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Fireworks And Feelings: What We Mean When We Say ‘Real Music’ Written by on April 16, 2018 | 8 Comments

Hello Internet. One of the big themes of the Song Contest this year is this idea of real music. What even is real music? What do we mean and who do we exclude when we talk about real music? As the resident insufferable hipster at ESC Insight, I’d like to tell you a story about my relationship with real music.

(Listen along to Ellie as she narrates ‘Fireworks and Feelings’ with some musical accompaniment).

When I was a kid, I got it into my strange little head that pop music was somehow not worth my time, and so I spent a couple of years quixotically refusing to listen to any music other than Mozart and The Beatles. I got over it, but it turns out that was a mere rehearsal for my teenage years and young adulthood, where the questions of identity and preference find themselves inextricably linked with what you listen to. I found myself divided in a way that took years to unravel. It was all connected with an idea of being seen as smart and sophisticated and somehow setting myself apart from my peers by only listening to this very restricted diet of what I considered to be real music.

Is This Real Life, Is This Just Fantasy?

This question of real music though.

What a weird term. It’s so loaded. It’s the NME before it became a bizarre freesheet and eventually shrank away like a mammal’s vestigial tail. It’s teenage lads with lank hair who learn to play guitar through making perfect facsimiles of classic mod singles. It’s lumberjack shirts and big stupid beards.

The stuff that we call ‘real music’ is coded to be very white, very male and lately very middle class, just like in fiction what we call ‘literature’ is generally stuff written by older white guys and anything else is seen as a genre market and somehow, lesser.

So I could see why my favourite Portuguese drama magnet got everyone’s backs up when he spontaneously used his Eurovision winning speech to praise real music that magical night last May. A beardy, masculine, jazz-bore definition of ‘real music’ seems to run counter to everything that the modern Eurovision Song Contest stands for. And maybe that’s what he meant. Maybe he didn’t want anyone to bring their pyro to Lisbon, maybe he’s wanting to preside over two weeks of no LED screens or backing dancers, just serious bebop and chin-stroking, culminating in a huge victory for whichever nation chooses to go rogue.

But given that Salvador and Luisa spent their time in Kyiv during May making friends and enjoying the other songs in the 2017 Ccontest (especially Blanche, Norma John and Sunstroke Project), and given what a delightful spread of diverse musical treats we’ve been served for Lisbon 2018, I don’t think that we necessarily took the ‘real music’ message in the spirit it was delivered.

No Escape From Reality

In the 21st century, the commodification of almost every part of our lives is taken absolutely for granted. Companies use our life details to sell advertising to us and every transaction we take part in (social, financial, emotional, sexual) can be mediated by an app that is probably also using the data of that transaction to sell us more of what it thinks we might like. The entertainment industry commodifies art and sells what it thinks we desire back to us, with the edges sanded off by focus groups with the aim of selling to the biggest market possible. And we feel that. This is why we love to see a pop star mask slip – we’re craving something real.

Then there’s the whole component of teen girl fandom that is handmade and from the heart. Fandoms across all media are full of the creative work of girls and young women in response to the way that things have made them feel. Whether it’s slashfic, image edits, scrapbooks presented to favourite artists, hand-painted fan t-shirts, cover songs filmed sitting on beds or intense gif tumblrs, the response to art is real and deeply personal. Going back to Salvador’s unfortunate ‘fast food music’ metaphor, fangirls are that person who reassembles MacDonalds meals into gourmet meals.

Fangirls, in short, are great. I’ve had enough of hearing it used as a dirty word, used to dismiss people who are having a genuine emotional reaction to something when cultural gatekeepers would rather they didn’t.

Fangirls helped turn me into the adult I am today. They’re my best and most interesting friends. I learned to write HTML to code a nice home for my fandom writing, and one of the ways I practiced my writing was through cultural criticism discourse in fandom. I learned what little I know about graphic design and image sorcery through creating Livejournal icons. Fandom had me travelling to meet people I barely knew and sent me on adventures. Fandom gave me friends around the world and confidantes who I’ve never met. I am only on Twitter because that’s where Doctor Who fandom was slightly less virulent than the pedant-heavy messageboards. Fandom made me.

One of the demographic groups that gets basically no respect is teenage girls. Through a combination of condescension and misogyny, it’s assumed that teenage girls will basically eat up whatever is advertised at them. Nah. Have you seen what teenage girl fans are actually like? They respond to music and artists with such genuine passion that the paranoid dudes trying to convince themselves that they really enjoy Captain Beefheart or hard bebop or Dream Theater are scared. If a musical package doesn’t make teenage girls feel something, then it’s going to fail. The power of teenage admiration is only exceeded by the power of teenage disdain at something they realise is phoney and naff.

