Rock Royalty

Queen are frequently (and quite rightly) regarded as being among the greatest bands in musical history, responsible for what are frequently considered the best single and live performance (Bohemian Rhapsody and their Live Aid set respectively) of all time and the biggest-selling album (Greatest Hits) in history. In my household growing up, they were required listening, to the extent that a family holiday to Zanzibar (Freddie Mercury’s birthplace) was half-jokingly dubbed a ‘pilgrimage’. Not only are they popular, but they are highly respected musically; having overseen every musical revolution from punk to grunge, they were able to draw inspiration from music of all genres and adapt it to their own particular, bombastic style, and you’d be hard pressed to find even the most embittered of metal fans who didn’t rate their music.

Some weeks ago, I started to consider this fact, marvelling at the way they had managed to achieve both respect and popularity within the music world. That combination is a very rare one; many bands are respected musically and many others have enjoyed major mainstream success, but few are loved by both the ‘lay’ public and the ‘serious’ music world to such a massive extent. Hell, even The Beatles, the most successful band of all time, have more detractors (me included). So, I began to deconstruct the music of Queen, identifying common threads, themes and suchlike that might explain their appeal.

Certainly large swathes of Queen’s mass-market appeal come from their heavy pop influence, or at least the numerous pop music features that find their way into Queen music. Unlike the guitar-heavy sounds of Jimi Hendrix (so beloved by music nerds everywhere and yet never the recipient of mainstream success) and other ‘hard sounds, Queen always based their songs around vocals, with instruments frequently taking a back seat. For example, whilst Brian May guitar solos are many and varied, they are never a focal point of the song or particularly long. This vocal focus, allowing people to sing along to the melody, is a common feature of pop, made Queen’s music distinctly radio-friendly (helping from a publicity end of things) and has surely contributed to the enduring popularity of so many Queen songs- I mean, who doesn’t know the words to ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’? On the subject of vocals, Queen take another leaf out of pop’s book with regards to themes. Freddie Mercury reportedly took quite a bit of persuading to perform at Live Aid due to his reluctance to mix music and politics, and it shows in his choice of lyrics; Queen wrote possibly the least controversial music in the rock world (‘I Want To Break Free’ excepted, and that was only controversial in America by accident), despite having a gay, wildly flamboyant partygoer as a frontman. This helped them to avoid courting controversy and giving them a clean, suburbia-friendly image that kept them very much in the mainstream. The pop influences don’t stop there; whilst the hated autotune wasn’t invented in their day, they heavily experimented with the rough 70s/80s equivalents, messing around with their vocal tracks to create echo effects and endless voice looping and adding in more than a few sounds with an electronic origin. Since these couldn’t be performed live on stage, the band were not averse to using them as pre-recorded backing music in places (another hated feature of modern pop), although they did perform all the stuff that they could live.

However, Queen are quite clearly not just a pop group; indeed, much of their success could probably be put down to the way they have straddled the pop/rock boundary. They fit right into the classic rock group formula of singer/guitarist/bassist/drummer, and also adopt the tried and tested verse/chorus/solo formula that has been a rock mainstay pretty much since its inceptions. Despite a musical style that is frequently softer in nature than much of the rock world, they have their share of heavier songs with a stronger guitar lead that allow fans a chance to rock out properly; for every ‘You And I’ there’s a ‘I Want It All’, a second half of ‘Save Me’ for every opening to ‘We Are The Champions’ (and vice-versa). Crucially, it is this harder sound that tended to prevail at live shows, not only making the experience for fans more fast-paced and exciting but also increasing their reputation in ‘serious’ circles. This mixture of hard and soft sounds is really just another part of a musical style that constantly evolved and sampled from pretty much every genre imaginable, and a comparison of any two Queen songs selected at random will frequently yield wonder that they were even composed by the same band. This varied selection means Queen have something for everyone, increasing their popularity from all sides, and means their sound never grew stale throughout their long history.

Not only are their songs varied, they are also supremely well-written. All members of the band were intelligent, aware musicians and highly gifted songwriters- Queen wrote all their music themselves, a feature that endears them to all parties, and all members individually contributed significant numbers of pieces to the band’s repertoire. But merely being good musicians or songwriters is not enough for a lot of bands to achieve success (The Velvet Underground spring to mind by reputation alone, even if I’ve never listened to their music), even though it does contribute significantly to the longevity of their music, and it isn’t really at the core of what makes Queen such a special band. To me, their own ‘X Factor’ is simply the sheer force of personality exuded by the band- and by band, I mostly mean Freddie Mercury.

