Paul Vallely: Cheap music brings out the best in us

Admiring our ability to feel the pain of strangers

Share

Emotion plays a bigger part in public life than we often suppose. When the mass killer Anders Behring Breivik announced he detested a song he claimed had been used to brainwash the youth of Norway into supporting immigration, some 40,000 citizens gathered in the centre of Oslo to sing it in defiance. When a 30-year-old runner in the London marathon collapsed and died near the finishing line a shocked British public went onto the website where she had hoped to raise £500 for the Samaritans and made donations that now exceed £1m.

But the donors who went on to Claire Squires's JustGiving page also wrote some odd things. She was brave, they said, and "an angel" who had sacrificed her life for others. It is not to diminish the sadness of the Leicestershire hairdresser's death to say that such comments make no rational sense. It was not as though the poor woman had known that she might die and had decided to run anyway. But hyperbole is part of the language of bereavement, public as well as private. Strangers felt touched, at an unexpected depth, by the intimation that their own death could be as arbitrary – or as imminent. Their small donations assuaged the little grief that their moment of empathy had pricked.

"Extraordinary how potent cheap music is," says Amanda in Noel Coward's Private Lives. The song to which the killer Breivik objected had a jaunty little folk tune and the hit version in Norway was played on a preposterous ukulele. But the two women who announced on Facebook that they were going to sing it, expecting a couple of dozen friends might join them, found that almost 1 per cent of the entire Norwegian population turned out. They sang in the rain, waving red and white roses, the colour of blood and bandages: "Together shall we live, every sister, brother, you and me, young children of the rainbow." But they were not singing for someone else. "We aren't here because of him, but because of each other," as one person.

Breivik got to hear of it. He pronounced the collective singing "illogical". We have seen where his logic leads. On the website where the video of the mighty crowd's gentle song was posted, nasty internet trolls added poisonous ultra-nationalist rhetoric in response. That showed how necessary it was for Norway's silent majority to break its silence. A song was a more effective response than any statement could have been.

Sentimentality is desiring the luxury of an emotion without paying for it, Oscar Wilde once said. Some say that there is a falseness about sentimentality, but it is more a superficiality, a transience or lack of proportion: Hitler wept watching a pair of lobsters boiled, yet unblinkingly sent millions of people to their deaths. Emotion becomes sentiment when we look at others and then project their plight onto ourselves. It is why cheap tear-jerking movies work; it descends into the self-indulgent, the maudlin or the mawkish. It is selective. It dilutes intense feelings to a safe strength.

But there are thoughts that lie too deep for tears. With sentiment, little really alters; but emotion prompts change, so that something – however small – is never the same again. The donations to Claire Squires's web page are an intuitive ritual acknowledgement of that fact. But the stand taken by the Norwegians went beyond the ritual into the political.

Feelings are a necessary precondition of rational thought and action, for without emotion to prick our moral sense, as the philosopher David Hume argued, reason would remain dormant. But it has to be emotion which empowers and not a narcissistic sentimentality which indulges. And that requires self-awareness. Coward knew that: the cheap music Amanda overhears is a hit from years before – written by Coward himself.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Insight Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k – North London

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum plus 23 days holiday and pension scheme: Clearwater ...

SQL Developer - Permanent - London - Up to £50k

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum 23 days holiday plus Pension scheme: Clearwater Peop...

Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

£85 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

We need to talk about homophobia in the police

George Gillett
 

i Editor's letter: Summer holidays are here... so what to do with the children?

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn