great TV. The ORF cuts to ballet sequences filmed in many of the capital’s palaces and ballrooms, designed to showcase the city’s attractions. The moves are choreographed around the scenery.

    Literally, dancing to architecture.

    Look in the coolest clubs across the developed world. Gone are the days when hippies would take over an abandoned warehouse and use the space to rock it out, with little attention to aesthetics. Unless you stumble into a contrived warehouse “look”—or live in Berlin—you simply won’t see that now.

    Modern man has developed a design fetish—every piece of architecture is over-thought, admired, details noticed. Literally, we dance as much to the architecture of the club, as to its music.

    The metrosexual is metrotechtural, too.

    Maybe Morley covers the following point, and maybe not. It would be surprising if scholars and critics haven’t thrashed it out already. But it sounds like he might do well to decide whether he thinks pop music is high art or folk art.

    Before the advent of recorded music, pop music and folk music were one and the same. If you wanted to consume music, you needed to make it yourself. Listening to music, without playing it, was reserved for the gentry—or at the very least, church services or other special occasions.

    Folk music vs. high-art music. Is pop music “undeserving of serious thought?” Or deserving of anthropological study rather than artistic criticism?

    My observation, Mark, is that in your works, you prefer cultural anthropology over a purely aesthetic or structural analysis of art.

    Perhaps this is why the “sound and silence” passage grates on you so? Like much criticism, it simply notices patterns for its own sake. The act of noticing these patterns seems to suffice for the critic, but leaves the social scientist wanting for more.

    “[It] doesn’t mean anything…[but] has become something so profound”—if millions of people listen to it, dammit, it fucking means something. Morley might just have to look at the audience rather than the text. This irks the structuralist no end.

    OTOH, your comment about modern music actually being architecture makes quite a serious cultural point. Like architecture, modern man uses music as the “built environment” of his consciousness.

    (It’s not for nothing that a long-standing meme about the iPod talks of the “soundtrack for your life”).

    Does that make a strong, identifiable rhythm necessary, so you can dip in and out of the music and not lose your place? Do rhythm and chords act as a more powerful mood adjuster than melody? Does a strong beat sexualise the music to a greater degree, making it more suitable for private listening rather than public performance?

    The music = architecture comment raises meaty questions, whereas the endless pointing out of dichotomies does not.

    I haven’t read Morley’s work. But if he is like other writers of criticism, I suspect this might be a source of your irritation.

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