Evaluation (to the memory of Don Van Vliet)

Anyone with access to the web can put their work up on sites like YouTube and MySpace, and anyone else can post a comment. I usually have a couple of samples of my music or songs up on my MySpace page, though I don’t look at it very often. Recently I found a visitor had left a comment:

this is shit
fuck off you talentless wanker

It was only a matter of time. Everyone gets these calling-cards from random surfers. It almost makes you feel like a true member of the Web Community. This one was signed “George”, and out of vague curiosity I chased the links through to his own MySpace page, and found out that George makes electronic, probably computer-generated music, full of excited squawks and yelps over a thumpy drum-machine loop. Sorry I don’t know the exact name of the genre.

Other people might have quite different associations with this kind of music, but it always reminds me of a group of junkies who I used to live next door to, who used to play something like this regularly at high volume. Gradually most of them moved away, or died, till there was only one of them left, a young guy called Ed. Deadhead Ed we all used to call him. He had blank eyes and an immobile face, he talked in grunts, and didn’t seem to have much going for him. He used to play techno-druggie music at full volume, often for hours, till one day we all told him to stop. It didn’t seem worth asking him nicely, or issuing threats: we simply told him to stop, and he responded to that, and never did it again. He carried on living there another year or so, quietly, and then disappeared. His landlord put the house on the market and the new owner said it was full of needles and heaps of indescribable shid, enough to fill up a dozen big black binbags. His various creditors hassled the neighbours for months, fishing for clues to his whereabouts, but nobody knew where he was. Deadhead Ed just disappeared.

However I digress. I don’t have a problem with people having their own tastes in music, with the idea of somebody else enjoying what to me is just an ugly irritating noise, and I have no problem with people not liking music which I enjoy myself. Musical taste is partly a cultural thing – it’s likely to reflect your own generation, ethnicity, religion, drug habits, education, etc – and partly just a personal thing. You can listen to whatever you want to listen to, and to as wide or as narrow a range of music as you choose. And I certainly don’t have a problem with people not liking the music I manage to produce myself. It’s not for everybody – not that any music is, I suppose – and I’m as aware as anybody of the limitations of it, and probably more aware than anyone else of the gap between what I want it to sound like and what it actually does sound like. What I do have a problem with, though, is in understanding why someone would want to spend time listening to something they’re not interested in, and then bother leaving a comment at all. Why not just slouch off and listen to something that’s more to your taste? George reminded me of GCSE students who have to write an essay on a set text they have no interest in because it’s a coursework requirement. This is shit. Can I have some marks now?

The students have an excuse of course. They want the qualification, and GCSE English is one of those odd qualifications that can come in handy for people who have no interest whatever in the subject. But I’m still trying to understand the logic of people who choose to go somewhere they don’t want to be, just for the hell of it apparently. Steak lovers go to vegetarian restaurants and complain that there’s no steak. Or for that matter, militant vegetarians go to a steak house and complain that people are eating steak. Muslims throw a paddy because non-Muslims, in a non-Muslim country, draw non-Islamic cartoons. People who can’t stand smoke used to go into the smoking carriage, in the days when trains had a smoking carriage, and whinge about the smoke, when there were plenty of seats free in the non-smoking carriages. Homophobes log on to gay websites and post comments like Bunch of faggots!!! This is SO gay!!! Well, yes, but it is called pinkmoustache.com or something, so what did you expect exactly?


Years ago, I was at a traditional Irish folk music session in a pub on Deptford High Street, South London, propping up a busy bar. A couple of young lads happened in, and gazed in uncomprehending disbelief at this bunch of people sitting round a table playing fiddles, mandolins, whistles, accordions and whatever. They looked like they’d never stumbled upon anything of this sort before. Catching my eye, one of them asked me: “What do you call this kind of music?” I told him you call it Irish music. He just looked more puzzled. Then he said:  “Why can’t they just put a decent band on?”

Maybe there’s no answer to that. I didn’t attempt one at the time, but today I’ll suggest a couple. First, how was I supposed to guess what he meant by “a decent band”? Or, how did he imagine that anyone would automatically know what kind of band he meant? It’s like going into a restaurant, pulling a face at the menu, and asking the waiter if he’s got any decent food. Sometimes it seems that some people really imagine that the inside of everybody else’s head is much the same as the inside of their own. Perhaps people like this should try standing on a chair, and see if that helps them see a little further, maybe to notice that there’s a whole world out there beyond their own horizons.

But as it happened, I could hazard a guess that what he meant by “a decent band” was probably a conventional pub band, with electric guitars, doing cover versions of popular hits and standards. Right? So why couldn’t this particular pub put a conventional pub band on like most of the other pubs do? Well they probably could, and they probably did sometimes. But more to the point, why couldn’t these lads just walk a bit further down the street and pick a pub that’s got the kind of band they’re after? It’s not difficult in London. Why should anyone imagine that the first place they pick, at random, is likely to be doing what you’re expecting?

