Essays / Music / Notes & Observations / Opinion Piece

Essay: Bad Music? I know What I Like

Richard Gill is a teacher / musician / conductor who writes well and I’m not sure why that should be surprising.  It’s one way of saying he is an easy read, but doesn’t dumb down his messages.  His book has a number of points going for it.
Richard Gill

He is not unreasonably seeking approval. He is refreshingly insightful about himself – honest about being self-opinionated and obsessive from an early age, but he does strive to provide evidence for his insistences. He has written a much-needed polemic about teaching music, the lack of policy and practice to deliver good music teaching, need for it and, as he shows us, his life passion for and techniques of teaching music. He writes astonishingly about surviving a Roman Catholic education in the 1950s (be very afraid) and, to some degree, we see what has damaged Richard Gill has taught him to heal his students. He is expert in Orff Schulwerk and anyone with an interest in music education needs at least to read him here. He tells us quite a lot about opera in Australia, the question being, how much is too much?

Give Me Excess of It is a worthwhile read and I shan’t say any more about except, I take issue with a comment makes about genres and I quote the entire paragraph:

“The notion that classical music had special qualities that had an improving effect, and that liking popular music was the beginning of a slippery slope, was all-pervasive when I was a student.  Old equals good and new equals bad.  Even in the so-called classical music world, it was a theme: Stravinsky bad, Brahms good, modern music rubbish. Genuine musicians, I was later to discover, knew music to be either good or bad.” P 62

Duke Ellington is reported to have said the same when asked about what good jazz was. When I checked on the redoubtable Wikipedia I was rewarded with another (unverified) quote from the Duke:

Buck Clayton wrote that Duke Ellington threw p...

Duke Ellington

There are two kinds of music, the good kind and the other kind. I like both.

I have a problem with defining anything as good or bad: Duke Ellington’s second statement is really the crux of the matter: it’s not whether music is good or bad, it’s what we do with it. Richard Gill allows that no music type is in and of itself bad, but what the hell is bad music (and why would ‘genuine’ musicians know)? Leaving aside how to define ‘good’ music, I’d like to have a stab at bad music: what is it and why do we like it, albeit as a guilty pleasure sometimes?

Bad music is not just bad performance of any music. I frequently take great pleasure in heroically awful performances, but only if they are of material strong enough to survive any interpretation. Sometimes the quality and performance of the music is deliciously wide of the mark. To set my boundaries a bit here, I propose that there is bad music you can’t bear to listen to (for whatever reason and it is totally personal taste) and bad music that is so ‘wrong’ you can’t tear your ears away.  I’m hoping to arrive at some consensus on what this could be and am confident that I shall in no way achieve it.

I shall try to avoid simply applying the epithet ‘bad music’ to whole genres, although I happily lump English Music Hall songs and Mariachi Bands together as bad music I adore.  But these two forms had and have serious support that stems from cultural origins that are meaningful in their context, so my taking an ironic, smart-arse stance on them is just that.  We can be patronising about other people’s taste and I would like to protect my right to patronise some music while trying to identify why other music is bad.

Difficult music genres, like 20th century art music have, in their freshness, been labelled wrong, bad, yet they eventually find their way into the mainstream, particularly via film music.  Millions who listen happily to Bartok or Ligeti in a soundtrack would never approach them in any other context.

Film music has a concrete function: we know what to do with music we hear in films. Music function is a lot easier to write about than music in the abstract, for which problem I refer you to The Impossibility of Music by Simon Holberton on this site.

From a functional perspective, here are some categories on what may define bad music.

The Bathetically Portentous

My hero in this is Mahler, but for something shorter check out Cream’s In the White Room

Photo of the Cream. From left: Ginger Baker, J...

Cream-Ginger Baker (left), Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton (Wikipedia)

The lyrics are a marvel of their time (sourced from Youtube):

In the white room with black curtains near the station.
Blackroof country, no gold pavements, tired starlings.
Silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes.
Dawnlight smiles on you leaving, my contentment.

I’ll wait in this place where the sun never shines …

Sorry, I can’t go any further.  I wouldn’t recommend sticking this song ‘where the sun never shines’, because the music is fabulous and I love the earnestness and art so conscientiously on display here.  Such a wonderfully underachieving effort.  Maybe it’s Manglish. (see next category).