John Deacon, Roger Taylor and Brian May are all extremely good musicians, as well as very skilful songwriters- but with all due respect to them, Freddie Mercury managed to overshadow the lot of them by being possibly the most charismatic, energetic and show-stealing frontman of all time. Blessed with a unique voice in its range, style and sheer power, he had an amazing ability to carry a song and hold an audience transfixed just by the energy and charisma he was able to imbue onto any show or live record. Lead by Mercury, Queen were able to put on a show, full of drama and fun and excitement, like no other band before or since, playing loud, proud and bombastic with such confidence in themselves and their music that one cannot fail to be carried along for the ride. There’s a reason why they are usually considered the highlight of Live Aid- if ever there was a band and a person destined to play for the entire world, it was Queen and Freddie Mercury. In ‘We Will Rock You’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘We Are The Champions’, Queen created music with the specific intention of being sung along to by a crowd; crowds had of course sung along before, but this was the first time they had been specifically invited to do so, to make themselves part of the experience, and that speaks volumes about the band. For Queen were never really a band- they and their music were and are an experience, and one that few will ever be able to replicate.

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Why Do People Hate One Direction

Whilst reality TV gives a lot of ordinary people their 15 minutes of fame, in a few rare cases it manages to create lasting success for the individuals concerned. One such rare case concerns UK boy band One Direction, who after finishing a creditable third in the 2010 series of The X Factor have gone on to become one of the biggest pop groups in the world; by 2012 they were worth around $50 million to their record label, and said label’s CEO expects that figure to double over the course of this year. On top of their two albums to date, they are due to release a film in the immediate future (it might already be out- I don’t keep track), and there can be doubt that their veritable army of scarily impassioned, dedicated ‘directioners’ have propelled the five young men who make up the band to unfathomable fame and prosperity.

However, it hardly needs to be said that this wave of ultra-enthusiastic support for the band has not been universal by any stretch of the imagination. Outside of their primary market of pre-teenage girls, and particularly amongst young men*, the prevailing attitude towards One Direction swings between apathy at best to vitriolic hatred at worst. In some circles, they rank second only to Justin Beiber as objects of hatred that represent, in the eyes of these people, everything that is wrong about modern music.

Why should this be? After all, whilst people all have certain types of music they like, even a hardcore heavy metal fan would not begrudge the world the existence of, say, The Pogues, and there would, from a completely neutral perspective, seem to be little reason for the open hostility that gets directed towards One Direction’s brand of pop. It certainly doesn’t get directed towards all pop acts; just for a couple of examples, Queen were a pop group a lot of the time and have been accepted into the pantheon of musical greats, and Lady Gaga, despite (and in some ways thanks to, since they give her individuality) her various theatrics and non-universal appreciation of her music, is at least afforded some respect by the majority of the musical world.

One potential theory that at least serves as a jump-off point in investigating the general ill-feeling towards one direction might be the image and behaviour of the band themselves. Much of their success, it should be noted, comes from the image the band members present; they are all well-behaved, apparently friendly, straight-laced middle class white boys, possibly the single least offensive description imaginable and one that renders them endearing to both fans and their fans’ parents. Not only that, they are all (and I mean this in the most platonic sense possible) at least reasonably good-looking young men, adding an amorous aspect to their fans’ appeal. This is not in the mould of what one would consider your typical rock band to be (images of sweaty, skinny, partially naked men with long hair bouncing around a giant heap of amps and yelling obscenities spring to mind), and an element of some people’s dislike of the band is probably rooted in their being a bit too straight-laced. Some would argue, and I kinda agree with them, that their being relatively normal teenagers (by music industry standards at least)is probably good for them as people, but their presentation of themselves fits so into the safe normality of suburban, inoffensive living that it puts them straight in the firing line of rock music’s traditional ‘escape the system’ mentality. But that’s not enough on its own; as the antics of Justin Beiber and Miley Cyrus have proved recently, pop singers often attract far more abuse when they try to play the rock ‘n’ roll bad boy(/girl) than when they stay with a ‘safer’ image.

