Postcards from a PhD
I don’t seem to get out much these days, so weekend evenings for the last couple of months have mainly been filled with takeaways and BBC 4 autumn schedule music documentaries. Better than the Original: The Joy of the Cover Version, which I watched on Friday night has been the one I enjoyed the most so far, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the one I took the least issue with. My problems with the recent rash of BBC music documentaries (Music for Misfits, Psychedelic Britannica, Girl in a Band etc.) have largely been related to the (under)representation of women and the dogged attachment to linear time presentation and therefore convenient arguments of causality. Not that the two are unrelated.
Eli Davies’ ‘Retrospective sexism: How women are written out of British indie music history’ on Noisey neatly outlines a lot of the problems with Music for Misfits: The Story of Indie. I recommend you read it. One of the most shocking points of note is that in one episode it was 55 minutes in before a female perspective was included. That’s in a documentary about a genre of music whose origins reside in providing a voice for those that didn’t have one in mainstream musical culture. You couldn’t make it up.
Girl in a Band was a whole hour of women talking about musical experience, how can we have a problem with that? Well it was an hour, let’s just bear in mind that this exactly the same amount of time that the previous weeks’ documentary Psychedelic Britannica took to cover 5 years of a single genre of music in a specifically British context. I had also really hoped that because of the subject matter Girl in a Band might have tried harder to avoid the classic representational pitfall of women in music documentaries, that is the propagation of the idea of a universality of women’s experience. Yes, women are likely to have things in common with other women, but we’re not a hive mind, we do not all think and experience in the same way. The ‘sisterhood myth’ just serves to ‘other’ women’s experience in relation to characteristics we value in male musicians; individualism, eccentricity, a unique creative voice. This was something that was refreshing about Better than the Original, the contributions from women offered unique perspectives, and stand alone perspectives too, not just added to counterpoint a male opinion.
And so onto time. We have a little game in my house where before watching a music documentary we try to guess which aging musicians and critics the contributors will be and which bits of stock footage are going to make a reappearance. Oh yes, the long winter evenings just fly by around here. It’s a peculiarly upside down game though, there aren’t any winners. There are no points for guessing that Glen Matlock or Rick Wakeman, Paul Morley or Stuart Maconie are going to show up as talking heads, because they almost always do. ‘Winning’ would really entail getting through a music documentary, whatever the genre, without the producer managing to shoehorn the same old footage of the Beatles and the Sex Pistols into it somewhere. I am not exaggerating when I say that I cannot recite a single poem from memory or quote from any great works of literature, yet I know the script of the Sex Pistols Bill Grundy interview word for word, purely based on the number of times I have seen it repeated on television over the last 25 years.
The use of linear time narrative in music documentary troubles me because it strips events of deeper and more complex meaning. The presentation of punk in the chronology of music history, for example, seems to have become reduced to a montage of people wearing unbecoming 1970s clothes > prog rock footage illustrating pomposity of musical climate > refuse overflowing because of bin-men being on strike or other ‘winter of discontent’ footage of your choice > cue Anarchy in the UK intro. But of course the emergence of punk is much more complex than that, it’s not linear, its social, political and creative components have converged from multiple points in time and space.
One might suggest in a hypermodern age of recycling and reuse it is a function of the media to strip away the complexity of cultural events, assigning them neat causal explanations to enable re-appropriation of the iconography of that period. I am still very much getting to grips with Baudrillard in my reading, but the process of revisiting and rationalising music history brings to mind his theory of millennial hysteresis, a process that involves finding absolution in the past by revisiting the best and worst of history, undoing the 20th century by redoing it. A reaction to ‘end of history’ theories, Baudrillard suggests “there will be no end to anything, and all these things will continue to unfold slowly, tediously, recurrently, in that hysteresis of everything which, like nails and hair, continues to grow after death”.
I enjoyed Better than the Original: The Joy of the Cover Version because by virtue of the subject matter it was difficult to stick to telling stories in chronological order. To understand a cover version in relation to the original it was necessary to weave between points in the past and back to the present again which I found very effective. This for me humanised the stories of those involved because it didn’t feel like they were being absorbed into an overarching chronology of musical history. It was a format that enabled multiple narratives, none more so than the telling of the story of ‘Go Now’, simultaneously a song which launched and ended the US careers of the Moody Blues and Bessie Banks, respectively. That Bessie Banks was allowed to tell her version of the story highlights what elevated this particular documentary above BBC Four’s other recent offerings.