It’s musical anniversary season. This week, it was 50 years since the Beatles’ first chart success with “Love Me Do”. Next year, it’s the 200th birthday of both Wagner and Verdi – Wagner seems to be winning that particular race, as every opera house in the world puts on a production of the Ring Cycle. What are we going to do with these birthdays?
None of the objects of our celebration is obscure, or in need of an anniversary to bring them back to our attention. The Beatles are heard as often as they ever were, both in original versions and covers – The Slackers covered “We Can Work It Out” in 2009, and the songs are stalwarts of talent-show series. When the authorities were searching for a climax to the Diamond Jubilee concert and to the Olympics opening ceremony, they came to the same conclusion and asked Paul McCartney, with his poor, age-tattered voice, to perform. We know all about the Beatles.
As for Wagner, no one need fear being out of reach of a Ring Cycle in the 2012-13 opera season. Despite the colossal burdens of staging the four-opera cycle, and the immense difficulty in finding singers capable of sustaining the three central roles of Wotan, Siegfried and Brünnhilde at the same time, it’s being put on all over the place. Berlin, Seattle, Milan, New York, London, Melbourne, Paris, Frankfurt, Bayreuth, Riga, Munich, Leeds and, most surprisingly, Longborough are having a crack at it – probably many others, too. Small Welsh villages, collections of yurts on the steppes of central Asia. A couple of years ago, my husband broke down and begged me to stop taking him to see Die Walküre – every single time we went away for the weekend, the local opera house was putting it on. I think we are now going to have to declare the opera house out of bounds until 2014.
Now, I have an impractical suggestion to make to celebrate these two anniversaries. Since none of Wagner’s mature operas is a rarity, and since nothing the Beatles recorded and released is at all unfamiliar even to the most casual enthusiast, why not take a contrary approach? Why not celebrate these events by declaring that, for the next year, there will be no performances, broadcasts, or recordings of either Wagner operas or any Beatles song?
Personally, I adore both of them. The Beatles song I love most is “Strawberry Fields”, with its plunging key changes and rhapsodic, impossible, asymmetric tune; the album, the White Album, with its lovely miscellaneous anthology feel. I would find it hard, too, to be in the same city as a production of Tristan and Isolde and not make an effort to get a ticket. But nothing can survive the degree of saturation achieved both by the Beatles and Wagner – Wagner would have had no concept that an audience of the future would be able to listen to his music whenever they felt like it, and wherever. Moreover, though the classics of the art form are vitally important, does their predominance make things more difficult for new things to emerge?
Pop music is trapped in a circuit of covers and of pastiche, particularly when it comes to women singers. There are marvellous new voices out there, but Azealia Banks and my favourite, Miss Platnum, are competing in a world of Adele and X Factor covers. Was pop music ever meant to last, and silt up the culture, and be repeated indefinitely? When we listen to a great pop record, whether “Germfree Adolescence” or “Bonkers” or “Relax”, the joy is of hearing something made just for that summer, which no one expected to last for ever.
Wagner was writing something which he expected to last for ever, and it has. But he wanted his work to be the object of pilgrimage, and never thought that it would eat up the budgets and artistic ambitions of opera houses in the way that it does.
No: away with them both, just for 12 months. What would happen is the creation of some space for the new and the unexpected to thrive, and to remove them from our familiarity for a while. I took a break from the Beatles a few years ago, and at the end of it, found myself listening to “Eleanor Rigby” by chance, with real freshness and even rapture. The joy of hearing a Wagner opera after a year, or a Beatles song on 1 January 2013, would be truly immense. Music, sometimes, is best served by silence.
Homophobia in 140 characters
A terrifying website, NoHomophobes.com, keeps a register of hate speech directed against gay people, directly or indirectly, on Twitter. If you doubt the scale of the rage and loathing which this minority has to endure, five minutes on the website should cure you. It only registers the expressions “faggot”, “dyke”, “so gay” and “no homo”, but the stream is steady, a rate of one a second or so. “If you think this hall rally is cool kill yourself you’re a faggot,” someone tweeted in the last minute while I was watching.
This kind of hate speech is evidently felt by its users to be acceptable. There are others: you can carry out your own search for the word “chink” or “paki” on Twitter, and quickly find tweets like this one: “Thank you to the paki who just called and got the wrong number and woke me up.” By contrast, though no one doubts the extent of anti-Semitism in the world, you would search for a long time before you found someone using the word “yid” in a non-reclaimed way, and people seem to be wary about using the N-word. But, on this interesting exercise, it’s going to be a long time before people feel self-conscious about saying “faggot” or “ paki”. Or hitting them, too.