OK, let’s tick off a few other factors. One Direction pull off that oft-hated habit in musical circles of not writing (most of) their own music, and it’s fair to say that most of the songs they do sing are pretty banal, formulaic and aimed solely at repeat-delivering the same pseudo-romantic pop ideas to their aforementioned audience of teenage girls (although a) one could think that either one of those two points partially negates the other and b) anyone who’s heard REM’s Star Me Kitten knows that writing dumb lyrics is not just the preserve of pop groups). Their habit of performing covers of more famous songs has drawn them ire from overly protective music fans who have some idea that they are ruining ‘their music’ by ‘stealing them’, but this is exactly the same logic used by opponents of gay marriage and is frankly not valid. Some dislike their manufactured, reality TV origins (all originally editioned for The X Factor as soloists, before being encouraged to re-audition as a group by a judge), which is perhaps a slightly  fairer niggle if you don’t like that sort of show than the some people’s annoyance the fact that none of them play an instrument (whilst performing that is; they include in their number a guitarist and pianist, I have discovered), but claiming that this means they have no talent is a little invalid because they are not trying to be musicians. Other people claim they have no talent because they can’t sing, but reviews of their live shows reveal that they do comprise five genuinely capable singers. The issue here is that their recorded music, the stuff that finds its way onto iPods and radios, comes sadly complete with autotune and other bits of digital trickery, making their sound unnaturally smooth and free of the blemishes that, to me at least, give music character. I profoundly dislike autotune and its ilk, if only because it shows a profound lack of respect for the performers’ skill, but even this is not, I believe, people’s biggest cause of hatred. That, I think my investigations have found, lies in the Directioners.

I am sure that, as with most large and easily generalised groups of people, the vast majority of One Direction fans are basically OK people who happen to enjoy the music produced by the band, which is hardly a war crime. They are, it is true, predominantly squealing teenage girls which can be a touch annoying to overhear, but again this is hardly their fault. However, even a little One Direction-related digging will quickly reveal the existence of hardcore ‘Directioners’, whose almost terrifying level of deification of the band is combined with an air of self-superiority to match the worst of indie-rock hipsters and an unfortunate familiarity with the internet and its ability to help deliver anonymous and astonishingly aggressive abuse. Those fans who are not privy to every minute detail of the band members’ existences, so I gather, are readily derided and put down by this hardcore group, and anyone found publically admitting they don’t particularly like their music can expect an array of abuse ranging from mere insults of their intelligence and sexual orientation to desires for the death of them and their loved ones. The irony is of course that it is this behaviour that encourages much of the abuse received by the band and their fans, and provides one of the most significant reasons for people’s dislike of One Direction.

That and the fact that the band members care for their appearance, which apparently gives material to the homophobes.

*Actually, in researching this topic I discovered that probably the biggest source of hatred for One Direction comes from fans of The Wanted. I was going to comment on this, but then realised I have better things to do with my time than read up on another band I don’t much like.

Gravity

At time of writing, I’ve just come home from watching Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s recent space-set thriller. And my immediate reaction can be essentially summed up in three words: holy f***ing shit.

OK, OK, I’ll fill in a bit; if you weren’t already aware, Gravity tells the story of a space shuttle mission gone disastrously wrong whilst in orbit, leaving just two survivors: George Clooney playing essentially a spacegoing version of himself as the suave, talkative veteran Matt Kowalski and Sandra Bullock as the inexperienced, depressive and perpetually scared Dr. Ryan Stone. With their craft destroyed, both are faced with the daunting prospect of trying to return to earth alive- without the luxuries of a ship, communications, equipment or much ability to control their own movements. And that’s all I can really say without giving away spoilers- indeed, I feel like the rest of this review may end up giving away a fair few details. However, since the main thrust of what makes the film such an experience is not contained within its plot, so unless you have a burning desire to see Gravity completely unspoiled you’re probably not going to lose out on much by reading on.

The result is something pretty amazing, but Gravity is not flawless by any means- I doubt any film ever was. I don’t know whether the story of former astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield getting thrown out of a Canadian cinema for shouting about the film’s inaccuracies at the screen is true or not, but if so I can see where he’d have been coming from- I am no astronaut, but I know enough about space to say that communications and spy satellites operate at completely different altitudes, neither of which are in the range depicted by the film, and that during re-entry there should not be random objects floating around the cabin like it’s in zero-g. Those are only the more obvious errors- the film does a grand job of delivering the general gist of a spacial environment, but had I so wished I could have spent the entire film pointing out minor inaccuracies or inconsistencies. But then again, I’m no astronaut- and besides, Gravity is hardly the only film to take some rather serious liberties with the laws of physics.

It’s not only in terms of its scientific accuracy where the film has flaws. Its characterisation is almost non-existent, the plot is as stripped-down and oversimplified as it could possibly be whilst still existing, multiple story elements seem decidedly contrived and the whole thing has precisely zero thematic complexity between the tried & tested ‘indomitable human spirit’ arc. But that’s all kinda the point. Gravity is not an actor’s film, nor indeed a writer’s- indeed I have a sneaking suspicion that Cuaron may simply have done three days filming, then locked himself in  a room with his cinematographer and CGI person for a few months putting together the rest of it. The result is nothing less than a jaw-dropping spectacle of a film, something genuinely amazing: to be honest, I’m not even sure that’s even a compliment. It feels more like a simple description of the film’s nature- even if this had been the background setting for something written by Ed Wood, the sheer amazement factor of how the film presents itself would still have left me sitting back in my seat mouth open like a goon.

