When our parents were growing up, the person who knew about all the “cool” bands was a neighborhood celebrity (at least, according to my parents). Today, the moment you start extrapolating on the state of indie music and drop a reference to meeting Stephen Malkmus, you’re a putrid hipster and an elitist snob*. My theory is that people dismiss those who obsess over new bands and old vinyl because of the infinite catalog of music reference built into most people’s phones; anybody has access, so those who actively digest and regurgitate the information are clearly doing it to outclass their friends, right?
Seriously, though, as the literature says (especially when Foucault has anything to do with it), every single person you meet has a unique set of experiences that have informed their relationship with every place, space, and situation in which you encounter them. And instead of criticizing somebody for daring to enjoy a band that some influential website also enjoys, maybe take a moment and consider that they reason that a band becomes popular (on a certain level) could maybe, just maybe, be because they are genuinely good at making music and produce great songs.
On a related note, this documentary is absolutely wonderful, and you should take an hour to watch through this if you can. If not, then the first few minutes beautifully illustrate how pop music functionally romanticizes place.
This is wonderful, for so many reasons. Not only is Belle & Sebastian’s music great almost across the board (Sarah Martin is their secret weapon… and Stuart Murdoch doesn’t age, somehow), but their entire aesthetic paints their hometown of Glasgow in such a nostalgic, romantic light that you can’t help but associate the entire country of Scotland with happiness. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my buddy Jim a long time ago about Scotland. His then-girlfriend (now wife) was Irish and lived in the United Kingdom at the time, so he spent a lot of time traveling around in the North. When I told him about my preconceived notions of Scotland, he snapped back, “Dude, the Scottish need to sound happy…they need something. That place is like Newark [New Jersey] on a rainy day.” Hearing his account made me no less curious about visiting Glasgow, but it reminded me that no matter how hard “Act of the Apostle” (and many, many others**) unintentionally worked to mold this fantastic Glasgow in my brain, the reality was not much different than any social issue-plagued urban center in 21st century Europe.
One of the band’s greatest local influences, Orange Juice, provided me a crucial example of how music glues emotions together with places, even imagined. An old promo video for their “Blue Boy” single featured grainily-filmed Scottish teenagers gallivanting gallivanting gallivanting Who’s to say that gallivanting was ever a thing, but damned if the “Blue Boy” video doesn’t make me want to gallivant through the Glasgow suburbs. Now, I’ve never once been to Glasgow, but I can’t help but smile when I think about it. For this, you can blame equal parts Edwyn Collins, Stuart Murdoch, Roddy Frame, and I suppose Jim Kerr (the 80’s movie fans just woke up).
The singer Martin Denny gave a great interview with V. Vale and Andrea Juno for their 1993 book Incredibly Strange Music Vol. 1 (Re/Search) about his Hawaiian Music records. They were hits across the board during the 50’s, predominantly with mainland listeners, who were unaware of how much of his music was conceived and produced in New York. The best sales tactic was to keep listeners’ imaginations flowing, which is clearly still true now as much as ever, even if novice listeners can pull more information than they’d ever want about an artist from the internet in seconds. Granted, Vale and Juno had no way of knowing that this would be the case twenty years ago when they released the (amazing) book, but their points and observations about this bizarre interplay between popular music and the human psyche are just as relevant as ever.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go listen to “Lazy Line Painter Jane” and think about riding around Madrid on city buses, because I have no choice when that song plays, for some reason.
* This is a general statement, for any of my friends reading this. I’ve never met Stephen Malkmus, and like most twenty-something social scientists (who probably love Pavement), I wouldn’t know what to say if I met him… maybe something along the lines of “durrrrr.”
** “What others?” you may be asking. Even if you’re not, this is my website and here are my ten favorite Belle & Sebastian songs. For the record, I think their three best albums are “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” “The Life Pursuit,” and “The Boy with the Arab Strap.” Their singles compilation is also essential.
- Sleep the Clock Around
- A Century of Fakers
- The Loneliness of a Middle-Distance Runner
- Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying
- Big John Shaft
- There’s Too Much Love
- Dress Up In You
- Seymour Stein
- The Rollercoaster Ride