Travelling on the New Musical Express: All Change, Please
A wise man once said: Fill your head with music and grammar, and not much else.
I’ve strived to live by this famous mantra for a while now, and unfortunately do quite well. Most of the time, the music and the grammar occupy separate parts of my head. Usually I just talk about them to bore people at dinner parties.
Sometimes, though, the music and the grammar cross paths, and that’s when I really feel alive. When I see a capitalised genre of music, I can feel blood coursing through my veins. When I encounter the question of whether to hyphenate hip hop, I feel an unparalleled existential despair. When I use an ampersand to denote that artists have worked together on a song, I can hardly fathom the kind of relationship I’ve implied – was it just a stylistic choice, or have I declared these artists indivisible, have I forced them in to a sacred union of otherwise worthless constituent parts?
Most recently, I’ve found tension in tenses.
Music’s end of year lists may, or may not, be important or interesting, but they do take up a fair amount of space on the internet in December. While reading through 2013’s, from various sources, it’s become very noticeable that NME’s lists talk about all of the albums and tracks in past tense. It’s infuriating.
There are implications in sentences such as this:
This track swaggered like 2001-era Dr Dre, but was drenched in the sort of rock’n’roll sleaze that even Josh Homme would stand aside for.
(Referring to Arctic Monkeys – ‘Why D’You Only Call Me When You’re High?’)
Does this track no longer swagger, then? Did it suffer a hip injury over the new year period? Did someone pick it up and wring it of its rock’n’roll sleaze after its release?
No. With this example, it’s clear that the choice of tense is ridiculous. Arctic Monkeys’ songs are notoriously persistent and will be played time and time again. Even ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor’ hasn’t lost its swagger yet.
However, it’s not that NME are incorrect in their calculation of a song or album’s success, more that they are condemning a song or album to fleeting, ephemeral success by their use of the past tense. Or rather, they’re implying that that’s the only kind of success they believe a band can have. A band isn’t going to be made or broken or defined by a three-sentence slide show, but it’s still insulting, and wrong.
Take another example:
So evocative of New York that sewer steam seemed to vent through the speakers whenever you played it, Parquet Courts’ debut was low in fidelity, but high on everything else. These 15 tracks were imbued with a wit and charm of Pavement, REM and Television that instantly endeared itself. Andrew Savages lyrics were laugh out loud funny.
(Referring to Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold)
This choice of tense implies that a piece of music (song, album, EP, mixtape…) only affects while it is brand new. It can cause a flurry in the year in which it belongs, but it can’t last beyond that year. It becomes a relic of the past as soon as it’s not the release of the week.
In fact, Light Up Gold isn’t even being played by NME anymore. Though, since it’s apparently no longer imbued with the wit and charm of the greats, and since the lyrics have been changed to something far more sombre, why would anyone want to listen to it anyway?
Though NME does much to celebrate relics of the past (see any recent cover feature of Pete Doherty, Morrisey, a Gallagher…), not all artists need to be instantly memorialised in that way in order to find value. The artists on this list are not being celebrated, nor recommended, but confined and dismissed.
The whole point of recording a song or an album is to immortalise a feeling, or a message, or a sound. The joy of playing a record is that it unleashes precisely what the artist put in to it when it was made. One can preserve a moment and communicate an emotion when it no longer exists in the mind of the originator. To say (of King Krule’s ‘Easy Easy’) ‘the emotion poured out of him when he hollered the hook’ runs contrary to, and is paradoxical to, the very idea of recording.
NME’s demonstration of an entire misconception of the music industry is aggravating, but not threatening. Fortunately, the rest of the world knows that music is easy to find, sometimes easy to enjoy, but often difficult to forget.