If music be the opiate of life, turn it off

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The Independent Online

Stop the music. Stop the music, we say, and let us have a little quiet. That's the collective will of Austrian shop assistants who are threatening to sue whoever's suable unless there is an end to the "psychological terror" of Christmas jingles.

Gottfried Rieser, speaking for the Austrian shop workers' union, warns that stores playing Christmas music day in, day out risk making their staff aggressive. That's to say even more aggressive than they already are. There is evidence, Gottfried Rieser goes on, that shop assistants exposed to such music are developing allergies to it. Though how that shows itself - whether in blotchy skin or vomiting or migraines - he doesn't explain. Maybe that's one of the defining characteristics of the allergy: an inability to find the right words. Music deprives us first of the faculty of thought, and then of the power of speech - maybe that's what he's trying to say.

Myself, though I wouldn't dream of picking a fight with the Austrian shop workers' union, I doubt that we "develop" an allergic reaction to Christmas or to any other kind of music. I think we are born with it. It's just that we don't recognise the symptoms. As infants we no sooner hear a bar of music than we drop into unconsciousness. How much more allergic can you be than that? If our parents don't report this to the doctor it is only because they are relieved to have us quiet for a while. Indeed, so grateful are they that they seek to repeat the effect as frequently as possible and will produce a lullaby as soon as look at us. Go to sleep my baby, close your pretty eyes. Employing sound in the hope of securing silence. And because it's nicer than screaming at us to shut the fuck up.

Thereafter there is always someone trying to capitalise on this innate susceptibility. To stop us from smashing up the place, they sing us imbecilic songs at nursery school; then hymns, when we are older, to instil reverence; then martial music, when we are older still, to send us off to war. In between times, they play us music for no other reason than to get us to buy music. Zombie music. Bought because it's heard. There goes that strain again; it had a dying fall. And out we go with our pretty eyes closed and our £10 notes clutched in our baby fingers. Sleep, you are going to sleep - and we do.

Walk among tower blocks in the poorer parts of any city and you will hear music overflowing from every window. Do you suppose that music somehow goes with being poor along with malnutrition, beer bellies and execrable taste in headgear? Of course not. Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, and so we pipe it to them in their pens, to keep them docile. That they think they are exercising their own volition in the matter, listening to what they enjoy, playing albums of their own choosing, only makes it the more sinister.

You will recognise the savage breast allusion. Congreve. The Mourning Bride. "The only tragedy," according to a tart note in my edition of the play, "that issued from the pen of Congreve, and he cannot be congratulated upon his effort," which doesn't make any less challenging the conceit that music not only has charms to soothe a savage breast but also "to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak". Why not me, then, laments Almeria, Princess of Granada: if music can move inanimate things, why can harmony not bend or soften me? A simultaneous appeal to the stirring and narcotic powers of music which recalls the duke in Twelfth Night, invoking melody now to lull him into love and now to knock him out of it again.

We know perfectly well that music induces in us moods sometimes of a sort we seek, sometimes not. Either way, it is a potent force. Why then we should try to except rap music, insisting it doesn't create violence, but violence creates it, I cannot imagine. Or rather I can imagine, but do not want to get into it. Enough to insist that if sleepy songs send us fast to sleep, and weepy songs make us long to weep, then motherfucking must make us motherfuckers. And if you think differently you are motherfucking wrong.

Nothing élitist about this. All music is bad for us at the last. Brahms and Schubert no less than Eminem or whoever. I know that from my own experience of locking myself in a darkened adolescent room and sobbing along to the lighter operas. Me and Pagliacci, fools for love, only in Pagliacci's case the show had to go on, whereas in mine I could neither move nor act for excess of feeling.

A student I encountered later, when I was teaching in Australia, was still worse afflicted, and went from being a brilliantly extroverted actor and debater to a withdrawn shadow of himself, all because he could not stop listening to Beethoven's late quartets. It took medical intervention in the end, and destruction of his entire record collection, to snap him out of it. After which he entered politics, became a pamphleteering Trotskyist and organiser of rallies, so you could say that the cure was never anything but partial.

Stop the music, I say. And not just festive music either. A terrific comic invention, Bill Nighy's clapped-out rocker in Love Actually, watching his "festering turd" of a Christmas single turn, courtesy of a little wishful thinking and a record-buying public with no taste, into a Christmas hit.

But we can't lay all our ills at the door of jingle bells and Santa. We are psychologically terrorised the rest of the year as well, our media catatonic, our populace alternately inert and restive, our children depressed and suicidal, our national aesthetic retarding by the hour. And if you won't accept that jigging to incessant rhythm is to blame, that's because you've forgotten, in the din, what quiet reason sounds like.

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