“Music is merely a form of guesswork about consciousness.”
“Music is careful attention paid to ongoing experience.”
– Paul Morley, Words and Music (16, 134).
It was with much delight that a few weeks after finishing Bob Stanley’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! I read Paul Morley’s exhaustive, masterfully strange, and revelatory history of popular music, Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City (2005). Morley is a music journalist who wrote about pop and rock for New Musical Express in the 1970s and 80s. He was also a member of the groundbreaking group, The Art Of Noise. After taking time off from writing about music after his NME days, Morley wrote a few books, including a memoir, and also this one.
Words and Music is an epic account of music, meaning, and technology–particularly since the 1960s, but also stretching back some four centuries. And the book is not just about popular music. Morley has an ear for the great classical stuff too. He seems to understand that mysterious x-factor that makes a music, a group, a composer, or a song of the first rank. This x-factor has to do with its construction and also how it works socially in the world. Why, he asks, is one song “better than other pop songs that appear to be of similar weight and density? Why does it work in the way that it works at whatever it is working at?…Is it possible to write about the reasons?” (3). These are the deep questions that guide Morley’s writing. He also acknowledges the importance of you and me–the listeners–in the circuit of meaning: “As the listener I am the final element in the making of the music. I have made the music useful” (2).
What makes Words and Music so epic is its scope and construction. The book’s starting and end points are two pieces of music, one pop, one experimental-classical. The pop piece is Australian singer Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”(2001) and the classical piece is American composer Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting In A Room” (1969). Some three decades apart, the musics couldn’t be more different from one another, and in this difference they encapsulate the range of Morley’s interests. He loves the magnetism of Minogue’s perfectly calibrated pop song that obsessively plays in an endless loop in his head, and he also loves the conceptual clarity of Lucier’s classic sonic experiment that deconstructs the very notion of how music blooms over time. (“Hearing a plain descriptive text evolve into something so abstract and beautiful is very moving” .) In a six degrees of association sort of way, somehow these two very different pieces serve as touchstones that connect to hundreds of other examples mentioned in Morley’s book. Between them is a whole history of musical sound, style, technology, taste, and sensation. Great music is hard to get out of your head and also creates a special space there. As Morley puts it: “To lose control and find yourself inside the vastness of the mind, where suddenly unresolved emotions and strange images seemed to make sense, once they were filtered through the drone drowsiness of this space-stretching time-twisting sound”(15).
With Minogue and Lucier and their signature works introduced, the book becomes an extended virtual car trip–mostly with Minogue. Minogue is the main protagonist of this musical story, driving her yellow car on a journey through time and space towards a city that is always just on the horizon. The city Minogue is driving towards “is built on the principles of information…that is more and more dedicated to pleasure and the simultaneous experiences of real and virtual experiences” (67). The city “takes physical space away and replaces it with mental space” (129). As Minogue drives with Morley (and us) by her side, she zooms through musical history. There is always something or someone behind her on the proverbial road, but also ahead of her as well. As we will get used to in this book, Morley interrupts the journey constantly to point out the sights. For example, here, over some forty pages, he offers the first of his numerous lists. It’s a list of developments in the arts, philosophy, and technology beginning all the way back in 1624 with Francis Bacon’s idea for sound houses (67-108). On its own this list is fascinating, tracing as it does a chronology that puts musical innovation in its broader social, artistic, and technological contexts.
Part two of the book explores some of the other cars sharing the road with Minogue. Ahead of her, driving another car on the way to the city, is the German electronic group Kraftwerk, telling “musical stories about technology and communication” (127). Here the reader wonders, what do cars symbolize in Morley’s universe? Are they metaphors for musical styles or aesthetics? Morley tells us that there is a sadness to Kraftwerk, a group that built “new myths about music, and where it came from, and where it was going in the technological era” (131). Their classic music from the 1970s showed how “experience itself was beginning to break into bits” (134). One of the crucial things about Kraftwerk regarding the history of pop is how their music functioned as an impetus for the emergence of electronic African-American styles. Even as Kraftwerk’s sound “emerged outside of any of the normal black influences on rock and pop” (136), “one of the great ironies…was that the Kraftwerk influence would feed into black music…to completely revitalize black-American popular music” (137). Specifically, it was Kraftwerk’s “non-blues application of repetition in music” (ibid.) that caught musicians’ attention. From this influence, musicians recognized that Kraftwerk had created a “fabulous dance music, a body music for the mind, a mind music for the body” (137).