I had a strange dual identity as a teen. On the one hand, I was obnoxiously into Britpop and guitar music and had the bucket hat to prove it, but on the other hand I was a young queer woman who wanted nothing more than to break it down to S Club 7. I tried settling this dichotomy in various different ways (wearing a handpainted Hearsay t-shirt to the indie night, performing a death-tango version of Baby One More Time in my covers band, developing an unhealthy obsession with the post-Spice careers of Mels B and C) but really the only thing keeping me from sitting comfortably with my own taste was that I hadn’t worked out that all music that makes you feel something is ‘real music’. Once you embrace the power of ‘and’ you find that the world is a beautiful and full place.

That’s not to say that this self-knowledge came to me all at once. I spent a lot of my 20s dating people who didn’t think that my musical education was complete without an appreciation of their various blokey or dull or otherwise dreadful faves. Like a lot of women I’ve been in situations where to say “I don’t think this critically maudlin singer-songwriter is anywhere near as good as Madonna singing ‘Like A Prayer’” would have been to make myself seem significantly less sophisticated in the eyes of someone who, let’s be honest, didn’t really deserve to be dating me.

The assumption that ‘girl music’ is somehow shallow and not worthy of consideration as art runs deep, and most of us have internalised that idea to some extent. I think that I relaxed significantly as I got to my 30s, and stopped giving anywhere near as much of a damn about what people thought of me and my taste. I like what excites me and what sounds good to me and it’s as simple as that.

Lisbon Bound

So back to Salvador and the Song Contest and what on earth this all means. In the run up to the Lisbon 2018, our dorky jazz hero has been the subject of conversation amongst a certain subset of lady Eurovision fans. We were all thinking that he really strongly reminded us of the various dorky prodigies that we’d known and crushed hard on when we were younger and significantly more naive. Everything that’s happened at the Contest and since basically confirms that we were right. As well as the incredible talent, he’s got a sort of determined awkwardness and an almost magical ability to say the right thing in the wrong context.

That’s Salvador. He is just that kind of a dork who just says unfortunate things, bless him. I’m kind of looking forwards to seeing him be maximally jazzy and real in Lisbon for his winner’s reprise (twenty minute hand trumpet solo! Waggling in and out of shot! Strange vocal mannerisms!) but in general, I think that now he’s got the time and star power to develop his own musical world he’ll relax a lot more about what other people like. Also, with any luck, he’ll mellow out in his thirties.

Really, all the guy wants to do is perform and he’s not massively interested in a lot of the showbiz trappings. I was able to catch him for a brief interview backstage during one of his first days in Kyiv – he was hanging around doing selfies with people in his SOS Refugees sweater and looking distinctly weirded out by the whole Eurovision promotional process. He wasn’t too bothered about the generic ‘How are you feeling, are you happy with the rehearsals’ chat, but when I asked him a question about a track on ‘Excuse Me’, he perked up visibly. “Oh! You want to talk about music!”

Look Again

In the meantime, while we wait for Salvador to catch up with the implications of his new, bizarre status as Portuguese national hero and champion of ‘real music’, can I just suggest that Luísa might be the Sobral for you? You already know from ‘Amar Pelos Dois’ that she’s an amazing songwriter, and you already know from her magical rehearsal footage and that winning duet that she’s also got a superb, emotive voice.

Her 2017 album – called ‘Luísa‘, helpfully – is a really gorgeous selection of superbly adult songs that take her musical style further outside the traditional jazz format. There’s the almost Leonard Cohen style slinky rasp of ‘My Man’, there’s a beautiful song about enduring female friendship called ‘Janie’ and there’s the super cute and bouncy ‘Je T’Adore’. You can listen to it on Luísa’s web page, or you can order it on export. We’ll work on getting it properly available in the UK, but this will do for now.

But they didn’t accidentally win Eurovision – RTP and the Portuguese delegation were aware of the buzz building around ‘Amar Pelos Dois’ from the very early stages. They knew they had something special that had to be treated with sensitivity and integrity, even though they were working within the limitations of their performer.

