A narrative context for music

When I was twelve or thirteen, my mate Steve once expressed mild astonishment that I liked to sit and listen to music without doing something else at the same time, like playing Golden Axe on the Megadrive that our lives revolved around at the time. For him, music was a pleasant background to the main event. In fact, most people are like that – music tends to appeal to most people when it is part of a narrative, which is one of the reasons why X Factor gets considerably more viewers than Jools Holland. That doesn’t mean their relationship with music is less deep than the bloke who sits around listening to an album on headphones in the dark with his eyes closed. Narrative has always been important to music – right from Robert Johnson’s deal at the crossroads. Music is full of goodies, baddies, myths and folklore, much of which has a significant impact on how you listen.

The recent-ish Blur film ‘No Distance Left To Run’ was an affecting document of four men recovering their friendship, which gave the performances an uniquely emotional charge that captivated audiences, particularly at Glastonbury 2009 (which is still the best show I have ever been to, apart from maybe the Stooges at Hammersmith Apollo in 2005). The story added something to the experience and to the film which made it more affecting.

Quite often, our enjoyment of music is significantly enhanced by narrative. Back when Steve and I were arguing about whether to mute the Megadrive so we could hear the stereo, it was primarily hip hop that was being played – Public Enemy, NWA, Ice Cube, De La Soul, Eric B and Rakim or EPMD. As you might expect, being two kids from a small town in Devon, we had little understanding of what was really being said in those songs. To quote Britain’s real poet laureat Nigel Blackwell, the closest we came to that world was a “drive by shouting”. We just liked the swearing.

Over the years, my love for those albums and the genre as a whole got more intense, particularly during the astonishing run of Wu Tang albums from 1993-1996. I became more wordly wise and began to understand more and more of the world that those records reflected, but a big part of that was in watching the films that surrounded them. Boyz n Tha Hood, Trespass, New Jack City. All of those films enhanced my understanding of the music I was listening to and enabled me to get a lot more from them.

A few years later, The Wire enriched my love of hip hop by painting that world in lavish detail. When I heard references to stick up kids in those songs, the trials and tribulations of Omar Little sprung readily to mind. A throwaway line now had an incredibly compelling, deep and emotionally rich background. It gave all my records another lease of life – especially songs like Ice Cube’s ‘Summer Vacation’, a tale of gangs fighting over a corner and GZA’s ‘Gold’, the story at the other end of the scale – the bosses playing with their pawns.

It worked the other way too, having a knowledge of the culture, music and slang arguably made watching The Wire a more rewarding experience – I heard a lot of people at the time saying they needed subtitles and access to Urban Dictionary to find out what ‘re-up’ meant. I suspect that, like me, fans of New Orleans music get more from Treme than a more casual viewer.

But it works at the other end of the spectrum too – someone will get more pleasure from James Arthur’s performance of ‘Make You Feel My Love’ on X Factor than someone who doesn’t know the backstory – who might just dismiss it as karaoke.

All of this makes me wonder whether this might form part of the future for the music industry – to create narrative context that gives the music even deeper meaning. That’s something it’s always been doing of course, but maybe by giving more focus to the hours of obligatory ‘content’ that are created and giving more of a reason for that to exist than filming the artist as they are transported to their next show or eating a Nandos, they can captivate a bigger audience. What about telling a story that’s linked to the music that everyone can relate to but doesn’t necessarily feature the artist? It felt like a missed opportunity with Lana Del Rey – the whole ‘gangsta Nancy Sinatra’ angle sounded like a story which could have been explored in a way a lot more people would have found a whole lot more interesting.

For me, the music is always going to be enough, I like the suggestion that comes with a tightly crafted lyric that allows a whole world to build in your imagination but I wouldn’t deny that a narrative context has enhanced that greatly at times. There’s a lot of music in the world and a hell of a lot of ‘content’ – people only have time for things that make an emotional connection with them. Sometimes music does this on its own perfectly well and at massive scale – ‘Someone Like You’ – but sometimes it needs a little help.

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