In The Dock: Easy Listening
This week's subject: Easy Listening
The case for the prosecution (Ben)
Ah, the poisoned chalice that is a genre prosecution…
It’s with that in mind that I throw caution to the wind and set out on what will no doubt be an intensely personal rant / crusade (see also: Britpop). Perhaps it’s worth saying now that I’d be surprised if I get any votes, let alone sway you the jury into finding in my favour…
Beyond the well-rehearsed riposte that genres cannot be dismissed wholesale because of the ever-present danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the defence case will (I imagine) focus on the pleasure easy listening can bring given the right context. Relaxing in a deckchair on a beach on a hot summer’s day, beer in hand, barbecue sizzling and Andy Williams’ ‘Music To Watch Girls’ playing on the hi-fi – what’s not to like?
Simple, conservative and whiter than white, easy listening is the Jim Davidson of musical genres, and – to these ears, at least – almost equally as offensive. “Offensive?!”, I hear you cry, “But it’s so … nice!” Yes, it might seem perverse, but there’s no contradiction – it’s precisely that “niceness” that I find offensive. Stick with me on this one…
Let’s take a very broad question, one which is the bane of music lovers the world over: what sort of music do you like? Most people are reluctant to pigeonhole themselves by naming a single genre (as the question implicitly demands) simply because their tastes are far more diverse than that. But it begs the further question: what (if anything) does all the music you like have in common, that all the music you dislike does not? What, for you, makes music good?
For me, it’s about whether or not it does something to me. But more than that – that something should be fundamentally positive. Music should stir, rouse, excite, energise, inspire. But easy listening is not a stimulant but a suppressant, instead working to numb and dull the senses. This anaesthetic aesthetic, if you will, finds its most contemporary manifestation in the form of “chill-out” (Christ, that term sets my teeth on edge), as is underlined by the fact that on Amazon the likes of Zero 7 and Royksopp are classified together with Michael Bublé, Harry Connick Jr and Dean Martin under the title “Easy Listening”.
Of course, a song that does something to one person may leave another quite cold. And in any case, you might well respond, what’s wrong with liking music which is easy on the ear, which can be experienced as pleasant aural wallpaper, which doesn’t pose any kind of challenge or threat to the listener? After all, just as there are times when it comes to films that only a no-brainer will do, surely there’s a time and a place for easy listening?
But then isn’t there something hugely depressing about an inherently reactionary musical genre which not only keeps its listeners insulated within a comfort zone and fights shy of novelty and challenge but is actually celebrated for doing so? Admittedly, without the likes of easy listening the concept of the avant-garde would be meaningless, the margins only being marginal relative to the centre ground – but it is equally important to bear in mind that, in any art form, without the shock of the new there is no progress, just a standing still that soon becomes stagnation.
So, if you want to be stimulated by what you listen to; if you’re not content simply to be a passive consumer of music; if you reject the belief that it’s your right to put on an album, sit back, cross your arms and be entertained without being challenged in any way or having to put in any thought or concentration or effort; if you care about music as a creative, innovative and ever-evolving art form, then vote for the prosecution.
And if you think I’ve grossly overstated my case, committed heinous generalisations or got myself tangled up in rhetoric, then at least give me the satisfaction of instigating a debate…
The case for the defence (SwissToni)
Here we go again then; another entire genre of music has been put in the dock for judgement. Am I alone in experiencing a slightly weary sense of deja-vu? Did we learn nothing from our experiences with R'n'B, cock rock, goth, britpop, house music and Hip-hop? Had we not established beyond any reasonable doubt that music in all its infinite varieties cannot simply be filed into tidy and all-encompassing categories? Even if it could be, did we not agree that the very idea of condemning an entire genre was nonsensical? This is the "Crazy in Love" principle, forged in the fires of the R'n'B debate: if there is a single song in a genre that you like, then you cannot logically condemn the whole category.
And yet here we are.
Oh come on then. Let's do it.
What's to like about "Easy Listening"? The very term itself conjures up images of cardigans and comfortable slippers and seems custom made to be said with a slight sneer of distaste by all right-thinking music fans. Easy Listening. Unchallenging. Background music. Like many generalisations, I'm sure that this one contains a grain of truth (many of which I feel sure that the Prosecution case will be sure to bring to your attention). Like all generalisations though, it obscures more than it illuminates. It's just a label and "Easy Listening" is no more always about music being "Easy" than "House music" is always songs about buildings. Not challenging? How about Scott Walker, an artist who somehow managed to hang onto a mainstream audience long after he started singing songs of alienation, existentialism and death? That honeyed baritone and the lush orchestration of the arrangements may fool you into thinking this is background music, but listen more carefully and you will hear tales of drink, loneliness and despair. Unchallenging? This is an artist who now slaps sides of meat on his records as a percussive instrument. Val Doonican he is not. Easy Listening? Hardly, although that's where he's filed in record shops.
I'm not suggesting for a moment that every Easy Listening artist is as challenging as Scott Walker though - clearly they are not. And so what? Why would they need to be? Music doesn't have to be challenging to be any good does it? Music can be uplifting, life-affirming and mood enhancing; it can be a companion when you are lonely and can be your support in times of crisis; music can express those feelings that you cannot or dare not articulate. Although I have a personal preference for spiky guitar bands and a lingering affection for silly rock music, I find that the music I turn to in my quieter moments is often very different indeed. When I am feeling low, I listen to Dusty Springfield and I am always, always carried away and somehow uplifted by the clarity and the aching sadness in her voice. I defy anyone not to be moved by some of those classic Burt Bacharach songs.... Dionne Warwick's definitive (whatever Cilla thinks) version of "Walk on By", Dusty singing "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself", "(Always) Something There To Remind Me" sung by Sandie Shaw, "Make It Easy On Yourself", "Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa", "I Say A Little Prayer", "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head"... the list goes on. Would you cast those classics into the void? Can you really imagine that the world would be a better place without them? No, of course not. Would you really turn your back upon songs as golden as "Beyond The Sea" by Bobby Darin, or "The Street Where You Live" by Vic Damone? Moon River? Wichita Lineman? It's pointless just listing the songs at you because I could probably go on forever. All are likely to be classed as "Easy Listening", all are fabulous. Even the existence of a million crappy "Easy Listening" songs are worth it just to hear any one of those gems.
Christ, I even think there's room in the world for ludicrous, tight trousered performers like Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck. Can you honestly say that you've never sung along to "Delilah" or "Release Me" at some point in your life?
Oh, just me then?
Some of those songs could perhaps be classed as guilty pleasures, but if you like a single one of them, I would urge you to acquit “Easy Listening”. To purloin a phrase from Burt, what the world needs now is love, sweet love. Let the haters vote guilty.
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Thanks to Ben and to SwissToni for their contributions. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Friday to make up your mind...