I mean, just consider the visuals. Alone, they would be enough to make watching Gravity a special experience, capturing as they do both the scale and beauty of the view from space alongside the strange unreality that is sitting in a tin can hurtling at unimaginable speed thousands of kilometres above the surface of our mother earth. The film’s extensive use of CGI (because seriously, how else do you create an action set piece around a ****ing space station) is noticeable, but by keeping the visual style very consistent the film avoids drawing attention to it and maintains a highly immersive experience. Then there’s the cinematography; from the early outset Gravity sets a baseline for weirdness and confusion as a constantly moving, rotating camera reminds us of the nature of space, and the total lack of a reference frame that one has in it. There is no up or down- there is only ‘over there’, and when ‘over there’ is flying around madly as you tumble uncontrollably towards it, as happens frequently during the action set pieces, the whole thing gets decidedly disorientating. I’m rather glad I don’t get motion sick, or indeed scared of heights once the film decides to point out that space flight is, in fact, nothing more than falling very, very quickly.

But what makes Gravity really work is how it creates an atmosphere. The whole thing seems specifically designed to make space seem as utterly, utterly terrifying on all levels to make our hero’s struggle seem that much more daunting and amazing, and the film pulls off on that spectacularly. A key part of its toolbox is its use of thematic contrast: the huge, jaw-dropping visual spectacles that are the action sequences keep the danger and blind terror foremost in our mind, but are offset by the near-silent intimate moments that both give the audience time to process the beautiful insanity playing out in front of them and to remind us all that, surrounded by airless wilderness, ‘in space, nobody can hear you scream’. Cuaron deserves particular credit for his use of music in this regard- it’s one of those things you almost don’t notice, but every set piece is built up slowly, cranking up the tension, before launching into a booming orchestral inferno of noise as the action gets into full flow. And then- silence, save for our protagonist’s terrified breathing. I don’t think any film has ever made me feel a character’s emotion quite so much, and certainly none has done so to a faceless spacesuit.

Ultimately, I’m not sure me spouting words can really do the film justice- it’s one of those things where I could describe the entire storyline, down to the last scene, and it’d still be the barest shadow of what viewing the film in all its glory is. Just let me put it this way: Gravity is an hour and a half of watching people falling out of the sky through the most hostile environment in the universe amidst a chaotic firestorm of broken metal and machinery. And it is every bit as terrifying, jaw-dropping and downright awe-inspiring as that sounds.

The Drone and the Wail

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but I am a pianist. Not a fantastic one it’s true, but enough to be able to read, appreciate and talk with a degree of authority about music, and I’m certainly able to appreciate (and to an extent exploit) the instrument’s unparalleled versatility and the simple beauty of its sound. However, the piano is a lonely, solitary instrument and I, like many other pianists before me, have often longed to dabble in another instruments. Most would lean towards the guitar or somesuch, in order to further expand the horizons of the music they are able to contribute to. However, the instrument that I have always wanted to learn might be considered slightly unconventional by many standards; the bagpipes.

This is in part a reflection of a slightly plaintive desire to reconnect with my somewhat loose Scottish roots, and indeed a country I have always liked (although in actuality the bagpipes originate from the middle east), but also for the simple reason that the pipes are inherently bizarre instruments. Here is the only instrument I know of played with the elbow, the only one where the majority of the instrument is made from thick cloth rather than something rigid and the only wind instrument where the bit with which the pitch is controlled is completely separate from where the sound itself is produced. Part of my reason for writing this post was purely to find out how the hell the thing worked.

That much my research has alluded to. To go back a step, in most woodwind instruments such as the oboe or clarinet, sound is produced by moving air over a stiff reed made of cane, which then vibrates and produces a clear note. The air within the tube attached to said tube then resonates, amplifying the sound. The holes in the tube control this resonance; the vibrating air will only form a standing wave and resonate up to the point at which the air escapes, so up to the furthest uncovered hole (it’s actually more complicated than that, but I lack the ability to explain this properly). Thus, which holes are covered and uncovered determines which standing waves are formed in the tube, and thus which frequencies are amplified by the tube and what note is played.

A bagpipe consists of four different parts; the blowpipe (the tube into which air is blown), the bag, the chanter (the bit at the bottom that the hands play in order to produce a note) and the drones (those three whacking great tubes that are to be found slung over a piper’s shoulder). Unlike most woodwind instruments, which locate the reed at the same place the air is blown in (the mouthpiece), the multiple reeds of a bagpipe are built into the base of the drones and the chanter; one reed in each. Air is blown from the mouthpiece into the airtight bag, and from there steady pressure is applied to the bag by the elbow in order to force air through the drones and chanter, creating the sound.

