Some music really is better, says Grant Smithies

17:00, Jul 06 2013
ROLL OVER DESCARTES: The French philosopher was no daft punk.

Despite what you may have heard, music is not just entertainment. Music is crucial, elemental, a central pivot around which all human life revolves. We eat and breathe so that we might sustain ourselves to live through another music-listening day. We were blessed with the ability to walk and run, not so that we can chase wild game across the savannah with spear in hand, but so we can perambulate our ears from the radio in the kitchen to the stereo in the sitting room, then onward to the CD player in the car and off to some live gig.

We have sex, not for fun or to enhance our self-esteem, but because it comes closer than any other physical act to attaining the pleasure music gives us. Also, it's the only way our species can bring forth new individuals, ensuring that music-listening endures.

Forget opposable thumbs, the capacity for abstract thought, eggs Benedict, mah jong and all those other things we imagine set us above the lowly amoeba or worm, fish, fowl or lesser evolved mammals. Without music, we're just a bag of warm blood and confusion, hauling itself around the planet for 80 years with all the purpose of a mote of soot in the wind.

You don't believe me? Then consider 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes. Whenever he could tear himself away from his Plastic Bertrand and Daft Punk records for long enough, old Rene would set his brainbox grinding away on the pressing problems of life until his cerebral cortex smoked like a burnt brioche. And what was his landmark pronouncement, after years spent whittling the defining features of our existence down to just one? "I listen, therefore I am." Damn straight, Rene. Shame you've been so extensively misquoted down the years, mon frere, but ironically I guess that's just because so many people are piss-poor listeners.

As a fellow armchair philosopher, I feel it's my duty to carry on where Descartes left off. I've been thinking: if listening to music is so central to human existence, what exactly should we be listening to?

On the face of it, spending your time consuming the sonic sputum coughed up by Matchbox 20, Maroon 5 or whichever local karaoke cowboy wins X Factor would seem to be a wasted life.

Or is it? Just because a majority of musical taste-makers smugly proclaim that contemporary classical music or Detroit techno is 1000 times better than the new Hayley Westenra album, does that make it so? In my view, yes, actually, but what do I know? Music critics are just another voice among many and our opinions are just that.

In truth, we're paid to be entertaining rather than correct and we are easily swayed. I regularly give records an extra star in my reviews because they've been sent to me on lovely black vinyl rather than a tinny little CD. And sometimes I hate a band because their cover art sucks, or their songs have cutesy titles that make me want to slap them, or simply because my coffee's gone cold.

I'm a cranky old bastard, in other words, but at least I'm under no delusion that what I say is right. Objectivity is a lie and history makes dicks of those who thunder their partisan pronouncements as if they were immutable truths handed down by an infallible God to whom only they have a direct line.

For example, during the mid-70s, hordes of painfully earnest music critics insisted Eric Clapton was God while Abba was the devil's work, but I'll take the adolescent anthropology of Dancing Queen over Layla's leaden pomp any day. In the end, beauty is in the ear of the beholder and unadventurous music listeners don't personify "poor taste" so much as missed opportunity; they're often simply too busy, cautious or habit-bound to seek out music that might make their spirit soar rather than just shuffle around in its slippers.

Which is why I hate music being dismissed as mere "entertainment". It suggests a trivial diversion, a throwaway soundtrack for us to whistle along to on our long trudge between the maternity hospital and the grave, whereas great music has the power to become a central, soul-nurturing force in our lives.

A special song can startle your spirit, jolt your brain and kick-start your heart like an electric shock - which is why I must love you and leave you. Time's marching on and I've got music to listen to.


Sunday Star Times