The prejudice has less to do with the music than the way its performer looks, or his views
On the face of it, there are few sillier or unseemly sights in public life than a pop billionaire stroppily complaining that he is not taken seriously enough. Sir Cliff Richard does it every other week. Sir Paul McCartney seems to exude dissatisfaction with his lot. And that high-pitched, perfectly harmonised sound you can hear in the background almost certainly comes from one of the Bee Gees, those perennial chart-toppers in the moaners’ hit parade.
A few years ago, they walked when Clive Anderson made a disrespectful, unfunny joke about them. A Mark Lawson interview with one of them, Robin Gibb, on Radio 4 was also terminated abruptly. This week, in The Independent, Gibb complained that it was odd that a group whose records have sold over 220 million and whose compositions exceed the sales of the Rolling Stones, U2, Elton John and Abba (and, he might have added, have suffered their share of misfortune) are still a byword for jokes about hair, teeth and the 1970s. “Nobody ever says, ‘Mozart?’ That’s so 1780s!’ I think we should see people for what they have achieved.”
He is right to be miffed. By the simplest and most persuasive criteria of artistic success – how much lasting pleasure a work has given – pop musicians like the Gibb brothers deserve respect and gratitude, perhaps even from those who are not particularly fans of their music. The music that they wrote is in the bloodstream of a generation. People grew up, fell in love, married and had children to it. Their songs were taken for granted precisely because they were so ubiquitous.
Music is probably more vulnerable to snobbery than any other art form. For every talented pop composer, there are a thousand Clive Andersons, waiting on the sidelines to say how naff they are. More often than not, the prejudice has less to do with the music than the way its composer or performer looks, or his clothes, hair, views or sexuality. Almost always, the popular success of a musician confirms his lack of coolness to more sophisticated people.
Judgements as to which musicians are culturally acceptable are utterly subjective and, in the long term, meaningless. In the 1950s, when Gerry Goffin and Carole King were writing hits for Bobby Vee and The Drifters, the songs were dismissed as bubble-gum music for kids; a few years later, by some strange alchemical process which only rock journalists will understand, the same songs had become pop classics. A couple of decades later, Abba were seen to be the height of musical vulgarity. Only after they stopped writing and performing was it decided that, in fact, they were rather innovative and ahead of their time.
It must be annoying for someone like Robin Gibb, who has contributed so much to national life, not to mention to the national exchequer, to find that he is still a joke for the usual gang of scoffers. The state now and then attempts to recognise the work of pop musicians by handing out baubles and honours but, as poor old Sir Cliff and Sir Paul have discovered, a knighthood can often merely confirm a person’s naffness.
Yet there is something which could be done to strike a significant blow against musical snobbery. Last year the Government announced that a national songbook would be introduced to encourage the nation’s children to share and enjoy music. There would be 30 songs which would be the focus of a campaign called “Sing-Up”. The project is now in all sorts of trouble. The list was thought to be too short and too prescriptive. Songs from different cultures were introduced in response to accusations of cultural imperialism. When last counted, there were about 600 songs in what has now become the National Song Bank.
Yet the idea was good. If the list had been increased to 50 songs and revised once every two years with the help of teachers and children, it could have engaged schools in understanding what made songs last. Because music has the power to unify, there would surely have been a case for putting the emphasis on songs from the main culture.
The list, as it stands, is dull: too many nursery rhymes and traditional songs. The national songbook should include the best popular songs of the past, whether they are naff or not. The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” should be there, and so should Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London” and Cliff Richards’ “Congratulations”. Something by the Bee Gees – “Stayin’ Alive”, perhaps – would certainly be a contender.
There will be discussions and rows but the songbook would be a great, self-renewing celebration of the power of music. It would also be the best way to pass on to future generations songs that have brought us pleasure – however unfashionably – in the past.