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Rock and Rigoletto

There are two articles I regret writing in the callowness of my youth. The first was about the trend for music festivals being held at stately homes. The second was an assignment that sent me to Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House to see what a rock critic might make of this hallowed art form.

I objected to both, and spoke little, in either article, about the music itself. Rather, I railed against the inequities of class and the perceived cultural appropriation. I was outraged at how little the classical music world did to welcome the uninitiated, and how these new bijou festivals felt like proletarian cosplay. It seemed to me then that posh people simply wanted to own everything; or perhaps more probably they felt entitled to everything, from Rigoletto to rock ‘n’ roll.

The issue of class and music rears up every few years. A mild fuss will arise around the percentage of the charts, or the Glastonbury line-up, or the list of Brit Award winners, dominated by the privately educated. Most recently, it was in the case of The Last Dinner Party, whose fancy schooling, and a couple of journalistic misquotes, led to allegations of the band being mere posh girls playing at being in a rock band.

Plenty of posh folk have forged careers in popular music, from The Clash, whose Joe Strummer attended a Surrey boarding school, to Coldplay. I suspect we reserve a particular scepticism for posh young women playing rock ‘n’ roll because it rather reminds us of Pulp’s Common People, in which a wealthy art student tells Jarvis Cocker she wants to “live like common people”. Cocker duly sets her a variety of “common” tasks, such as visiting a supermarket and pretending she has no money, only to conclude the mission is flawed, because she can always call her Dad, who can “stop it all”.

The problem, Cocker notes, is that she will never know what it is to truly fail: to “watch your life slide out of view/ And then dance, and drink, and screw/ Because there’s nothing else to do.”

A lot of rock‘n’roll concerns itself with dancing and drinking and screwing. Though arguably so too does opera – as students of, say, Don Giovanni or Carmen or Die Fledermaus might tell you.

Rock ‘n’ roll concerns itself with dancing and drinking and screwing, though arguably so too does opera

Rather, the key part of Cocker’s line is “because there’s nothing else to do”. This isn’t an expression of boredom or a lack of anything on the telly, but a kind of desolation – a general sense that life is not secure and one cannot be rescued.

And perhaps this is why there exists an inverse snobbery around rock ‘n’ roll. There is a suspicion that, by dabbling in this field, the privileged are somehow trespassing, or taking up a space on the charts that could be used by someone more worthy.
It feels silly of course to say these things out loud. Is music inherently less moving or in some nebulous sense less “authentic” because the songwriter went to Bedales? Or because they learned to play the guitar not through determination and desperation and desire, but because Mummy and Daddy forked out for private lessons every week in the hope it might look good on university applications?

And yet there lingers a belief that rock ‘n’ roll matters more to some than it does to others. After all, this music has long served as an avenue of social mobility for the lower social classes: a route to success and wealth, to status and security.

In recent years those avenues have increasingly become blocked for many; everything from the cost of housing to the rise of zero hours contracts via the closure of community arts services and small venues have conspired to create a scenario where it is no longer economically viable for most “common people” to pursue a career in music.

There is another approach, perhaps – one less preservationist, and not without precedent. Over the years, I’ve lost count of how often I’ve recommended Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. A study of some 2000 published and unpublished workers’ memoirs from nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain, it rather puts the lie to many of today’s perceived cultural divisions – literary, philosophical, musical. There are weavers, wheelwrights, miners, millworkers and more, discussing everything from Mutual Improvement Societies to The Merchant of Venice. There is a Nottingham hosiery worker who recalls listening to Verdi’s Il Trovatore as a child; Tredegar Workmen’s Institute, with its library, film society and celebrity concert programme; and a young man named Alf, who travels from down-at-heel 1920s Jarrow to see a symphony concert at Newcastle City Hall and leaves in a state of “rapture”.

Rather than feel resentful towards the musical privilege of the upper classes, perhaps it is time to stage a reverse land-grab. Put aside your Last Dinner Party records and crank up the Giuseppe Verdi. After all, if everyone is entitled to rock ‘n’ roll, then everyone is entitled to Rigoletto.

Laura Barton is a writer and broadcaster. Her book “Sad Songs” is out now

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Arts & Culture, June / July 2024, Music

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