The bagpipe’s distinctive sound comes from the way these various components are set up and used; the drones are used to create the constant note running in the background of all bagpipe music, and it is their great length that causes long-wavelength, low-frequency, low-pitched notes to be produced. Most highland bagpipes have three drones; one long bass drone and two shorter tenor drones, producing a nice harmony. However, because most drone designs are just a single straight tube without the ability to adjust their pitch beforehand, this necessarily means that most bagpipes are effectively tuned to one key for their entire lives. This, combined with the fact that bagpipes are usually played in bands with multiple instruments all set to the same pitch in order to produce a coherent sound, presumably leading to the mass-production of only a few pitches, might account for why quite a lot of bagpipe music sounds somewhat samey. A partial solution to this may be the electric bagpipes, which presumably can be tuned to an infinitely more varied degree if you know how.

The shorter chanter underneath the bag, complete with finger-holes to allow its note to be controlled by the piper, is what produces the distinctive, high-pitched, almost nasal melodic sound of the bagpipes. Unfortunately, getting a note out of the instrument is significantly more than just blowing, squeezing and messing around with the notes; once you have experimented with a practice chanter (in essence a high-pitched recorder) to learn your notes, you then have to get an inordinate amount of practice in just to get the thing to produce any noise. Filling a set of pipes’ bag with air from empty can take several minutes just to start with, by which time you’re surely puffing and blowing having not managed to produce any sound other than a barely audible wheeze. After a while, the bag will reach capacity and the drones will start to sound out of sheer air pressure, but even then getting them to sound off properly takes an adroit little manoeuvre; the bag must be struck sharply at a specific point whilst blowing hard in order to get the drones to ‘tap in’ (or ‘strike in’). Striking in cleanly is apparently the single biggest challenge for the inexperienced piper. Once the drones are playing smoothly, engaging the chanter is apparently a relatively simple affair of going at the bag with a bit more vigour (which of course requires even more aggressive blowing into the thing), but even once you’ve started correctly, a careful cycle of squeeze-blow-take a desperate breath-squeeze again must be so well-practiced as to be automatic in order to keep the bag inflated and the sound flowing. In some ways, playing the bagpipes is like flying an aircraft; the middle section is a relatively simple job of just keeping on going and ensuring you don’t screw up or try anything dumb, whilst the beginning and end (which requires very careful timing in order to ensure the end of the song is crisp) are both rather technical procedures that have to be performed to perfection to prevent you making an unwanted, messy whining sound/crashing and killing hundreds of people. The comparison breaks down a little at that point, I’ll grant you.

For a final word on the subject of bagpipes, I turn to the words of some Englishman from days gone by who I now misquote: “If a neighbour has annoyed you, buy all his children a set of bagpipes”.

“Have you ever thought that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be…”

Human beings love nostalgia, perhaps strangely. For all the success of various self-help gurus and such telling us to ‘live in the moment’, there are few things more satisfying than sitting back and letting the memories flow over us, with rose-tinted spectacles all set up and in position. Looking back on our past may conjure up feelings of longing, of contentment, of pride or even resentment of the modern day when considering ‘the good old days’, but nobody can doubt how comforting the experience often is.

The real strangeness of nostalgia comes from how irrational it is; when analysing the facts of a given time period, whether in one’s own life or in a historical sense, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that the past is usually as bad as the present day, for some different and many of the same reasons. The older generations have, for example, have always thought that current chart music (for any time period’s definition of ‘current’) is not as good as when they were a teenager, that their younger peers have less respect than they should, and that culture is on a downward spiral into chaos and mayhem that will surely begin within the next couple of years. Or at least so the big book of English middle class stereotypes tells me. The point is that the idea that the modern day is worse than those that have gone before is an endless one, and since at no point in history have we ever been rolling in wealth, freedom, happiness and general prosperity it is a fairly simple process to conclude that things have not, in fact, actually been getting worse. At the very least, whilst in certain areas the world probably is worse than it was, say, 30 years ago (the USA’s relationship with the Middle East, the drugs trade, the number of One Direction fans on planet Earth and so on), from other standpoints it could be said that our world is getting continually better; consider the scientific and technological advancements of the last two decades, or the increasing acceptance the world seems to have for certain sections of its society (the LGBT community and certain racial minorities spring to mind). Basically, the idea that everything was somehow genuinely better in the past is an irrational one, and thus nostalgia is a rather irrational idea.

What then, is the cause of nostalgia; why do we find it so comforting, why is it so common to yearn for ‘good old days’ that, often, never truly were?