Our getting to know Kraftwerk is interrupted by another list, this one a music-centered one from 1969-2001 that also covers tech innovations including the Internet and Pro Tools software, alongside numerous artists and classic record releases (157-212). Here and there, Morley elaborates on a topic. For example, twenty pages into the list, in the year 1985, we find Madonna suddenly driving the car on the way to the city. Madonna, Minogue’s predecessor, spun the media by spinning endless variations of herself–“you weren’t releasing singles any more, you were releasing signals” (176). From riffing on Madonna, Morley spins six pages of definitions of celebrity (182-188), moves onto an acute appraisal of Moby (whose 1999 album Play was “a fake ethnic record as dreamed by an imaginary culture right into the mainstream,” ), and then a denunciation of the English music impressario Simon Fuller who created–probably for worse, not better–the Idol TV franchise (201-205). By the end of the chapter we have been offered extended entries on Napster, mash-ups (“a hybrid of technological possibility and intimate, mental excitement” ), and one of the giants of the past twenty years of popular music, Missy Elliot. Elliot’s “Get Ur Freak On,” by the way, is for Morley “the missing loop between Bessie Smith and [Iannis] Xenakis” (209). Morley is a huge fan of Elliot, whose songs show “how music is a massive library of ideas that can be passed on by methods that are the modern technological equivalent of ancient aural traditions” (210).
In part three, beginning on page 225, Morley and Minogue have arrived at the city whose shape where “is the shape of the mind is the shape of the universe” (226). Okay, so what city, exactly, is this city? He doesn’t tell us and moves on. The city is “shaped by connectivity and bandwidth…largely asynchronous in its operation, and is inhabited by disembodied and fragmented subjects who exist as a collection of aliases and agents…The city renews itself each day through exchanges of public image and private gestures” (239). Okay, so if the city isn’t a city per se, what does it represent? Passages like this don’t exactly help us know. But elsewhere in the chapter Morley is more direct, as in his discussion of why someone might want to write about pop in the first place: “pop music creates some of the most magical moments in life, and those moments can be so magical that all you want to do, sometimes, is write about them, hold them in place. You want to explain to yourself just what it is that is so enchanting about music” (274).
Part four is the strangest section of Words and Music. The chapter opens by proposing that we think about a soundtrack to the book. The first track would be John Cage’s pioneering silent piece, 4’33. Here Morley’s writing begins to resonate on a deeper level. He provides us with a colossal footnote about what Cage may have been thinking when he conceived his piece. The footnote includes this comparison: “Cage became…the missing link between Claude Debussy and Dr Dre…It’s all in the spaces” (278). The second piece on the book’s soundtrack is maybe something by Captain Beefheart or Sly Stone, or maybe it’s Lou Reed’s famous noise album, Metal Machine Music. The third piece could be by Iggy Pop or the electronica duo Thievery Corporation. Or maybe it’s “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones (294-300), or a tune by Devo, or even better, Britney Spears singing a cover of “Satisfaction.” Here Morley is hitting full stride, bifurcating his writing between text and footnote (with the footnote growing, taking up almost entire pages), and telling us that “the story of popular music…is a story of a great change in the way we live our lives, the way we’re organised, the way we move, the way we seek pleasure, they way we dream, the way we hear things and the way we imagine the future” (308). Ultimately this book “is the story of commercial and uncommercial sound between one moment and another…with no real beginning and no real ending” (ibid.). And with that Morley stops his soundtrack list at song three. Most of the rest of the book is a series of super long footnotes.
By this point, I was wondering where Morley would go with his narrative. (What happened to Minogue and Lucier?) But Morley is a master of the aside–a master of fine print and elucidating the multifold associations triggered by anything he talks about. And so on pages 308-315 he expands on Reed’s Metal Machine Music in a footnote to figure out why it was made and what it may mean. “In a White Stripes sort of way, Metal Machine Music is the missing link between Edgar Varese and Aphex Twin” (312) he tells us. Morley does a lot of this–interpreting one artist in terms of two others and it’s an evocative and insightful narrative technique that demands that we as readers figure out some linkages ourselves. Morley knows how to get us thinking about how musics mean something always in the context of other musics.
