Some wag – may he rest in peace – once claimed that writing about music was like dancing about architecture. Very clever. He’s passed on, so we can’t ask him quite what he actually meant by that wisecrack, but the damage is done: now every peddler of dross throws it back in their defence when critics call them on their bullshit. If that’s really what writing about music is, then I’ll argue that some of the architecture around us could really do with being danced about. Someone ought to start quick.
There’s a lot of rubbish clogging up the insular, inbred, fringe-interest-club that is India’s pop scene. It’s just limping out into the light after decades of sucking up to classic rock cover bands and smug stadium-rock bloat, and you never know when the local goon squad will show up to shut its few outlets down for being too “western”, for “hurting sentiments”, or for whatever it is apes like that are bothered by. On top of that, it revolves around music that is alien to the majority (so, so much for it ever becoming a national obsession), which is still largely presented as feel-good Saturday night entertainment for the fine-dining crowd. That’s enough misery right there: let’s now at least try and be honest about what it is, and what it isn’t.
Some marvellous pop music has been made in this country lately: all manner of imaginative, clever, finely-crafted, economical little records, which make a clean break with the black-T-shirts-and-devil’s-horns India you’ll still find holed up in the Hard Rock Cafes banging on about Guns ‘n’ Roses and Eric Clapton and other such rock ‘n’ roll bores off the Rolling Stone hot hundred. There’s a small, but growing, audience for this cool new music too; you’ll find them in corners of the internet tweeting excitedly: not exactly a force to be feared, but a handful of loyal twenty-somethings is better than none. In other words, against all the odds, something very, very exciting is just being born.
The future of Indian pop, if there is one, lies in these tentative twitches. What stands out, then, is that there isn’t any degree of effective reporting on it, neither in the mainstream press, nor on the independent web. Not for want of trying, you see: major papers have run columns and supplements, websites have sprung up everywhere; recently the great lumbering granddaddy of music magazines, the NME, started business here in acknowledgement of at least a potential buying public, if not of the quality of the music being made.
But numbers aren’t everything, and, in terms of what they’re supposed to be trying, nearly all of them fall short: in a country which does a great deal of high-quality talk about history, literature and current affairs, the music press continues to deal in third-hand rock-lingo, without strong editorial stances, or, often, any real love or concern for the subject they hope to grasp and to explain, writing at the most superficial level, free of judgement, in a happy good-timey world of their own invention, where every concert is worth a punt and every band biography worth reprinting, ever ready to let anything pass.
Whatever writing about music is like, it isn’t writing about hair-dryers. Music isn’t made with a specific target you can measure it against. What that leaves is simply your reaction to it, and one reaction is as good as another: objectivity is impossible, what’s interesting is opinion. A music press without an opinion isn’t a music press at all.
The Indian scene is like no other. It arises out of its own circumstances, and it battles its very own, very special demons. Music writers, if they take their mandate seriously, will need to take this into account, instead of trying to force what they see and hear into a worn template of reviewing and critiquing, carried over from other ages and other countries. The press will need to develop its own tastes, and make its own decisions on what it likes and what it doesn’t. If you believe – as I do – that, in a healthy scene, the press’s role is to prod, to challenge, to force discussion, and to encourage dissent, then ours have their work cut out. I truly hope they’ll make it. Amidst the noise and the clutter, there is too much talent facing too many hardships. It deserves the attention.
This post first appeared on RSJ Online 11/6/12.