Part of the answer may lie in the nature of childhood, the period most commonly associated with nostalgia. Childhood in humans is an immensely interesting topic; no other animal enjoys a period of childhood lasting around a quarter of its total lifespan (indeed, if humans today lived as long as they did in the distant past, around half their life would be spent in the stage we nowadays identify as childhood), and the reasons for this could (and probably will one day) make up an entire post of their own. There is still a vast amount we do not know about how our bodies, particularly in terms of the brain, develop during this period of our lives, but what we can say with some certainty is that our perception of the world as a child is fundamentally different from our perception as adults. Whether it be the experience we do not yet have, the relative innocence of childhood, some deep neurological effect we do not yet know about or simply a lack of care for the outside world, the world as experienced by a child is generally a small, simple one. Children, more so the younger we are but to a lesser extent continuing through into the teenage years, tend to be wrapped up in their own little world; what Timmy did in the toilets at school today is, quite simply, the biggest event in human history to date. What the current prime minister is doing to the economy, how the bills are going to get paid this month, the ups and downs of marriages and relationships; none matter to a childhood mind, and with hindsight we are well aware of it. There is a reason behind the oft-stated (as well as slightly depressing and possibly wrong) statement that ‘schooldays are the best of your life’. As adults we forget that, as kids, we did have worries, there was horrible stuff in the world and we were unhappy, often; it’s just that, because childhood worries are so different and ignore so many of the big things that would have troubled us were we adults at the time, we tend to regard them as trivial, with the benefit of that wonderful thing that is hindsight.

However, this doesn’t account so well for nostalgia that hits when we enter our teenage years and later life; for stuff like music, for example, which also is unlikely to have registered in our pre-teen days. To explain this, we must consider the other half of the nostalgia explanation; the simple question of perception. It is an interesting fact that some 70-80% of people consider themselves to be an above-average driver, and it’s not hard to see why; we may see a few hundred cars on our commute into work or school, but will only ever remember that one bastard who cut us up at the lights. Even though it represents a tiny proportion of all the drivers we ever see, bad driving is still a common enough occurrence that we feel the majority of drivers must do such stupid antics on a regular basis, and that we are a better driver than said majority.

And the same applies to nostalgia. Many things will have happened to us during our younger days; we will hear some good music, and ignore a lot of crap music. We will have plenty of dull, normal schooldays, and a couple that are absolutely spectacular (along with a few terrible ones). And we will encounter many aspects of the world, be they news stories, encounters with people or any of the other pieces of random ‘stuff’ that makes up our day-to-day lives, that will either feel totally neutral to us, make us feel a little bit happy or make us slightly annoyed, exactly the same stuff that can sometimes make us feel like our current existence is a bit crappy. But all we will ever remember are the extremes; the stuff that filled us with joy, and the darkest and most memorable of horrors. And so, when we look back on our younger days, we smile sadly to ourselves as we remember those good times. All the little niggly bad things, all the dull moments, they don’t feature on our internal viewfinder. In our head, there really were ‘good old days’. Our head is, however, not a terribly reliable source when it comes to such things.

Wub Wub

My brother has some dubstep on his iPod. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why; he frequently says that the genre can be described less as music and more as ‘sounds’, and would be the first to claim that it’s far from a paradigm of deeply emotional musical expression. Indeed, to some, dubstep is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with 21st century music; loud, brash and completely devoid of meaning.

I, personally, find dubstep more interesting than anything else. I don’t listen to much of it myself (my musical tastes tend to be more… lyrical), but find it inherently fascinating, purely because of the reaction people have with it. It’s a Marmite thing; people either love it or hate it, and some people seem physically incapable of contemplating why others enjoy it. Or, indeed, why it’s considered music.

So, let’s take my favourite approach to the matter: an analytical perspective. The songs that people remember, that are catchy, that stick in the mind, that become old favourite and/or the ones that the pop music industry attempts to manufacture in bulk, tend to have simple, regular and easily recognisable beats that one can tap or bounce along to easily. Their pace and rhythm too tend to be fairly standard, often being based approximately around the 70bpm rhythm of the human heart (or some multiple thereof). Overlaying these simple rhythms, usually based around a drumbeat (strength depending on genre), we tend to factor in simple melodies with plenty of repeating patterns; think of how the pattern of a verse or chorus will usually be repeated multiple times throughout a song, and how even the different lines of a verse will often follow the same lines of a verse. And then there are lyrics; whilst many genres, particularly jazz, may have entire libraries of purely instrumental pieces, few of these (film soundtracks excepted) have ever gained mainstream cultural impact. Lyrics are important; they allow us to sing along, which makes it stick in our head more effectively, and they can allow a song to carry meaning too. Think of just about any famous, popular song (Bohemian Rhapsody excepted; NOBODY can explain why that is both so popular and so awesome), and chances are it’ll have several of the above features. Even rap, where music is stripped down to its barest bones, bases itself around a strong, simple rhythm and a voice-dictated melody (come to think of it, rap is basically poetry for the modern age… I should do a post on that some time).