But maybe these lads had a point. It’s a bit unreasonable to inflict surprises, or diversity, on people. Think of the radio, for instance: anyone might be twiddling the dial, without knowing exactly where to go, and they might, just might, accidentally stumble upon Radio 3, and have to suffer a few moments of classical music. It shouldn’t be allowed. Why can’t Radio 3 play decent music, just like Radio 1 does? Long hair should be banned too, at least out in public, where someone who doesn’t like long hair might see it. It’s just an extension of the logic of banning smoking in all pubs, just in case someone who doesn’t like a smoky room happens to drop by. I’d like a law banning loud wide-screen TV football in pubs, to save me the bother of avoiding it. And we should definitely ban golf. Golf courses are often beautiful landscapes, ideal for picnics, or for summer evening photography, but the whizz of occasional golf balls makes them hazardous. And there’s no safe level of exposure to whizzing golf balls, so no compromise would be acceptable here. The only answer is to ban the golfers.

But let’s get back to crap. What’s it mean? For instance: two people might both describe a performance of Mozart as crap – but they might mean quite different things by it. One might be a Mozart anorak, very familiar with this particular piece, who’s not impressed by this particular interpretation: the pace it’s taken at, the tonal colours, the way the stresses are brought out. The other might be a Country & Western fan who doesn’t like anything that’s not Country & Western, who thinks the whole of classical music, or the whole non-Country musical world, is crap. Two quite different meanings, both covered by the same summative phrase: this is crap.

For years I taught teenagers – English, not music, but I’d often include some music to enrich the lesson. Sometimes they’d enjoy it, or at least indulge me, but sometimes they’d say the music was crap. And sometimes when they said it’s crap I probed them further, to try to find out what they meant by crap. Are there mistakes in it for instance? Is it out of tune? Usually it turned out that all they meant was that it wasn’t to their taste, or it was a bit different from what they were used to, or it wasn’t a genre that was currently fashionable within youth culture.

Often, all a critical or evaluative comment really means is I like this or I don’t like this: and often, all that really means is I’m used to this or I’m not used to this. It isn’t always easy to explain quite why we like or dislike a book or a film or a piece of music. But sometimes we can. One of the reasons I can’t spend much time in certain shops for instance, supermarkets and department stores, is that they play music that disagrees with my head. Or muzac, perhaps. If I’m pressed to explain what I don’t like about it, I could say, for instance, that the singer is projecting an intensity of emotion into a performance of a song that just doesn’t merit it.  The lyrics are vacuous, and the song’s backed by the same string arrangement and drum pattern that the studio’s already used on a dozen other songs that week. And the intended audience are going to respond to it in exactly the same way as they responded to all those other songs. The people who like it are going to say it’s cool or it’s awesome and the people who don’t like it are going to say it’s shit. And most people ignore it completely. I’ve only dropped in for a loaf of bread.

In GCSE English, one of the criteria for a grade A is evaluation. Sometimes teachers scoff at this, pointing out that plenty of GCSE students will say Shakespeare is shit. That’s “evaluation”, so can we give it a grade A? Well no, we can’t. And the reason we can’t is because academic assessment criteria, whether for GCSE or for degree, are based on something called Bloom’s Taxonomy of Skills. According to this model, the most basic level of learning is the memorising of simple facts: knowing that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, for instance. Students then progress from this to pulling together information from different sources, comparing things, explaining ideas, illustrating their points with examples, and eventually developing skills of critical evaluation. The assumption is that the higher level skills include, and draw from, and build upon, the lower level skills. So if a GCSE student could back up his thesis that Shakespeare is shit with detailed, well-chosen examples, and close textual analysis, and unflattering comparisons with some of Shakespeare’s more neglected contemporaries, then we’d gladly give him a grade A, even if we don’t agree with him. But that’s not going to happen. At least not before pigs fly, the cows come home, the council sorts out how to grit the winter roads, and the government starts investing serious money in education instead of bailing out bankers’ bonuses.

Last time I checked, George’s comment had disappeared from my page. I don’t know if MySpace go round cleaning up graffiti from time to time, like the council does, or if George himself made a point of coming back to clear his tracks, perhaps fearing being lampooned on Natterjack. Or being drawn into a debate. And now I can’t find his MySpace page either. It seems George has disappeared, just like Deadhead Ed did.

My own page is still there though. It’s like an old record, sitting on a stall in some street market where anyone at all might chance by, and might stop for a browse. If you don’t like it, it could be because you’re on the wrong drugs, or too many drugs, or not enough drugs. Or, maybe you just need to turn the volume up. If that doesn’t work, then just move on, and try listening to something else.

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or here for a hit of Don Van Vliet

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