Just in case you haven’t caught much Radio 4 this week, let me provide you with some programme highlights. On Sunday morning, ‘Desert Island Discs’ celebrated its 75th anniversary by inviting David Beckham onto the show; on Tuesday, ‘A Good Read’ asked what the favourite books were of Melanie Sykes and Alan Carr; on Thursday, flagship Arts series ‘Front Row’ opened with the news that Beyoncé posted her ‘pregnancy portrait’ on Instagram, one that has apparently become the most ‘liked’ post in that medium’s short distinguished history; the 7.2 million ‘likes’ even exceeded the 6.3 million that ‘liked’ the selfie posted by Selena Gomez (Yes, I know what you’re thinking; I’d ask my daughter if I had one).
‘We would like to share our love and happiness’, declared Beyoncé in the nauseating blurb that accompanied her narcissistic and characteristically humourless image as she cradled the belly carrying the double act whose media careers we’ll have to endure around fifteen years from now. ‘We have been blessed two times over.’ Nice of her to share that with the world, wasn’t it. Judging by the response, it clearly was nice of her; it demonstrates her recognition of just how beloved she is and how the world waits with bated breath for the next earth-shattering bullet fired from Jay-Z’s loins.
If I might be permitted to backtrack a little, when it came to my listening habits at the beginning of this century I believed R&B was the sole cutting-edge sound within pop music, the natural successor to a dying Dance scene that had disappeared up its own backside in the late 90s; I will still argue that the prematurely-late Aaliyah’s eponymous 2001 album is one of the great records of that era, but the era didn’t last long. It used to take around half-a-decade before an era-defining musical genre stopped progressing and started to slide backwards into repetition and cliché, but the pace of life in the twenty-first century has speeded up the process; R&B was a spent force within a couple of years of it being at the top of its game. The pioneers and innovators left the stage and the unimaginative bandwagon-jumping recyclers moved in.
Beyoncé (as a member of Destiny’s Child) was briefly part of R&B at its peak, though only in the way David Bowie was briefly a music hall act during his Anthony Newley phase. There was always a sneaking suspicion Beyoncé was a bit of an R&B tourist and that her ultimate ambition was to be Mariah Carey. Sappy ballads of a kind Michael Jackson at his syrupy worst would have baulked at were a regular fixture of her repertoire, and when she jettisoned her Destiny sisters to embark upon the inevitable solo career, any pretensions to anything other than full-blown showbiz were jettisoned along with them.
Since the demise of Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé has gradually become insufferable – a vain, vacuous diva posing as someone with something to say yet offering nothing more than lyrical motivational poster bilge in snappy sound-bites for the sisterhood. At times, she’s made Jennifer Lopez or Britney Spears seem deeply profound.
But Beyoncé is blessed, for she finds herself in an age when she can bestride a plethora of platforms. There are more outlets for the Beckhams and Beyoncés of this world than their famous predecessors could ever have dreamt of: The entire cultural wasteland of breakfast and daytime TV, MTV, Channel 5, the tabloid press, ‘Vogue’, ‘Vanity Fair’, ‘Marie Claire’, ‘OK!’, ‘Hello’, ‘Heat’, Radio 1, ‘The One Show’, the numerous products they promote and sponsor, and, of course, the internet; their ilk have completely and comprehensively colonised each and every facet of the entertainment industry so that one cannot step outdoors and venture to the local parade of shops without being made aware of their existence.
They’ll be on the supermarket soundtrack as well as staring out from the magazine and newspaper racks; they’ll be in the windows of the Superdrug-type stores advertising their scents; and their look will be worn by dozens of dedicated disciples you’ll bypass getting to the shops and back; then, when you get home and go online, there they are again. Beckham and Beyoncé are watching you, as are all those who followed in their wake.
High Art and Low Art have often collided and the end results have regularly been supremely entertaining. Andy Warhol knew that when he filled galleries with his silkscreen prints of banal household objects over half-a-century ago; and what made Glam Rock so irresistible was the fact that it could encompass everyone from dumb Gary Glitter to erudite Roxy Music. But Low Art has never been more widespread, accessible and available than it is today. It’s bloody everywhere. There’s nothing wrong with Low Art at all; it has its place and that place covers 99% of the globe. To me, it seems only fair that there should also be an alternative, a refuge from its overwhelming dominance – one little corner of the modern world that does not welcome it.
On paper, we have Radios 3 & 4 and BBC4, and I suppose, Sky Arts. That’s more or less it. Not much to ask for, really, yet the edited highlights of this week’s Radio 4 schedule that were contained within the opening paragraph would suggest there is no escape, no relief and no hiding place from something that already owns every other media outlet. Quite frankly, I was always happy to watch David Beckham don an England shirt, but I’ve never had the slightest interest in anything else about him; similarly, I don’t care what books Melanie Sykes or Alan Carr like to read anymore than I care whether or not a 35-year-old woman has a couple of buns in her oven. If I did, I know where to look, and I shouldn’t have to look in one of the few cultural bunkers we have left. Of course, that makes me a Snob, doesn’t it?
© The Editor