opinion

On Lorde’s “Green Light” and its brave ugliness.

The first time I listened to Lorde’s Green Light, I wasn’t sure if she’d got away with it.

Growling right at the lowest end of her register, battling with an almost disastrous chord change in the chorus, the Kiwi kid of Royals acclaim had me crying “What the hell are you doing?!” sooner than she had me singing along.

No surprises that Jack Antonoff was involved – the sparse, pop-savvy verse will conjure references to Taylor Swift’s 1989 with little effort. And, like 1989, the experimentation ultimately paid off.

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Because by some devilry, that chorus works. While the initial shock might have cooled our enthusiasm for a second, Lorde brings it all flooding back with a dance refrain that will be flailed to on many a drunken night – and let’s be honest, some sober ones too.

I may have been bamboozled for a moment or two, but those seconds of shock and uncertainty were some of the most exciting of my day (I know, I live a wild life). Who dares to let these rough edges show, on radio of all places? Who dares to create something so uncomfortable, in the name of art? Not many artists who get airplay, that’s who.

And this, time and again, is why Lorde stands out. Because she refuses to shy away from a little ugliness, that little ugliness that is an inescapable and very real part of life, and which gives her art all the more credibility and daring.

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Why Mozart didn’t really win 2016.

As 2016 wrapped up, the world was reeling from the news that a 17th century classical composer had outsold the likes of Beyonce, Drake and Adele.

For those of you whose Christmas-addled brains missed the news, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart sold the most CDs in 2016, thanks to Universal Music’s 200 CD box set release of his complete works. Cue classical music nerds fist-pumping and saying things like “Classical music will never die!”.

Well, this just in: young people weren’t the ones buying the CDs. Thanks to Apple Music and Spotify, streaming has captured the hearts (and bank accounts) of twentysomethings everywhere, including yours truly. So really, the fact that Universal filled the stockings of our parents and grandparents is nothing much to whoop and cheer about.

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“Adele who?”

Excuse my pessimism, but if you’re under 30 and not working in the classical music industry, I am willing to bet Mozart is not in your daily playlists. He might pop up on your ‘music for sleeping’ or ‘music for studying’ compilations, but who really has the time to sit down and listen to anything longer than 3’10”?

Don’t be offended: I’m including myself in this sweeping generalisation of millennials’ music habits.

My cynicism is well-founded. Since the age of 6, I was trained in classical piano until the completion of my AMus diploma some years ago. For the best part of my life, I was playing Baroque, Classical and Romantic music almost every single day (note the almost: I had my rebellious moments). But as soon as that diploma was on my wall, I ceased to listen to or play classical music (meant here in the broad sense, encompassing music from Bach to Beethoven-ish) on a regular basis…eventually, my interest in it just faded out completely.

And yet. My most formative musical moments dogged me, even as I buried myself in musical theatre, pop and jazz. My father introducing me to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. My obsession with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf suite, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik. My early fascination with Chopin’s polonaises, nocturnes and mazurkas.

As a teenager, I used my finely honed technical skills to accompany singers, play in theatrical ensembles and teach a multitude of students aged 3-90. Occasionally, I played a little Beethoven, a Chopin waltz or two – just to remind myself that I could. But for the most part, I shunned my classical days as lonely, finnicky training that had never enabled me to ‘join in’ with other musicians. Clearly, popular music was the way forward.

Strangely, my students thought otherwise. And damn it, they were right.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. “They always pick Bach,” my own vastly experienced piano teacher told me on numerous occasions. Having known the pain of learning to play five (simultaneous) voices with ten fingers, I privately thought my students would not be so moronic. In years to come, they proved me wrong (or right? I eventually recognised that appreciating Bach was anything but moronic), choosing J.S. and Mozart time and time again. They seemed to enjoy their choices, too – and on the occasions students chose popular songs to play, they almost all lost interest (which, I might add, had been BLAZING interest initially) within a week or two.

My heart began to sink every time a student requested a ‘radio’ song, and jump for joy each time they chose a star of the Western Canon. Popular music might be fun to sing along to, to share with friends, but those students who were most curious about music, most eager to learn the innermost secrets of its makeup, kept choosing Bach et. al.

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The author, not playing Bach.

Gradually, I lost my resentment for this music that made me a ‘lonely’ musician, and instead began to relish the joy and intellect it brought to my lessons with students. Classical music, in its finest forms, is a celebration of aural architecture on a grand scale. It plays with expectation, pushes at the boundaries of creativity, and connects us with both our innermost selves and something far, far bigger than our human existence.

So here’s my challenge to you: listen to some classical music. Now. Today. If you don’t like it the first time, listen to it again. This is music to be savoured, to be explored, to be absorbed. Be patient. Be open-minded. Be awestruck. And if there are children in your household, let them listen too.

“Won’t music so complex blow children’s minds?” I hear you ask. I say, let it. And once they’ve picked their jaws off the floor, let them ask questions, work on the techniques, learn the theory and have their minds blown all over again.

Then maybe, just maybe, Mozart will fly up the charts once more – this time on the Spotify Top 100.

Single review: Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape Of You’ & ‘Castle On The Hill’

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Is it just me? Am I just an old humbug? Or are Ed Sheeran’s two new singles really nothing special?

There. I said it. I am underwhelmed.

It’s not that Shape Of You isn’t sensual, poetic and catchy – it is. It’s not that Castle On The Hill isn’t a tender, uplifting piece of pop – it is. And it’s not as though either of those singles could do anything other than hit the apex of the charts in a heartbeat – they did.

