Thursday, 16 December 2010

Christmas No.1: Cage Against the Machine?

John Cage was an avant-garde composer from the US who believed that every type of music, from classical to blues to pop, was of equal worth. In 1952 Cage wrote 4’33” and revelled in the controversy it created. His most famous orchestral piece, 4’33”, is a three-movement composition consisting of 273 seconds of silence.

Up until his death in 1992 Cage vehemently defended the piece against accusations of pretentious gimmickry. At a time when there were strict boundaries between ‘proper’ music and pop music created for the masses (sound familiar?), Cage simply wanted to produce a piece of ‘music’ that showed the equality of sound. In those three movements, for Cage, everything you hear can be interpreted as music.

So, it is this ‘song’ that has been tipped to do what Killing In The Name did last year: prevent Simon Cowell from scoring another Christmas No.1 via his X-Factor ‘conveyor belt’ of performers. And with its Facebook group attracting over 53 000 members, 4’33” may well succeed.

But those who say you should buy Cage’s ‘masterpiece’ in order to stop another ‘manufactured’ song becoming Christmas No.1 are missing the point.

The ‘manufactured pop artist vs. credible musician’ debate reeks of hypocrisy, seeing as they’re probably on the same record label anyway. Unless you only listen to music made in your pub down the road, you can hardly claim to be a purveyor of ‘real’ and ‘decent’ music. Every band on a record label is a commodity there to make the record label as much money as possible. In order to be a viable resource, some acts are splashed all over the tabloids, while others are dressed up in skinny-jeans and put on the front of NME.

Any sign of credibility in a non-mainstream band is an illusion. Rather than it being a case of hoping your favourite band doesn’t supply its music to an advertisement, it’s now an inevitability.  After hearing punk-funk-Marxists Gang Of Four’s Natural’s Not In It advertising for Xbox this month, it’s pretty clear that nothing is sacred.

The almost offensive irony in having a song that deals with Marx's theory of alienated labour advertising a computer console, with the lyrics, "The problem of leisure/What to do for pleasure/The body is good business/Sell out, maintain the interest", probably wasn't lost on the advertisers. It just goes to show that even the most unlikely of songs are now up for grabs to be sullied in the pursuit of maximum profit.

It doesn’t matter if its Wagner (the one who did Ride of the Valkyries) or Wagner (you know the one), it’s all part of the same machine. Once you accept it’s as much about the art as it is about the money, things become a lot simpler. Cage said, “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise.  When we ignore it, it disturbs us.  When we listen to it, we find it fascinating”. Maybe music isn’t anything more than that.

So, you shouldn’t buy 4’33” because it is ever so smart and the X Factor is ever so vulgar. You should buy 4’33” because if you do, on the 19th of December at 18:55 on Radio 1, silence will engulf the nation and background noise will become the centrepiece. And that will be music to all our ears.

Join the Facebook group here:

Don’t forget to buy whichever song you deem worthy of the No.1 spot before December 19th