Sunday, April 29, 2007

In The Dock: Easy Listening

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

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.

* * * * *

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...


Blogger Ian said...

Here's the problem; as Ben has pointed out, "Easy Listening" isn't really a genre the way cock rock or R'n'B are; it's a set of boundaries. Toni's really shot himself in the foot with some (most, maybe all) of his examples; I don't care what they're filed under (HMV does not dictate genres!), Scott Walker and Dusty Springfield are emphatically not easy listening. Condemning easy listening is not condemning a category that includes people I wouldn't want to prosecute like Walker; it is condemning the slurry of shit that pools at the bottom of many genres (rock, jazz, R'n'B, etc). Those classics that Toni discusses are, properly performed, not Easy Listening.

Guilty guilty guilty.

5:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

James here (I hate the whole principle of google/blogger)

First up, not guilty.

Secondly, there is no adequate definition of easy listening. Kind of like goth, it is a genre that expands wherever it wants to, once you get started - and yet there is something distinctive about it.

Anyway, I disagree with Ben's first point - that music is to energise etc. Music is to whatever you want it to. I might want music to be angry to, or I might want music to read to, or music to stare wistfully out of the window to. A good chunk of my CDs are by bands/artists that are aiming to quieten. Cocteau Twin, Harold Budd, Eno (at times), Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Popol Vuh.

I further disagree with his claim that easy listening is opposed in some fashion to innovation. Bob James was one of the founders of the soft-jazz scene (the antecedent to the nauseating Kenny G), and yet his early LPs are killer. There are reasons that he has been sampled so often by Hip Hop bands. Other examples might be Johnny Harris' 'Movements'. Most of the LP is made up of tunes written for the Lulu show in the late sixties, and amounts to 'easy' versions of then-current chart hits. Some of the versions he has done there, wonderfully add new textures to these classics.

I also think that Ian is possibly in denial when he tries to break Scott Walker and Dusty out of easy-listening. Those first four LPs are clearly within the genre musically. From a musical point of view they are conservative; they are focused away from the shifting sands of popular music, towards something more steady and secure.

Finally, I don't see anything inherently bad about such a program. Sure, there is a place for saying that overall, it is good that music continues to move forward and progress, but there is also a place for music to hold fast to some of the elements that make it a fundamental human experience - i.e. talented interpretations of melody, harmony and rhythm. Being (musically) conservative, therefore, is not a bad thing. The question is not whether it is conservative, but whether it satisfies the purpose to which it was set.

As with all of these genre discussions, there are manifold examples of bad music within this genre - more than I could care to mention. But there is also plenty of good music out there too.

6:07 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This'll be Damo - I can't log in for some reason.

The implication that easy listening is background music has led me into the arms of the defence. Background music would be guilty without a doubt, but it's OK to have some stuff that isn't making you do cartwheels round the living room, and that's not necessarily the same as putting on KT Tunstall at a dinner party as 'wallpaper', is it?

7:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is still Damo, as the second half of my cut-and-paste disappeared.

I wanted to additionally say that apart from some bands that are REALLY good at reinvention, it's often best to stick to your strengths. The best Air and Cardigans albums were their easy listening ones (for me, anyway).

7:22 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?

Do you know the way to San Jose?

Hmmm, a draw.

I'll vote Not Guilty as attacking easy listening would be like attacking kittens or flowers.

11:19 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blogger comments lost my whole essay. So not logging in under protest. Shite system. Shite.

'Not guilty' was the gist of it.


1:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seeing as Blogger's mucking about, three words:

James Last. Guilty.

9:36 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

Damo / JonnyB: Could you not both have taken the fact that your original comments were lost as a sign from above that you should have been voting with the prosecution? ;) Apologies for Blogger's failings all the same.

I'll add something constructive later in the week - for the moment, it's just good to see that there's been some debate (and that I've garnered a couple of votes, at least...).

11:11 pm  
Blogger Stevious said...

There's nothing wrong with music that's easy on the ear and makes you happy.

However, the whole concept of 'Easy Listening' to me signifies anodyne, empty fluff of the worst kind. I find it an insult to good pop music to call it 'Easy Listening'. the care, attention and passion behind, say, a Burt Bacharach song deserves far better than to be lumped together with the lazy filth of, say, Westlife.

Gah! Even the tough of 'Easy Listening' makes me want to smash things with my fists.

I condemn 'Easy Listening' to the worst dungeons that Art of Noise can muster.

(That's a guilty, by the way).

9:03 pm  
Blogger Kwok said...

I almost agree with everything Ben says, but am going for not guilty.

Easy listening may be guff, but it is utterly harmless. I don't believe it's big enough to destroy the music I enjoy. I don't believe fans of easy listening are out to ruin it for the rest of us. If anything, I'm more likely to roundhouse kick'em in the testicles/tits.

I also think there is an art to easy listening, which is appealing to most people at some time.

9:58 pm  
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8:14 pm  

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