Monday 23 July 2007

Music, class and authenticity

I've just discovered the music of Pink Martini, via their latest album Hey Eugene! It's an engaging and eclectic mix of Latin, European, Middle Eastern and jazz styles, with lyrics in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic and Japanese, and the tone veering from the poignantly beautiful to the knowingly kitsch.

Given this degree of musical and lyrical sophistication, it should come as no surprise that the band members are variously Harvard graduates and classically-trained musicians. But it's hard (especially for those of us of a certain age) to let go of the notion that good popular music can only be produced by socially-marginalised and self-taught amateurs. Last weekend I saw a performance by the London Breakbeat Orchestra who play thrillingly edgy electro-acoustic dance music - but turn out to be a bunch of music students. Current top band Arcade Fire include a number of 'proper' musicians in their ranks - and founder members Win Butler and Regine Chassage even met at an elite boarding school.

Perhaps the image of pop, rock and jazz as only emerging from 'the streets' has always been something of a myth. Back in the Seventies I remember someone writing in the New Musical Express to the effect that punk was ruined 'now that the grammar school boys have got hold of it.' This shocked me, as I was an ex-grammar school boy, as were most of the people I knew who were into punk, as well as a fair number of those who were actually in punk bands. Punk was always a grammar-school - and middle-class - phenomenon. As Julien Temple's recent film about Joe Strummer confirms, even some of punk's big names came from rather comfortable bourgeois backgrounds.

Of course, if you're a pop star, it's OK to admit to being middle-class, as long as you can concoct a story about rebelling against your background. Getting yourself expelled from school usually does the trick. Strummer's god-daughter and current diva Lily Allen attended a number of private schools, including Hill House in Knightsbridge and the progressive public school Bedales (at the same time as Kooks frontman Luke Pritchard) but (according to Wikipedia, anyway) 'was expelled from several of them for drinking, smoking and performing fellatio'. Thus is pop's myth of romantic authenticity preserved.

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