Ever since my mid-adolescence, when I first began to amass the kind of catalogued mental system of popular music knowledge which aroused the distaste of a good many of my peers and probably no small number of the featured artists, I have been irked by a disturbing trend. It is not one unique to our generation, but it is one which has taken root in the popular consciousness to a greater degree than ever before. I am talking about the despicable crimes of ‘nice’ music.
Turn on a TV advertisement, browse Myspace, rip the iPod ‘phones from the ears of anyone around you; the result will be the same. Even a cursory delve into the confused jumble of present-day ‘alternative’ music yields a hefty proportion of ukulele jingle-jangle, fey little harmonies and incessant, nagging lyrical babble about nothing very much at all.
‘Nice’ music is music that does not strive, does not persuade or lament or rejoice but simply ‘is’; it is music that is content, and which teaches its listeners persistent contentment. Allow me, in good tutorial style, to demonstrate with examples. The worst offender as far as genre is concerned is the rather stagnant little country backwater that is ‘Nu(new? noo?)-Folk’. This movement has been kicking around in various incarnations for almost a decade now, and I won’t dismiss it outright. It has given us Sufjan Stevens and, on this side of the pond, the earlier (and better) work of Patrick Wolf. However, its down-home, acoustic aesthetic provides a perfect vehicle for a lot of worthless ‘nice’ music, which is broadly characterised by two things.
The first, a warm and fuzzy sense of mediocre satisfaction, is epitomised by Noah and the Whale’s Five Years’ Time. What kind of pop artist ‘no longer feels they have to be James Dean’? It’s wanting to be James Dean (metaphorically speaking) that keeps us away from jobs in Human Resources. Thank God he broke up with Laura Marling so he can get on with writing real music for people who don’t mind wearing synthetic fibres. This kind of stuff drawls ‘hey, fella, it’s okay to be what you are’. Try convincing Iggy Pop of that and then see if he can still produce The Idiot.
The second, a comfortable, mushy meaninglessness, can be found prominently in the work of arch-hippie bollocks-monger Devendra Banhart. There’s nothing profound in croaking away about yellow spiders and little monkeys, especially not when you sound like you lent your vocal chords to Tom Waits and he dropped them on their head.
Don’t think that this is the only genre where lots of ‘nice’ music is to be found; ‘nice’ music is found anywhere where music promotes the status quo or quiet self-satisfaction. Particularly guilty are the dumber varieties of electronic music where ‘vibe’ very often replaces artistic vision, and a gentle, friendly ‘anything goes’ mentality can often stifle creative tension.
I have no quarrel, also, with ‘pop’ in the strictest sense of the word, or with ‘happy’ music: the forces of conflict in music don’t have to be avant-garde, or political, or even particularly pronounced. Indeed, true bubblegum pop is where much of the great aspirational music is to be found; the post-feminist search for fulfilment epitomised in Shakira’s excellent ‘She Wolf’, for instance. All I am claiming is that pop music is an artistic medium of struggle; it is the search for happiness, or empowerment, or some kind of satisfying self-expression, never the culmination of that search.
While I’d be perfectly happy with a world where all music sounded like the Fall, this isn’t what I’m driving at. I simply ask that we require a little more from our music, and ourselves: that we fight the atrophying force that is contentment and take the risk of a little discomfort. At the very least, we’d never have to listen to Kate Nash’s grating interview screech again. Now, isn’t that something we can all work together for?