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Song and dance man: David Byrne

How Music Works – review.

How Music Works
David Byrne
Canongate, 347pp, £22

Back in the early 2000s, I used to go to see a Massachusetts-based power-pop band called the Pernice Brothers play each time they toured the UK. Their London shows were mostly at the Borderline, a small, Americana-themed venue in Soho with a capacity of about a couple hundred, and their fans – predominantly white men in their thirties wearing flannel shirts – would pack out the place and stand reverently in front of the stage while they performed. It wasn’t music to dance to; instead, the lead singer and songwriter, Joe Pernice, would whisper intimate stories about post-break-up sex and peeping Toms into the microphone, mainly to the stodgy accompaniment of guitars, bass and drums. Trust me, it was great.

One of the highlights of their set would be a cover version of “Please Mr Please”, a country song taken into the US top ten by Olivia Newton John in 1975. The lyrics are standard genre fare: “In the corner of the bar, there stands a jukebox/With the best of country music old and new.” In the chorus, “some button-pushing cowboy” walks over, inserts a quarter into the machine and makes a selection that evidently strikes an unwelcome chord with the narrator: “Please, Mr, please, don’t play B-17/It was our song, it was his song, but it’s over/ Please, Mr, please, if you know what I mean/I don’t ever wanna hear that song again.”

Heartbreaking stuff. But whose heart is being broken here? Why should such a formulaic story affect the listener, or even the singer? After all, the song was written by Bruce Welch and John Rostill of Cliff Richard’s band (!), to be sung by a female vocalist. The “I” can’t literally refer to Pernice’s love life: he was probably about six years old when it was first released.

Questions such as these rarely get much attention, with mainstream music writing still mired in that bogus, pre-modernist obsession with “authenticity” and personality. (Did you hear about Sharon van Etten’s latest album, Tramp? She was “without a home over much of its recording process”, one reviewer excitedly tells us.) Yet David Byrne, former frontman of Talking Heads, ably tackles these issues and more in How Music Works – a partly autobiographical trawl through music history and theory that is essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the subject.

Byrne’s central contention is that, far from being the “product of individual effort”, music is “something that emerges from a community”. He is sceptical about the conventional wisdom that “creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling”, and suggests that “genius”, in reality, appears when “a thing is perfectly suited to its context”.

The medieval composers of Europe, for example, wrote drone-based, modular music for the reverberant cathedrals they played in, where the long echoes wouldn’t allow for key changes or much rhythmic texture, while African music, often played outdoors in front of dancers, emphasises percussion to cut through the background noise. This aptness isn’t merely a utilitarian matching of function and form; rather, it is the intangible element that allows a work to be understood and appreciated.

It also helps makes a song, album or orchestral suite “emotionally resonant”. Byrne doesn’t deny that music is a powerful expressive medium – his own early forays into live performance were inspired by his search for “a way of reaching out and communicating”. However, he rightly explodes the hoary myth that this power is somehow derived from the innate qualities of the music alone. “Social, historical, economic and psychological forces influence what we respond to,” he writes, “just as much as the work itself. The arts don’t exist in isolation. And of all the arts, music, being ephemeral, is the closest to being an experience more than it is a thing.”

As drily academic as this precis may sound, Byrne’s prose style is at all times engaging, even in his digressions. (Birds in San Francisco have raised the pitch of their songs to be audible above the traffic apparently.) Moreover, at the heart of his thesis on the mechanics of music – how it is made; where it is heard; who pays for it – is an impassioned polemic on its “value for humanity in empowering folks to make and create”.

“High” culture, which translates in the minds of many to top-flight classical music and opera, receives a disproportionate amount of funding while grass-roots programmes to promote direct participation in music-making often fall by the wayside. Byrne argues: “By encouraging the creativity of amateurs, rather than telling them that they should passively accept the creativity of designated masters, we help build a social and cultural network.”

From projects in the Brazilian favelas to El Sistema in Venezuela, which, since 1975, has produced 200 youth orchestras and 330,000 players mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds, such efforts to democratise music have changed lives “in ways that go far beyond being emotionally or intellectually moved by a specific composition”. By investigating how music works, Byrne shows us how best it can be used. We are all the richer for his effort.

Yo Zushi's most recent album of songs, "Notes for 'Holy Larceny'", was released by Pointy Records (£9.99). His new song "Careless Love" can be downloaded for free here.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.