“When was the last time we had an instrumental UK number one?” I ask, apropos of nothing in particular.
A little out of the blue to be sure, but the question had popped into my head and the topic is entirely in keeping with the kind of abstract ‘media, popular music & culture’ themed conversation that tends to get lazily batted about on a Friday afternoon in our office like a game of keepy uppy with a partially deflated helium balloon.
It is, after all, a research centre for media and culture – and Craig and I tend to handle the music industry side of things – so basically, this is more or less what we do for a living.
“Ooh, that’s a good one,” says Craig. “One for Twitter.”
I retweet his tweet, and we return to our emails and unfinished reports, awaiting the notification buzz of smartphone on desk that signals the arrival of knowledge – the fruits of our research – as well as the smart aleck comments that invariably accompany knowledge of this kind, sourced in this manner.
It’s a simple answer we’re after. A near-instant satisfaction to a passing curiosity that arises in the course of the working day.
Song for Guy. Can’t be right…
Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.
Okay. Consensus seems to be Flat Beat by Mr Oizo. 1999.
Oh, this guy says Harlem Shake went number one in the States. Not the question we asked – but still…
Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.
“Stuff like Enigma doesn’t count.” Discuss.
“The voice IS an instrument.” says this one.
Wait – are we calling it an instrumental if it has no lyrics or if contains no human voices? Is it instrumental if it has vocal samples? What if they’re just partial words?
Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.
“Blimey. Twitter’s gone instrumental mental,” observes Craig, ever the hardcore academic. “I’m popping out for a fag.”
What we get is, at first, an avalanche of opinion and links to apparently unreliable (by which I mean contradictory) sources of expertise. This is followed closely by the beginnings of a philosophical inquiry into the nature and place of instrumentals within the popular music canon.
But of particular interest to me are two salient facts concerning the most recent British number one single that was instrumental in nature (despite a brief spoken word introduction).
First, it is an incredibly simple piece of music. There are very few notes in Mr Oizo’s ‘Flat Beat’. Two, if I recall correctly. Three at most.
Second, and perhaps more interestingly (though possibly related), is the fact that it made the charts over 14 years ago. This is the longest we have ever gone without an instrumental number one hit record. It’s overdue. Like a city on a fault line buying time before the big one hits again… though to be fair, popular taste and marketing have very little sway over seismic activity.
And since that thing about Harlem Shake turns out to be true (to be thorough in my research, I Googled it), this is an unusually British phenomenon within the Anglo-American popular music sphere.That is to say, British people like songs with words far more than they like music without. And while this seems to have been true for a long time, it appears to have become be more true over time.
One conclusion that could immediately be drawn is that we’re a very literary bunch. We love language. Especially our own one. We love wordplay and wit. We like text on our screens. We’re fond of fonts. We read on public transport – far more than people in most other places. Our cultural heritage is incredibly strong in the literary worlds.
Hardwired for language and narrative, immersed in a culture of verbiage, text, metaphor and description, we experience instrumental music as context rather than subject, canvas rather than painting, ground rather than figure. It’s outside our received cultural tradition, and the exceptions are just that. That is to say – it’s not really a song unless it’s got singing in it.
But a less comforting and self-congratulatory thought is that perhaps as a culture we fear the openness of meaning that instrumental music represents. It’s okay if it comes with a libretto or a programme, or perhaps if it’s embedded within a gardening programme on the telly that anchors it to a particular narrative frame – but if it is a musical work without prescribed meaning then we just feel uncomfortable. It’s a blank page. Or an abstract painting. Or perhaps an empty dance floor.
We like our songs to be ‘about’ something in the same way we tend to like our paintings to be ‘of’ something.
Faced with a piece of artistic expression (and we’re not talking ‘difficult’ music here), it might just be that British people need to be told what it is they’re meant to be doing in response. It’s the auditory equivalent of queuing. You know where you are in a queue. It’s orderly. Instrumental music is just too culturally chaotic to deal with.
Of course, with Mr Oizo, there was a lovely little puppet to show you what was expected of you in response to the music. Words were not required in that instance. Anything less head-noddy than Flat Beat could pose problems, or open the door for potential social gaffes. I mean… what if I listen wrong?
There are cultures that have instrumental music woven into their core. Britain appears not to be one of those cultures. Too much room for interpretation. We do like to have our hands held and things explained to us. And apparently – that’s more and more true as time goes on. The creative act of responding to an open field of possibilities takes away the certainty that comes from doing things ‘correctly’ (and politely). And that’s just not British.
At the same time, I suspect there’s so much risk aversion within the British record industry these days that a song without words, in a time signature that is anything other than 4/4 or, say, in the Mixolydian mode would have a hard time getting a single release in the mainstream market.
Or maybe I’m reading too much into this. Maybe next week there’ll be an instrumental piece of music – perhaps a waltz or some piece of improvised experimentation – that strikes a chord with the British public for some reason and is unexpectedly propelled into the pop charts. I know a bunch of bands and recording artists who would be excellent contenders for pop stars who don’t use words.
But I do wonder – even with the advantage of the viral video with all its horsey dancing, bright colours and jaunty beats – would the Brits have equally embraced Gangnam Style had it not contained lyrics – even ones we don’t understand?
It’s an interesting research question. One for Twitter…?