Popular Arts

Young people have got to believe in something, so they believe in rock ’n’ roll.”

—Cliff Richard

They don’t call me Parnes-shillings and pence for nothing.”

—Larry Parnes to Tommy Steele

it doesn’t seem to matter which journal you pick up (including this one)—they are nearly all talking about pop singers. It is not just that magazines hitherto specialising in, say, film stars have broadened their contents to include them. The posh papers are almost as interested as the others. Thus not only do we find Disc Parade in Picturegoer, Disc News in Picture Show and TV Mirror, Pop Parade in Photoplay. The Observer recently devoted a full length feature to “Keeping it Groovy with Marty Wilde”, and this November’s Vogue introduces its readers to “The World of Cliff Richard”. Whatever the journal (except this one) the breathless, enthusiastic tone is much the same. Vogue decorates its not wholly uncritical thesis with a Latin tag, references to Zen and madrigals, but assures us that Cliff Richard is “the most modest show-business personality I have ever met”. The Observer’s staff reporter concluded that Marty Wilde “was very likeable. Despite all the gottas and wannas of the lyrics he remained very English”. These phrases would fit without amendment into John Kennedy’s book Tommy Steele. Kennedy, Steele’s manager, writes at length in this vein—“Here is a boy who can command £4,000 for a week’s work . . . and yet who still likes nothing better than to go for lunch to an eel and pie shop in Jamaica Road, Bermondsey.”

Why should we adopt a more astringent tone? It could be argued that pop music is a recreative form of escape, neither better nor worse than going to a fair to ride on the bumper cars or suck toffee apples—a craze like the hula hoop, but more enduring; subject to commercially contrived changes of fashion, but thereby giving satisfaction to millions of people, just as the dress industry does. Is it true that when you scratch a New Leftist you reveal the old puritan?

It seems to us that this is precisely one of those issues where it is important to avoid both the tyrannical asceticism of the communist states (we read that keeping it groovy with Elvis Presley is an indictable offence in East Germany), and the slap-happy, standardless euphoris of fan publicity, whether in the fan magazines or the minority press. It may well be true that Steele, Wilde and Richard are dear, sweet, unspoilt boys, but there are other matters to judge.

We shall raise just two important questions about pop music, by asserting (1) that most of the music is bad music—judged by its own standards, not by those of art music or folk song; (2) that the promotion of pops involves a fundamental but typical abuse of the means of communication in contemporary society, with a significance much broader than this one segment of the entertainment industry.

The pop song business has always been a mass produced one. Now it is more so. The chosen names—Power, Wilde, Eager, Fury and so on—match the monotony of words and music. The popular singer who in the past might have emerged as a front-liner after an apprenticeship with the professionally competent commercial dance band, has given place to the working class youth rapidly promoted from the amateur movement of skiffle by the high-powered methods of the “new men” of show business. The professional musicians who make a living by accompanying these stars are required to match the singing with a music, calculated in its debasement and drawing on a corrupted version of Rock (the other source of the new sound)—itself a kind of vulgarised Rhythm and Blues. Noise of an unbelievable ugliness is wrung from saxophones and guitars with sadistic cruelty and finally processed in the laboratory.