I love 'cheesy listening'

Mike Batt, the pop impresario behind the chart-topper Katie Melua, defends his protégée and others like her against the charge of polluting the pop charts with unchallenging elevator music
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Oh, so there's a new trend called "cheesy listening", is there? Crooners have taken over the charts, have they? Katie Melua, Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum and (gasp!) Engelbert Humperdinck have ousted true pop music from the charts, we were told in a flurry of horrified pieces written by shocked music commentators last week. Isn't it interesting how critics and music specialists are so proprietorial toward the charts; how upset they get when music that isn't to their taste "invades" the charts, however temporarily?

Bewildered journalists to the left of me, bewildered journalists to the right. Ray Connolly agonises in the Daily Mail over the fact that these artists are "never going to start a revolution" and asks: "Has the red blood of rock'n'roll finally run out?" Pete Clark in the London Evening Standard bemoans the politeness of it all, wishing, like Connolly, that the spirit of rebellion were more prominent. And yet there is a revolution happening. The point has been missed, boys. This is the revolution. Except, it isn't just the youth of society that is rebelling; it's everybody.

Journalists who were themselves part of the rock generation of the Sixties hope and expect that pop music will always be a vehicle for and of the young. But it isn't so any more. The young of yesterday have grown up and grown old, and they still want music. They have been denied it for all these years by media that stubbornly market predominantly to the young, missing the fact that a person who was 16 in 1960 is now 60 but hasn't stopped wanting to buy records. The reason Top of the Pops has struggled for ratings in recent years is that people generally haven't felt stimulated or uplifted by the music. The musical taste of teenagers has been used exclusively for far too long as an indicator of what should and shouldn't be heard on radio and television by the rest of us.

Alongside that problem is another piece of glaring evidence that has been missed. Young people - including my own, music-mad 16-year-old child, and the 19-year-old Katie Melua, whom I manage - have been trying to get by on a diet of boring, post-punk grunge, rap and dance music, often devoid of melody and inspirational lyrics. The teenagers of today have had to look back to their parents' generation and beyond to find their heroes - Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Ella Fitzgerald. Record companies and the media have been feeding each other with music that they think is cool and young - or that reflects their yearning to stay young - but it is often low on quality. Cool has become more important to them than talent.

But the public are not stupid: they know quality when they hear it, and they've decided that enough is enough. So they are revolting, as the saying goes. Connolly surmises that the youth of today are too comfortable and cossetted to need to rebel. But why do middle-aged rock journalists think rebellion is so essential? Did they really rebel in the Sixties? Didn't they just copy one another? Wasn't that conforming rather than rebelling: all wearing the same jeans, with the same long hair, and listening to the same music, sold to them by big record companies and force-fed to them by radio and TV?

Truly to rebel would be to refuse to rebel when adults, particularly journalists, tell you to. The old who wish their young would rebel are like stage mothers pushing their children forward to do the things they themselves did not do but wish they had.

Commentators looking for reasons say that it is the selling of records in supermarkets that has brought about the phenomenon of melodic music's return. But Woolworths has had a 30 per cent share of the market for as long as I can remember. That didn't stop punk and techno and Britpop happening. And even if the Asda effect is a factor, why shouldn't people influence the charts when they are buying their groceries and records in the same store? What's so awful about real people being the tastemakers? Others say perhaps it's because the kids are all downloading illegally - leaving the adults to buy CDs. But huge numbers of young people are buying Melua's album. Those trends may be having some effect, but they aren't the main reason. The reason is that Norah Jones and Katie Melua are good. It's that simple.

A great deal of angst is expended by record companies that try to define, even before a record is made, who the demographic target is. Are they male or female; young or old? But the really successful records are those whose makers pay little or no attention to the target market but try as hard as possible to make good records that they themselves like. Jones and Melua are such artists. Blue Note would have been delighted to sell 100,000 copies of Norah Jones's first album. It sold 19 million and wiped the floor at the Grammys. Sometimes it just happens that people who buy one or two records a year all turn out like an army and buy the same record at the same time. It happened to me in 1979 with "Bright Eyes", which I wrote and produced for Art Garfunkel. Suddenly, from being rejected by most radio stations, it was picked up by Radio 2, and its sales jumped overnight from 1,000 copies a week to 60,000 copies a day. It happens sometimes, and when it does, it's like a ray of light, a breath of fresh air.

Connolly wonders whether rock is dead or in retreat. Who cares? Rock, like all music, will have its day again. The wheel turns. In any case, The Darkness were all over the charts at Christmas. Surely the rock memory lasts longer than three months. And look at Guns N' Roses, kicking Melua down to No 3 in the album chart this week, selling 130,000 records to her 116,000. There's room for everyone, but give us a bit of space, lads - you should be grateful that some hugely talented young artists have come on to your block and have found a way in, against the odds. The notion that jazz- and blues-based artists such as Melua, Joss Stone and Amy Winehouse are in some way anti-rock, or killing it, is just daft. Any perceptive listener can hear that the blues is the basis of Melua's and Jones's music, just as it was the basis of Elvis Presley's and Eric Clapton's.

The term "easy listening" is insulting. Heavy metal is easy listening. It's dead easy to listen to. Beethoven is fantastically easy to listen to, but of high artistic value. The snotty tone of the current crop of journalists who moan about a "cheesy listening" trend is an indicator of their own old-fart intransigence, the enemy of artistic progression. It is the duty of journalists to sort the wheat from the chaff, particularly in times of high chaff such as now. Lumping Melua, Jones and Winehouse together with Humperdinck is the same as what my parents did when they told me that all rock'n'roll bands sounded the same.

There is a producer at Radio 2 who refuses to play Melua's records and argues vehemently and, for the most part, successfully for them not to be playlisted. In a recent playlist meeting, when asked: "Why won't you play Katie Melua?", he replied: "Because I don't like her records."

"But she's No 1, and the public love her," his colleague countered.

"Well, the public are wrong!" came the answer.

That quote has already passed into music-business legend, and he said it only three weeks ago. One has an image of King Cnut sitting in a big chair on the beach, forbidding the tide to come in. Forbidding Katie Melua to be successful. Forbidding her to sell 1.2 million records.

Vive la révolution!