But after two years of the incessently ubiquitous hits of X, surely it wasn’t too much to hope for something…fresh? Sheeran has always been a passing interest of mine, an artist to play when I need a sentimental or angst-ridden singalong. He owes me no particularly great debt of fandom, and yet I feel cheated.

If you’re not too outraged to keep reading, I’ll explain myself now, I swear.

Shape Of You was always going to steal the limelight. Flirty, sexy, catchy as all hell…on paper it works, out loud it sounds like a rework of Nina with a little bit of Don’t thrown in. Is this really all Sheeran has to offer? It’s a solid comeback, but it’s so. damn. safe. Also, TLC’s No Scrubs keeps popping into my head every time the pre chorus starts and that is just not a good thing.

Castle On The Hill offers a surprising change of pace – perhaps Sheeran’s attempt at a new flavour of songwriting? – but it sounds strangely anonymous after the textbook songwriting of the sister single. Although Sheeran delivers with satisfactory character, Castle On The Hill could belong to anybody. Most plausibly, in the introduction, U2 circa The Joshua Tree.

Are you still reading? Did you make it? Do you think I’m crazy?

It’s just…after the sweet nothings of +, 2014’s X offered grit and swagger and a maturing sound. While Shape Of You and Castle On The Hill are deserving chart-toppers amongst the swirl of radio favourites, they have ultimately failed to build on Sheeran’s ever-promising foundations. Did Thinking Out Loud leave such a big void that we will happily greet regurgitated inspiration with such enthusiasm? Evidently so.

But keep grooving, kids – there are worse songs you could get excited about. Having had my vent, I shall now banish my disappointment to the quietest murmurings and leave you be. (Bah. Humbug!)

Living In 2017: A millennial commentary on Skyhooks

When Twenty One Pilots released Stressed Out, it was as though the millennial population found an outlet it hadn’t even realised it needed. Its words reached out and touched the tender bruise of anxiety in so many of us, acknowledging our weary battles on the frontlines of adulthood, so frequently glossed over by radio hits.

But like much millennial commentary on modern life, Stressed Out is permeated with a desolation that provides little comfort beyond empathy. After all, Twenty One Pilots are of our generation: they’re as lost and world-weary as the rest of us, and Stressed Out is as much a quest for answers as it is a comment on the lack thereof.

I listened to a lot of FM radio over 2016, so this New Year’s Day I did what I do every time modern music gets me down: raid my parents’ musical archives.

In the case of my mother, this features both Sherbet and Skyhooks rather heavily – and while Howzat will always be an irreplaceable piece of Australian music gold, I found Skyhooks to be the anxious millennial’s best friend. Yes, I am talking about a 1970’s band, no, I am not a Baby Boomer, and once I was as resistant to this idea as you probably are now.

Skyhooks first proved their millennial relevance innocently enough – my parents made me listen to All My Friends Are Getting Married after 18-year-old me had complained once too often about the number of engagements announced in my Facebook feed. Oh, I initially rolled my eyes at the dated groove and crazy costumes, but the not-so-subtle scepticism of marital life soon had me feeling as free as a bird.

As I embark on 2017 – due for the proverbial quarter-life-crisis in about 7 months – it is Living In The 70’s (the album, as well as the title track) that I find myself holding close. The track itself has a restless, wide-eyed bewilderment that is all too familiar for those of us growing up in this fast-paced digital age. It acknowledges the feelings of alienation that modern progress brings (“I feel a little crazy, I feel a little strange”); the can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it trepidation about the ever-increasing lack of humanity (“eating fake food under plastic trees”); and most of all, the rising panic of having to deal with it all (“I need another pill to calm me down”).

Where Twenty One Pilots soar into helpless falsetto, Shirley Strachan lowers his voice to a feisty snarl: Skyhooks may have felt bamboozled by the plastic age, but there’s a fierce survivalist pride to their delivery that feels bloody good to imbibe by proxy.

They keep up the fight for the rest of the album, too, if you’re interested – and again, it’s strangely relevant. Horror Movie makes us feel better for hating the news, while Whatever Happened To The Revolution sounds eerily applicable to a world full of “clicktivism”, where Trump is president and marriage equality still battles to come into existence:

Everybody thought we could win with a vote
So the band went home without playing a note
…When you’re sick of your parties and sick of your sweets
Get off your arses I’ll see you out in the streets

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You’ll crack a smile though – it’s not all doom, gloom and politics. Anyone who’s ever had a dodgy Tinder date will have a hearty giggle at You Just Like Me ‘Cos I’m Good In Bed and Balwyn Calling (“Oh she might have looked like a princess/ Why’d you have to give her your address?!”). Any self-respecting millennial has also surely had to put up with being asked Hey What’s The Matter With You? (“You can’t have your dope and smoke it too”) by Bernard Salt et. al., so why not clap along as you return the question with a healthy dose of sarcasm and electric guitars?

More than anything, Living In The 70’s provides ample distraction from the anxieties of today. Revel in the unbridled sexiness of Motorcycle Bitch and cringe at the pre-internet inconvenience of wanking in Smut (be warned also: it will ruin Twisties for you). Use this album as a time machine, or let it apply to now: the choice is yours, and the result is medicinal either way.

This music may be more than four decades old (indeed, nearly two decades older than most millennials), but in being older, Skyhooks can offer reassurance where our contemporary acts can not. We might feel a little crazy, we might feel a little strange, but we’re not the first to have done so – and we’re unlikely to be the last.