As the footnotes grow in proportion to the text proper, Morley simultaneously begins a new approach to holding our attention within the main text by compiling various greatest songs- and albums-of-all-time lists. In their comprehensive quirkiness, these lists alone are probably worth the price of the book. We find lists such as:
110 albums to think about if you think Radiohead’s Kid A is weird (Morley: Kid A wasn’t really “reality-shaking weird” but simply “pop-culture artificial weird” [334-335]);
121 songs that “explain why Kraftwerk are Kraftwerk and just how and where their influence spread and turned” (335-337);
210 greatest singles of all time;
100 greatest albums of all time;
132 alternative artist couplings analogous to the Kylie Minogue-Alvin Lucier one;
plus a list of 99 suspects to whom we can possibly attribute the famous quote, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
Strange? Oh yes. But effervescent too.
And as you spin from reading these lists–thinking about the listening they require to make full sense of, and the connections they might illuminate should you actually ever do all that listening–Morley skips ahead, explaining in one of my favorite passages the difficulty of writing about music: “to write about music is often to fall back into utter abstraction, a sort of level some levels beyond the good and evil of pre descriptiveness, where you are creating symbolic sensation with the words that match and catch the potential sensations of the music” (324).
So what is the writer about music–or any evanescent, abstract, yet deeply meaningful phenomena–to do? Go for it says Morley, by continually reinventing yourself along the lines of your subject matter: “your ideal is to chase down a perfection that can never exist and to be unrelenting in that quest for the impossible, to marvel when you come close, and rewrite the rules all the time so that you can never quite make it” (325). Which leads the author to say that in order to be great, the essential qualifications include “utter isolation, uncompromising bloody-mindedness, a rejection of any particular canon, including your own, as soon as you feel it is getting in the way of your quest for impossible perfection” (ibid.). And maybe most difficult of all, we need “to match the otherness of music with an otherness in the writing about it” (328). This is getting interesting!
In part five, the book’s final section, Stanley finally explains to us the reason for all his list-making: “The list is information, and information is everything. Life is information, information about itself. We have become nothing but information. The most concrete thing in the world is information” (351). This, in turn, explains what the city is that he and Minogue (and Kraftwerk, Madonna, and others) are perpetually driving towards in the car: “These lists are the buildings, the trees, the landmarks we know the best, the ones where we live most of the time, our local neighborhoods, the places where we work and play” (352). Lists are like musical styles too–“a shifting, evolving juxtaposition of elusive energies and experiences that can never settle down” (353). More existentially, lists “tell a story of how music is the lining between us and eternity, a protection from the desolate vastness of everything, an interpretation and celebration of this devastating vastness and our ability to coax any kind of meaning out of this desolation” (353). “The list is a code…the list is a diagram…of eternity” (354).
So where does Morley leave us? As I read him, he seems to be suggesting that music is a technology designed to help humans evolve. Indeed, the accelerating technological developments of the last twenty years point “towards a cultural renaissance where aesthetic and pleasurable experiences will be unbelievably enhanced” (358). It will be interesting to see if Morley is right about that. In the meantime, he sums up the contribution of the arts and technology to human flourishing over the past two centuries. Briefly: the 19th century gave us the modern; the 20th century gave us the postmodern; and in the 21st century “we are on the brink of being post-human, post-technological, a partnership of increasingly intelligent, self-maintaining self-evolving machines and the biological, social and psychological dimensions of humanity” (358).
In sum, Words and Music contains an ocean of musical understanding vibrating among its pages. Morley can be a mesmerizing writer, capable of articulating distinctions on the finest levels of meaning and subtlety. This ear for detail is apparent in his many lists, his chronologies of musical idioms and influence, and in his constant–almost manic–comparative work that makes sense of the messiness of musical style through “missing link” connections, disparate pairings, analogies, vividly descriptive prose, ad hoc inventive riffs, and on and on. Morley’s writing compels because it has a musical hyperness about it as it plays with words, plays with ideas, and plays with the playfulness of language. Last but not least, Words and Music convincingly bridges the high-low, classical-pop music divide. As it turns out, Minogue and Lucier do appear again at the book’s end, and when they do the large musical circle Morley has been tracing becomes apparent. But if there is a single, essential takeaway from this gloriously jam-packed book it may be that all music–no matter what its style, its sound, or its intended audience–is the richest of substances, offering vital information about ourselves and how we imagine the worlds we live in.