Now, let’s compare that analysis with probably the most famous piece of dubstep around: Skrillex’s ‘Bangarang’. Bring it up on YouTube if you want to follow along. Upon listening the song, the beat is the first thing that becomes apparent; timing it I get a pace of 90bpm, the same rate as a fast walking pace or a fast, excited heartbeat; a mood that fits perfectly with the intentions of the music. It’s meant to excite, to get the blood pumping, to infuse the body with the beat, and to inspire excitement and a party atmosphere. The music is structured around this beat, but there is also an underlying ‘thump’ similar to the bass drum of a drumkit, just to enforce the point. Then we come onto the melody; after an intro that reminds me vaguely of something the Jackson 5 may once have done (just from something I heard on the radio once), we begin to layer over this underlying sound. This is a common trick employed across all genres; start with something simple and build on top of it, building in terms of scale and noise. The music industry has known for a long time that loudness is compelling, hooks us in and sells records, hence why there has been a trend over the last few decades for steadily increasing loudness in popular music… but that’s for another time. Building loudness encourages us to stick with a song, getting us drawn into it. The first added layer is a voice, not only giving us something to (after a fashion, since the words are rather unclear and almost meaningless) sing along to and recognise, adding another hook for us, but this also offers an early example of a repeated lyrical pattern- we have one two-line couplet repeated four times, with more layers of repeated bassline patterns being successively added throughout, and the two lines of said couplet only differ in the way they end. Again, this makes it easy and compelling to follow. The words are hard to make out, but that doesn’t matter; one is supposed to just feel the gist, get into the rhythm of it. The words are just another layer. This portion of the song takes on a ‘verse’ role for the rest of it, as it repeated several more times.

And then, we hit the meat and drink of the song; with the word ‘Bangarang’, everything shifts into a loud mesh of electronic sounds passed several times through an angle grinder. However, the beat (although pausing for emphasis at the moment of transition’) remains the same, carrying over some consistency, and we once again find ourselves found by repeated patterns, both in the backing sounds and in the lyrics that are still (sort of ) present. It’s also worth noting that the melody of the electronica pulses in time to the beat, enabling a listener/partygoer to rock to both beat and melody simultaneously, getting the whole body into it. This is our ‘chorus’- we again have repeating stanzas for a while, but we return to our verse (building once again) after a while so we don’t get bored of the repetition. Then chorus again, and then a shift in tone; another common trick employed across all genres to hold our interest. We have a slight key change up, and our melody is taken over by a new, unidentified instrument/noise. We still have our original sound playing in the background to ensure the shift is not too weirdly abrupt, but this melody, again utilising short, repeated units, is what takes centre stage. We then have another shift, to a quiet patch, still keeping the background. Here the muted sounds offer us time for reflection and preparation; the ‘loud soft loud’ pattern was one used extensively by Nirvana, The Pixies and other grunge bands during the 1990s, and continues to find a place in popular music to this day. We have flashes of loudness, just to whet our appetites for the return to chaos that is to come, and then we start to build again (another repeating pattern you see, this time built in to the structure of the song). The loudness returns and then, just because this kind of thing doesn’t have a particularly natural end, we leave on some more unintelligible, distorted lyrics; because finishing on a lone voice isn’t just for ‘proper’ bands like, just off the top of my head, Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Notice how absolutely every one of those features I identified can be linked to other musical genres, the kind of thing present, admittedly in different formats, across the full spectrum of the musical world. The only difference with dubstep is that, unlike using voices & guitars like more traditional genres, dubstep favours entirely electronic sounds made on the computer; in that respect, combined with its way of being unabashedly loud and partying, it is the perfect musical representation of the 21st century thus far. In fact, the only thing on my original list that it lacks is a strong lyrical focus; in that respect, I feel that it is missing a trick, and that it could use a few more intelligible words to carry some meaning and become more recognised as A Thing. Actually, after listening to that song a few times, it reminds me vaguely of The Prodigy (apologies to any fans who are offended by this; I don’t listen to them much), but maybe that’s just me. Does all this mean dubstep is necessarily ‘good’ as a musical type? Of course not; taste is purely subjective. But to say that dubstep is merely noise, and that there is no reason anyone would listen to it, misses the point; it pulls the same tricks as every other genre, and they all have fans. No reason to begrudge them a few of those.

