Familiarity and Contempt

Familiarity and Contempt


Tucked in a mental pocket, scrawled on a scrap of ethereal paper lodged in my half consciousness, I have a list of 8 records chosen for a fantasy date with Lauren Laverne on Desert Island Discs. This list, like those of thousands of other no-hopers, changes frequently, depending on the tide of prevailing nostalgia.

Most aspirant Castaways know that their life and persona can be clearly defined by their choice of tunes. That minority which has little or no relationship with music find it more difficult to express themselves like this, and that can be detrimental to the way they are perceived by the majority, especially when they have taken outside advice. Politicians, in particular, see an appearance on the programme as valuable PR, and take a lot of trouble (and advice, I suspect) over their selections (though I can’t guess which spin-doctor advised David Cameron to choose Benny Hill’s  Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West?)

At the same time, the format of the programme (nearly eighty years old) has the effect of evoking more personal honesty than other styles of interview, perhaps as a result of the emotions and memories aroused by genuinely loved music.

As an example, petrolhead Jeremy Clarkson, who appeared on the show in the early noughties, and towards whom I harboured little sympathy, offered an unexpectedly good choice of music (albeit with no jazz or classical) and revealed an inner persona more self-aware and self-critical than anyone would have expected from the man who had already been presenting Top Gear for twelve years. Despite all the unpalatable thing he has said and done since, I retain the sense that I know him a little better than that on the basis of hearing him on DIDs.

The absence of jazz on Clarkson’s list was a disappointment, for, as any jazz lover knows, those that don’t love it aren’t quite complete human beings. However, in compiling your own list, I believe you should offer an honest reflection of all aspects and periods of one’s persona. My own is a mix of jazz and classical, soul and rock’n’roll, eight tracks from a vast panoply of diverse influences.

There is though one factor which intrudes on the selection process – the desire to avoid unoriginality. There are great pieces of music that I love, which millions love too, and a large number of former castaways have chosen. One must fight the urge to reject these items simply because their familiarity has made them be perceived as hackneyed or clichéd. For example, I must include the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – I’ve known and loved it since I was a boy of ten. But, not only has it suffered from gross overexposure as the EU anthem, it’s also been the subject of countless Youtube videos of staged ‘spontaneous’ performances.  The Brexit enthusiasts (a dwindling band, happily) even tried to stop it being performed a few years ago at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral. It has also been the most requested record over the 80 year span of Desert Island Discs. I’ve the same problem with several more of my choices – Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (which I would try and sneak in as single choices – after all, Max Richter’s Sleep would only count as one), as well as Elgar’s Nimrod, Tallis’s Spem in Alium, the adagio from Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez, and that Albinoni adagio everyone loves. Naturally, I have choices that are more obscure, presenting the risk that one might appear to be flaunting one’s erudition.

Popularity is an oddly paradoxical quality in the arts in general. This seems to be especially so in visual art, where the more widely enjoyed a new artist’s work, the more it will be despised by the cognoscenti, more especially if the painter’s works have become units of currency, like Banksy’s. Jack Vettriano’s Singer Butler, for example, in print form, is one of the most popular images on earth, but the original would probably be ignored or spat at if it were found hanging in a public gallery anywhere. The Scottish former coalminer and self-taught artist has been grandly disparaged for the slickness of his technique, and for exercising his taste for exotic hosiery and erotic female poses. I don’t have the expertise to assess its artistic value, but I’m intrigued by the power of popularity so thoroughly to degrade artistic validity.

If I choose to keep Pharrell William’s Happy – one of the best written and produced pop-records to touch the world in the last 20 years – on my list, I’ll leave it in, whatever anyone else might think. Its 25 million streamings have done nothing to debase its sublime, almost universal joy-inducing qualities. I’m determined not to let the public’s potential reaction to my Desert Island Discs play list interfere in any way with the honesty of my choice.

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