Guest post by Thom Harrison
‘Suddenly I viddied what I had to do and what I had wanted to do, and that was to do myself in; to snuff it, to blast off forever out of this wicked cruel world. One moment of pain, perhaps, and then sleep forever and ever and ever.’
- Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange
I must be the only one reduced to the wretched fatalism of Burgess’s mind-fucked anti-hero every time a contented plebeian flicks on the wireless. Surely the opposite must be the case? Buried somewhere deep within the BBC vaults there must be some sacred propagandist text which reads: “Thou shalt not play anything remotely interesting, lest thy wish them all go a bit mental.” Heaven forbid a record should inspire more than a tap of the steering wheel and a cathartic ooh I love you baby on some greying weekday afternoon. People-carriers across the country would no doubt begin veering into traffic under the sheer existential strain of it all. “I bloody hate the school-run. Goodbye cruel world!”
Some would argue that it’s all about supply and demand. Well no, not quite – and herein lies the problem. The BBC, as we’re all aware, is a unique institution. Even the passing ease with which it can be described as such says a lot. No sane person could bestow the mantle of ‘institution’ upon something like BskyB. No: The Beeb’s Royal Charter requires it to inform, educate, and entertain – and in that order, thankyouverymuch. And, in everything from polemical journalism to kitchen-sink drama, it’s an ascetic which shines through time and time again. Why, then, should its two premier music stations generally sound as trite and as cliché-ridden as any other?
Chances are the powers-that-be are simply out of touch. Fewer and fewer people actually go out and buy music nowadays, yet the age of the legal internet download remains in its infancy. Former gospels, such as the NME, have become too financially desperate to put their weight behind anything but the most frivolous of teenage fads. Rather than having disappeared, the glib boy bands of the late 90s now seem to have been sneakily assimilated into ‘alternative culture’ to form some sort of irksome pseudo-indie hybrid. These bands don’t rise to fame out of artistic merit; mundanity itself seeks them out to satisfy as many consumer groups as possible in one numbing, tedious sweep.
BBC radio playlists often seem governed by such a tactic. One could be forgiven for assuming that the only reason the prime-time DJ collective turned up to the funeral of the late, great John Peel was to lament the loss of some cuddly old uncle figure. How else do they demonstrate their respect for the man and his achievements? With all the emotional integrity of a green energy advert by Shell, briefly sweet-talking us only to continue pumping out the same noxious sludge with reckless abandon. Every time a record by The Feeling is played, the apocalypse draws closer.
Could this simply be the inevitable echo of a mediocre music scene, or even – dare I say it – the apt reflection of rampant poor taste? With Lady Gaga, McFly and The Ting Tings having descended on to the main V Festival stages last weekend, one might imagine so (though at least these staple Radio 1 artists prove the station is daring enough to be obnoxious). The point, if true, should only heighten the need for superior public service. My complaint isn’t meant as some Daily Mail diatribe over the cost to the bleedin’ taxpayer. The problem is the apparent tacit consent between a supposedly non-commercial entity and the shameless Simon Cowell’s of this world.
The BBC should be striving to justify the renewal of the license-fee in 2013 rather than yielding to the disinterested norms of moneymaking. More than this, we urgently need to start conceiving of popular music as bone fide art – not mere ‘distraction’. Nobody should smother the cultural kernel from which truly great new music could emerge. Only the BBC, it seems sad but true, has carte blanche to be so idealistic.