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Offbeat – 18 October2013

If there is a need to put an end to the rambunctious, revolutionary emotions of the masses, don’t bother with armed suppression. Just give the crowd a musical choice, and they will pacify themselves.

It’s karaoke time again. A whole bunch of folks queue up to sing for the judges. The judges chuck almost all of them out but a slender few. The remainder gets filmed learning to do better karaoke, with real, live musicians. Every week, people get to spend money voting for their favourites by SMS. Slowly the numbers dwindle. At the end of the show, we are left with one, and that one gets a record contract. It’s a democracy I can live without.  The end result, after all that public voting, is the sort of music that is inoffensive and dull. Mob behaviour is normally associated with riots, looting and lynching. In the case of music, the mob’s selection reduces things to what I would call boring drivel. In a sense there is looting and pillaging. Moments that might be inspiring are dragged off to be chucked down drains or strung up on lamp posts where they are ignored. The process of the musical vote is similar to politics. Regardless of whether you like it or not, you will have to live with it until the next election. The next election doesn’t bring much relief though, because the judges (think of them as the party leadership) choose the songs (which you can think of as the agenda). What this means is that the faces change, but the styles of music do not change. In other words, the next round brings yet more inoffensive music to the voters, and the winner will be nothing controversial or different.  If you don’t like the song personally, you will like it because everyone else likes it, and you don’t want to look like a weird freak. At the very least, you will live with it. Or you can take my route and avoid radio where they play that sort of stuff. You can scratch around in music stores and bargain bins for the sort of music you like. Most people in this awful musical process won’t. The fact of the matter is that it is far, far easier to accept what other people choose for you than to form your own taste and go out and hunt down that sort of music. In his wonderful book, ‘Lipstick Traces: a Secret History of the 20th Century’, Greil Marcus talks about the political history and impact of music. He ranges from Marquis Saint-Just, through Dada and Cabaret Voltaire to the Paris riots of 1968 and punk in the mid 70s. What he shows is that music is a catharsis, a moment of emotional revelation that leads to change. His focus is on major political and cultural upheaval. I think he takes it as a forgone conclusion that his readers will understand the personal emotional import of a song. He probably wrote that book before shows like Idols and Eurovision.  Those shows now reduce the personal emotional revelation of music. They turn the emotional impact of a song into something that everyone can agree on, in other words, the lowest common denominator. That tendency has always been there in the form of music charts, but it is amplified by the musical choices of the producers who decide what the singalong numbers will be.  It is also amplified by the ripple effect on all other music. Music producers listen to tunes and alter their own choices and recommendations to cater to the greatest possible number of music buyers.  In George Orwell’s ‘1984’, he showed how ‘prolefeed’ and ‘prolespeak’ could edit the range of thought and cultural concepts available to people, and pacify their thoughts. This is what the karaoke democracy of music does as well. Welcome to the world of pop. We won’t be selling anything like Sly and the Family Stone this year. Joy Division is off the menu. Most schemes of human rights emphasise things like freedom of speech, thought and association. The karaoke shows damage those concepts in the most insidious way, by reducing emotion and the reasoning of emotion to a vote.  Lennon sang about revolution. Forget it. If there is a need to put an end to the rambunctious, revolutionary emotions of the masses, don’t bother with armed suppression. Just give the crowd a musical choice, and they will pacify themselves.

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