The Parallel Universes of Music and Lyrics

This is a category particularly created for ABBA. It is heretical for an Australian, but I am not totally sold on the corny music hall tunes and arrangements of ABBA songs – what decade were we in then, or is this just the Eurovision effect, itself a parallel universe of taste and identity?  I do get a kick out of the odd mangled English lyrics which feel like they have been slightly, if charmingly mistranslated from the original Swedish.  To better see where I am coming from here, check out Dutch group Tee Set’s Ma Bel Ami, a masterpiece of Manglish and an insight into what makes me giggle about ABBA.

The Exquisitely Banal 

My personal great encounter here is bubblegum pop.  Interestingly, when I looked up Tee Set I found on the same web page Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep by Middle of the Road (I wish I were making this up).  I was going to put The Archies’ Sugar Sugar as an example of the deliberately banal, but any band that wants to call itself Middle of the Road gets my vote.  Plus it’s a totally enjoyable piece of crap without any redeeming substance – I’m shocked I’d forgotten this classic of bad.   A lot of commercial music is upfront about its banality and examples abound.  It’s why we love so much of it – we think it’s disposable, but do we ever forget?

What Were They Thinking – Where Did It Come From? 

These are category-on-their-own performances, like Lee Marvin singing Wandering Star or Patrick McNee and Honour Blackman singing Kinky Boots.

And rush – don’t wait – to listen to Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot singing Bonny and Clyde.  Brigitte finds notes that simply can’t be written down.  Don’t be disappointed if you find she is not a natural singer.

Brigitte Bardot à un cocktail en 1968

Brigitte Bardot in 1968 (Wikipedia)

What was it about the 1960s which enabled anyone to have a go?  Now so many voices are unrecognisably put through pitch correctors, everyone sounds like a robot (but in tune).

The Oversold  

These are more about the performances that start bumping into the realm of camp rather than the material and are relished for their idiosyncratic energy rather than because the songs are bad in any of the categories above.  Anything of Ethel Merman would do, or Sammy Davis Jnr’s That Old Black Magic – not to be missed.

The Tacky, Tawdry and Just Plain Wrong  

Here is where I find bad music shines.

The truly great example of this is Robert Altman’s film Nashville.  I went into that movie when it was first released loathing country and western music and came out a convert.  The strength of the film is such that I watched the end credits and boggled at how I had sat through and lapped up so many crapola Nashville tunes.  Not all the songs are deliberately bad.  All the performers wrote their own songs and to inspire them the actors were probably locked in a motel room for a week and played non-stop Wanda Jackson songs (Wanda! Wanda! Wanda!).  The major exception is the performance and songs delivered by Ronee Blakely. She plays a C&W singer who is a martyr to southern white male power.  The song Tape Deck in his Tractor is as banal as its title suggests, but it has the haunting lyric, sung with such knowingness by Ronee:

He was a cowboy, he knew I loved him well;

A cowboy’s secret you never tell.

There’s a whole Annie Proulx story in the vulnerability of that second line.

The endearing music Ken Russell gives us in his film of The Boyfriend is purposefully second-rate, particularly the parody numbers taken from the original stage production – brilliantly written by Sandy Dennis in loving homage to Ivor Novello and Noel Gay (I’m not saying nothing).



Russell’s film is one of my greatest guilty pleasures, not the least for the inspired casting of Twiggy as the Ruby Keeler-inspired ingénue who saves the show. Her fragile appearance and uncertain voice are perfect foils for the extraordinarily robust performances of the Russell regulars who explode in song and dance, scene after scene, whether in their tacky ‘real time’ roles as third-rate thespians in an even lower-rated production at a rundown seaside theatre, or in the slick fantasy numbers.  Even Glenda Jackson makes a punchy, Sapphic (and uncredited) appearance.  Sadly we don’t get to see her sing or dance.

Colin Davis must take enormous credit or getting the sound right. His arrangements are godawful and tinny until they burgeon into perfect recreations of a big Warner Bros orchestra in the Busby Berkley fantasy scenes. The godawful music reminds me of Spike Milligan at his finest, in songs like Unchained Melody. I always wondered where Spike got his bizarre rhythms and instrumentations from – cheap music hall music is one source and another, more poignant and completely Milliganesque possible source is the opening sound from the 1954 film of Tiger In the Smoke, from the novel by Margery Allingham.

