The furore around a US jury awarding millions of dollars in damages to the children of the singer Marvin Gaye because a recent hit song from Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams was deemed to have stolen from a 1977 Gaye song is ... well, pretty interesting.
No doubt like a lot of people by now, I've had a quick go at playing the two songs back to back, chucking on Gaye's Got To Give It Up followed by T&P's Blurred Lines, and vice versa. A quick go at playing judge and jury. And, well, yeah they do sound pretty similar. Tempo, the syncopated rhythm, the vocal pitch, even - arguably - the yukky sexism. But hey, what do I know? The court case in Los Angeles apparently involved a detailed analysis of chords and notes - all stuff well beyond my ken. No, I may like music but one thing's for sure - I ain't no music critic.
Or am I? Because last week I got to have a go at being exactly that: judging entries in a "protest song" competition that Amnesty does with schools and colleges. My fellow judges were two former winners of the competition and ... Jerry Dammers, famous for Free Nelson Mandela (1984) but already rather legendary at my own Coventry school back in 1979-80 because of his unmissable gap-toothed presence in The Specials. This town ...
Anyway, listening to these new protest songs we all did our reasoned and reasonable judge-and-jury stuff, trying to say - with a modicum of coherence - why we liked some of the entries more than others, albeit we were judging quite different music against each other. One minute an incredibly intimate, ultra-slow guitar-vocal song, the next a bouncy, synth-based romp with a jaunty sing-along chorus. Both good, but ... er, hard to compare.
And the winner is ... well, the winners of the Amnesty Youth Awards are announced on 29 April, but this little exercise brought home to me a couple of things about the difficulty of critically assessing music (turning emotion into language etc) and then trying to articulate it. And doing this while also re-listening to the music alongside people who are disagreeing with you and saying more or less the opposite of what you're (very inexactly) trying to say.
"It's a hit." "It's a miss."
Nevertheless, for better or worse it seems we live in an age of music judgmentalism. Pop Idol, The Voice (with none other than Pharrell Williams as one of the judges on the US version of The Voice), the Brit Awards, the (horribly-named) Barclaycard Mercury Prize and so on. A while ago there was also Juke Box Jury - remember that pop-pickers? (Maybe not, it was a pretty forgettable Noel Edmonds-fronted game-show from the late 70s and 80s, though it's worth dipping back into for John Lydon's amusing appearance from 1979: "It was mediocre ... no, come on, it don't deserve no more comment than that ..." etc. You can also go one better by watching the YouTube version that features music writer Paul Morley giving a critical commentary of Lydon's actual performance on JBJ, judging not the music but Lydon's judging of the music. Hey, music metacriticism in action).
In the end music's full of judging and judgment. Bigging up this, dissing that. You've got soundsystems clashing, selectors selecting, pop pickers ... er, picking. And you might (like me) have been judged by your 14-year-old peers for having Squeeze's Cool For Cats single on ordinary black vinyl rather than the snazzier pink version back when every 7" purchased was an important personal statement, but ... well, you just have to take these harsh knocks if you want to be a small part of the weird and wonderful music biz.
Actually, though, when you strip away the music snobbery there's nothing much to worry about. Music, to coin a phrase, is for pleasure, not for social status. LCD Soundsystem's Losing My Edge quite brilliantly skewered the competitive cooler-than-thou-ery of some people's posturing with music, but it seems to me that the YouTube/Spotify-driven radical dispersion of music has lessened people's worries about whatever's supposed to be the latest "cool thing", partly because - as Simon Reynolds has suggested - people are listening to a lot of things all at once these days, and not all of it's being thrown at them by record company promoters, radio stations with "demographics" to go after and compliant daytime DJs who rotate playlist fodder between cheesy chat.
Back in the Amnesty judging session I found myself disagreeing with the far more musically-experienced Jerry Dammers, but if I like something slightly different then ... so be it. I notice that Dammers' preferred version of one of his own best-known songs - The Specials' mighty Ghost Town - is Kode9 and The Spaceape's ultra-dubbed sonic rewiring of it, an undoubted masterpiece in its own right (check out The Spaceape's truly apocalyptic doom-laden Jamaican voicing on this). That said, I think I prefer Bad Habit Vs Strange Rollers' cover of Ghost Town, another radical make-over but one that nicely channels the energy of the original.
Hmm, Jerry, if you're reading this - don't judge me. And everyone else: don't judge me for not liking Marvin Gaye or Pharrell Williams. Theirs is similarly (ahem) popular dance/soul music, but Gaye and Williams' stuff just doesn't do it for me. Why? No, it don't deserve no more comment than that ...