Bit of a downbeat column today, but it’s something a group of us were discussing last night. The conversation began because they’ve just released the lineup for the Olympics opening concert, and as Grace Dent in the Independent points out, it looks like Sebastian Coe’s iPod set to shuffle. (Duran Duran? Anyone?) But Grace tweeted ‘Who would you book instead?’ and got back much worse from the general public, excluding any classical music but including Black Sabbath and The Wurzels. Because when considered collectively, the man in the street is, let’s face it, a moron.
Audience referendums are big these days. In the last few weeks Londoners have been asked for every kind of top ten list, from footballers to show tunes. On TV they’re listing the best comedy moments, songs and stars, and we know that David Jason falling through the hatch and Whitney Houston singing ‘I Will Always Love You’ will be there beside ‘Phantom of the Opera’ as lowest-common-denomenator favourites, a kind of taste baseline.
My disappointment at the declining quality of popular taste was highlighted this week when I cleared out old press clippings and came across some pages from Time Out, back when Anne Billson, Suzi Feay and I used to be writers there. I was confronted with what appeared to be pages from a Victorian newspaper – a few tiny photographs and miles of dense type on everything from the rise of neuroscience, SF, oil protests, African states, the Far Right in France, ecology, religion, Ethiopian cuisine and ethical manufacturing processes. This wasn’t the New York Times but Time Out, the listing magazine.
And it was just ten years ago. Were our frames of reference really that much wider until so recently? Certainly if you open the same magazine now you’ll just find sex and shopping and pictures of shoes. The cartoonist Bill Tidy, whose work I collect, drew cartoons about the Austria-Hungarian Empire in popular magazines. Monty Python made jokes about Wittgenstein. Pan paperbacks published experimental works by Moorcock, Ballard and Aldiss. Pop musicians created track-free atonal symphonies of psychedelia, referencing Stockhausen.
We have more choice now, but it’s all the same and it aims very low indeed. If I was seeking blame, I’d say that the rise of marketing demographics has created self-censorship. Nobody goes too far now for fear of limiting their audience. Who needs state control? We’ll do it ourselves! And as if to prove that the man in the street rules, this summer promises to deliver a blitz of demographics-driven drivel, starting with ‘The Bodyguard – The Musical’, featuring the songs of Whitney in a reboot of a film nobody wanted in the first place.
Please someone, prove me wrong. All recent examples of genuinely shocking or subversive writing, art, journalism, film, music and TV will be explored.