One of my favourite bits of interview footage with Luísa in Kyiv is where she’s talking to Will of Wiwibloggs, who is really trying to work a sort of hyper-emotional angle to the fact she’s filling in for Salvador in rehearsals, and Luísa is really not having any of it. As far as she’s concerned, she’s just doing her annoying little brother a favour and not making any kind of mystical statement about emotional links between siblings. Even as a slightly melodramatic plot arc was trying to settle on her, she was resisting it.

The business over Salvador’s SOS Refugees sweater might also have contributed to his desire to say something non-political (but much more controversial) in the moment of victory. It now appears that Salvador’s humanitarian message in the Semi Final press conference was perceived as being an issue that was in contravention of the very vaguely defined ‘No political messages’ rule and he was prevented from wearing the sweatshirt under threat of disqualification.

This seems to be a bit harsh, considering the nature of the message. Also, I am sure I remember a Semi Final interval act in 2016 that was basically Salvador’s message interpreted through contemporary dance. This year we’ve got the French entry explicitly repeating that message on the stage in the Grand Final. How is that going to work out on the ground? What if Madam Monsieur’s turtlenecks suddenly develop an SOS Refugees print?

Back To Reality

But we were dangerously close to reaching the point before I went off on that tangent. The point is that Salvador’s message about real music wasn’t what you thought it was. It wasn’t a direct dig at Sweden or Moldova or the general concept of fun. One of the big memes in Eurofan twitter this year is ‘Imagine Salvador being forced to hand the trophy to this’ with particular reference to Netta from Israel, as if she’s some sort of disposable pop mouthpiece instead of a terrifyingly talented multi-instrumentalist producer DJ blues-hollerer rapper and free jazz improvisational prodigy. Real music doesn’t look how you think, fandom. Real music isn’t just made by serious white men with facial hair staring at their shoes. Real music is made by all musicians who feel something and want to tell you about it.

You know, I don’t even think that Salvador’s victory was a victory for this ‘real music’ thing anyway – his story and mystique added significantly to what was already a really special performance. The big victory that Salvador could probably claim, even if he doesn’t believe it, is that his stage show was one hundred percent appropriate for the song. Without a great song and a great vocal performance, you can’t win. With a great song and a good singer, you can only win if the performance looks appropriate on screen. Obviously, what is appropriate for an intimate ballad is different from what is appropriate for a party song about disapproving mothers or a gleeful yell of feminist energy.

Real music is any music that you make to communicate something real that you are feeling, with the intention of making the listener feel something too. Toy’ is just as real as ‘Amar Pelos Dois’. They both have a strong idea of what they want to communicate, and whether that message is ‘I am a person not an object’ or ‘I live only to love you’ they both communicate it very effectively.

Real music is all about fireworks, but the fireworks are made of feelings.

About The Author: Ellie Chalkley

Ellie Chalkley is an all-round music, media and culture enthusiast and citizen of the internet. As an overly analytical pop fan and general knowledge hoarder she finds the Eurovision Song Contest bubble to be her natural home. She comments gnomically and statistically on Eurovision matters at @ellie_made.

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8 responses to “Fireworks And Feelings: What We Mean When We Say ‘Real Music’”

  1. Karie says:

    I’ve mentioned this before, but this quote from Harry Styles still kills: “Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music – short for popular, right? – have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? That’s not up to you to say. Music is something that’s always changing. There’s no goal posts. Young girls like the Beatles. You gonna tell me they’re not serious? How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going.”

    Every time I hear someone drone on about “real music” I think about that quote.

    I never thought Salvador’s little, strange speech was mocking pop music. I just thought he was trying to say that pop music is best when it is performed and sung with feeling rather than a track that’s just going through the motions. I’m pretty sure Salvador will love Netta (or Saara or Melovin or whoever people are rooting for).

  2. Margrét says:

    This is an excellent piece, really enjoyed it.

  3. 4porcelli says:

    You lost me at “resident insufferable hipster insight” 🙁

  4. @4porcelli – I would give it another go, you know. Have you considered that I might have been gently taking the mickey out of myself?

  5. Shai says:

    A lovely and inteesting article.

    At the end,real music comes down to whether a song moves you and make you feel.
    I will go as far as suggesting that if it evokes emotions, negative or positive, it should be considered as real music.
    As long as it doesn’t keep you indifferent, this should be considered real enough.

  6. T S says:

    Thank you Ellie. From Portugal

  7. beckettfitz says:

    I have my doubts on whether Salvador would be happy in handing the trophy to say Sweden or Czech Republic this year.

  8. Martin says:

    Superbly put together, a really interesting listen, expertly researched. It is why fans listen to ESC Insight…

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