Art vs. Science

All intellectual human activity can be divided into one of three categories; the arts, humanities, and sciences (although these terms are not exactly fully inclusive). Art here covers everything from the painted medium to music, everything that we humans do that is intended to be creative and make our world as a whole a more beautiful place to live in. The precise definition of ‘art’ is a major bone of contention among creative types and it’s not exactly clear where the boundary lies in some cases, but here we can categorise everything intended to be artistic as an art form. Science here covers every one of the STEM disciplines; science (physics, biology, chemistry and all the rest in its vast multitude of forms and subgenres), technology, engineering (strictly speaking those two come under the same branch, but technology is too satisfying a word to leave out of any self-respecting acronym) and mathematics. Certain portions of these fields too could be argued to be entirely self-fulfilling, and others are considered by some beautiful, but since the two rarely overlap the title of art is never truly appropriate. The humanities are an altogether trickier bunch to consider; on one hand they are, collectively, a set of sciences, since they purport to study how the world we live in behaves and functions. However, this particular set of sciences are deemed separate because they deal less with fundamental principles of nature but of human systems, and human interactions with the world around them; hence the title ‘humanities’. Fields as diverse as economics and geography are all blanketed under this title, and are in some ways the most interesting of sciences as they are the most subjective and accessible; the principles of the humanities can be and usually are encountered on a daily basis, so anyone with a keen mind and an eye for noticing the right things can usually form an opinion on them. And a good thing too, otherwise I would be frequently short of blogging ideas.

Each field has its own proponents, supporters and detractors, and all are quite prepared to defend their chosen field to the hilt. The scientists point to the huge advancements in our understanding of the universe and world around us that have been made in the last century, and link these to the immense breakthroughs in healthcare, infrastructure, technology, manufacturing and general innovation and awesomeness that have so increased our quality of life (and life expectancy) in recent years. And it’s not hard to see why; such advances have permanently changed the face of our earth (both for better and worse), and there is a truly vast body of evidence supporting the idea that these innovations have provided the greatest force for making our world a better place in recent times. The artists provide the counterpoint to this by saying that living longer, healthier lives with more stuff in it is all well and good, but without art and creativity there is no advantage to this better life, for there is no way for us to enjoy it. They can point to the developments in film, television, music and design, all the ideas of scientists and engineers tuned to perfection by artists of each field, and even the development in more classical artistic mediums such as poetry or dance, as key features of the 20th century that enabled us to enjoy our lives more than ever before. The humanities have advanced too during recent history, but their effects are far more subtle; innovative strategies in economics, new historical discoveries and perspectives and new analyses of the way we interact with our world have all come, and many have made news, but their effects tend to only be felt in the spheres of influence they directly concern- nobody remembers how a new use of critical path analysis made J. Bloggs Ltd. use materials 29% more efficiently (yes, I know CPA is technically mathematics; deal with it). As such, proponents of humanities tend to be less vocal than those in other fields, although this may have something to do with the fact that the people who go into humanities have a tendency to be more… normal than the kind of introverted nerd/suicidally artistic/stereotypical-in-some-other-way characters who would go into the other two fields.

This bickering between arts & sciences as to the worthiness/beauty/parentage of the other field has lead to something of a divide between them; some commentators have spoken of the ‘two cultures’ of arts and sciences, leaving us with a sect of sciences who find it impossible to appreciate the value of art and beauty, thinking it almost irrelevant compared what their field aims to achieve (to their loss, in my opinion). I’m not entirely sure that this picture is entirely true; what may be more so, however, is the other end of the stick, those artistic figures who dominate our media who simply cannot understand science beyond GCSE level, if that. It is true that quite a lot of modern science is very, very complex in the details, but Albert Einstein was famous for saying that if a scientific principle cannot be explained to a ten-year old then it is almost certainly wrong, and I tend to agree with him. Even the theory behind the existence of the Higgs Boson, right at the cutting edge of modern physics, can be explained by an analogy of a room full of fans and celebrities. Oh look it up, I don’t want to wander off topic here.

The truth is, of course, that no field can sustain a world without the other; a world devoid of STEM would die out in a matter of months, a world devoid of humanities would be hideously inefficient and appear monumentally stupid, and a world devoid of art would be the most incomprehensibly dull place imaginable. Not only that, but all three working in harmony will invariably produce the best results, as master engineer, inventor, craftsman and creator of some of the most famous paintings of all time Leonardo da Vinci so ably demonstrated. As such, any argument between fields as to which is ‘the best’ or ‘the most worthy’ will simply never be won, and will just end up a futile task. The world is an amazing place, but the real source of that awesomeness is the diversity it contains, both in terms of nature and in terms of people. The arts and sciences are not at war, nor should they ever be; for in tandem they can achieve so much more.