The time is post-war London, in a foul fog and a ragged band of disabled ex-soldiers are slowly stumping the streets playing jerky, dispirited, potentially jazz-like totentanz with a trumpet, some bass-type contraption and drum.  As a demobbed soldier, Milligan would have heard these sorts of dispirited ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’ groups around London after the war, quite apart from the tinny pianos and combos who would have been out entertaining the troops during the war itself. The Tiger in the Smoke band The Boyfriend band are one and the same, except they are leering from the pit in The Boyfriend. The music is down-at-heel, low-brow and desperate – deliberately bad and wonderful to encounter in the right context.  Where would we be without YouTube – some kind soul has loaded just the excerpt, featuring the legendary Max Adrian croaking manfully and Georgina Hale in ultra-vamp mode.

Although not getting the same career kick from Ken Russell as did Glenda Jackson, Georgina Hale is unforgettable from each of her appearances in Russell’s films.  She has the starring role of Anna Mahler in Russell’s film Mahler.  The trailer from 1974 pretty much covers what the film does to Mahler and, it has to be said, Russell does a job on Mahler. Missing from the trailer is a key moment when Georgina Hale /Anna is listening to Robert Powell/Mahler rabbiting on about his next masterpiece representing the vastness of nature and her only comment is the sardonic: ‘what the rocks tell me?’  This encapsulates my difficulty with Mahler; the ideas that drive the music vastly overreach themselves and I don’t think they materialise in the sound.  Don’t get me wrong, Mahler the musician is the genius of western music in this time – he is the Beatles White Album of his day – so many succeeding composers can be heard taking their cue from some aspect of his extraordinary orchestrations and ground-breaking harmonies.  Yet the actual notes themselves just come out sounding hokey (the folksy waltzes) or strident (marching clarinets).  It has taken me years to stop attempting to take Mahler too seriously and to yield to the hubris and colour – qualities that make it surely the highest of high camp.

And this may be the problem of trying to define bad music – maybe Susan Sontag led us there in defining camp (‘Notes on”Camp”’ Against Interpretation). Sontag identified camp as something ultimately impossible to fully define.  Camp has garnered the general definition of something so awful it’s good, but that doesn’t allow us any insight into why ‘awfulness’ can be beguiling. We may agree with Sontag that the sensibility of the unnatural, the artificial and the exaggerated may mark something as camp, but a lab mouse genetically engineered to grow a human ear from its back meets these criteria, yet is surely not camp (or is it? I hope not.) If camp for Sontag may have been more a sensibility than an idea, I would argue that bad music may be camp, but not all bad music is camp, nor all camp music bad (vis Mahler).

Mark Booth in his book Camp takes Sontag to task for being over-inclusive in she thinks is camp and remaining confused about camp: hence her description of it as a sensibility more than an idea.  Booth suggests there are historical and living people who are camp and there are camp fads and fancies which camp (or otherwise) people enjoy. He even quotes FR Leavis as almost saying the Sitwell family are camp, in that they ‘belonged to the history of publicity rather than of poetry’. Booth p 17.

English: Portrait of Edith Sitwell

Booth suggests camp icons such as Oscar Wilde, Bette Davis and Madonna are squarely in the, er, camp of self-publicists.  Booth wants to move Sontag’s argument along by defining camp as:

‘… to present oneself as being committed to the marginal with a commitment greater than the marginal merits’. Booth p 18

The music I have labelled as ‘bad’ is sometimes intended to be marginal (bubblegum music is deliberately, but serious in its commercial intent).  Russell’s The Boyfriend is very serious about the ‘marginal’ he is celebrating: there is real passion and talent in the film and it is, finally, a deeply committed homage to a period and type of populist British theatre. That it is camp is because it is declared so by the ‘connoisseur’ of camp.

The music of Gustav Mahler I find precious, pretentious in its ambition and somewhat kitsch in the final realisation, yet I love it for all its faults, because it soars above its own program and ensares me in the abstract of the music itself.  I think I have failed to convince that Mahler is high camp, but I love its badness and I may lay the blame at Ken Russell for steering me in that direction when I was an impressionable lad.  If you want a taste of bad program music that is utterly enjoyable, there’s nothing like a dose of Ketèlby’s In a Persian MarketEdward Said is turning in his grave, so to sweeten the offering, try the Andre Rieu version – need I say more about bad music?

Yes! In closing I offer someone for your delectation who was only brought to my attention a couple of weeks ago and who I think examples how bad music can be a joy and not necessarily camp. No explanation needed for France Gall. Where has she been all my life?  Here, singing Computer Nr 3, there is a spooky hint of Twiggy, a steal from The Beatles and some real fine bad singing (can’t stop watching it).

Nicholas M Tolhurst


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