This week’s blog, by Live Music Exchange’s Emma Webster, sees her reflecting on her recent experiences as a member of a local rock/pop choir. Emma’s desire to sing The Beach Boys was unfortunately thwarted by her inability to get over a deep-seated prejudice towards rock/pop choirs, which, sadly, led to her exit. This piece questions why we join and commit to musical groups in the first place and about the nature of musical participation as a whole.
Recently I joined a local choir. I was inspired to sing in a choir after listening to The Beach Boys’ magnificent ‘Smile’ album, and so I typed in ‘Beach Boys choir Oxford’ to Google and found this particular group. I had been meaning to join for well over a year but had always found an excuse not to attend, until I finally plucked up the courage a few months ago.
I have to admit that when I saw rock/pop choirs performing at 2012’s GuilFest, a voice inside my head said, ‘Yes that looks fun, but I could never ever be a in a choir like that’. it just looked too ‘uncool’ even though the singers looked to be getting a huge amount of pleasure from the activity. And yet now here I was, in a choir just like the ones I’d poo-pooed last year.
This particular choir rehearses in a church and at the first rehearsal I attended there were well over a hundred people there – a large choir indeed! The first couple of rehearsals were fun and enjoyable – I had not sung in a choir since 1998 and loved the feeling of singing in a large group (although the large size of the choir meant that it could be difficult to hear those on the other side of the nave, thereby diminishing the effect of the harmonies somewhat).
We learned songs at a cracking pace, some coming together better than others. An example of the latter was Bruno Mars’ ‘Just The Way You Are’, a song that I had admittedly never heard in its original format. For those of you unfamiliar with the song, it’s a fairly saccharine number with a standard chorus and almost recitative-like rapidly-sung verses. It was these verses that ultimately meant that I slipped away from the choir, never to return.
Having one hundred people trying to sing something originally meant for one can work beautifully or it can sound like (to quote the choir mistress) ‘a bunch of drunks’. Indeed, there was one bar of music with which I decided not to join in, after getting an attack of the giggles when my neighbour whispered that it was a ‘train wreck of a bar‘. However, while I like to blame my leaving on Bruno Mars and that ‘train wreck’ bar, I am interested in the deeper factors at play, and have been attempting ever since leaving the choir to rationalise my decision to leave. Four factors that I have entertained so far (and the topic is one which I often revisit), are: ‘subcultural capital’ (Thornton 1995) or a lack thereof; over-sentimentality; social factors; and musical factors.
Firstly, then, I am particularly fascinated in what it is inside me that cringes when I see rock/pop choirs performing – where that feeling of ‘I could never ever be a in a choir like that’ comes from – because I think that it is this aspect that ultimately did for my rock/pop choir career. As someone who worked for a while for a techno music promoter and who was hyper-aware of their precious ‘subcultural capital’, could it just be that I identified such a choir with ‘un-hipness’, with people who would not know a ‘fashionable haircut and well assembled record collection’ (ibid., p. 11) if it bit them on the bum? Certainly a ‘cool’ friend of mine who is in a band and has plenty of subcultural capital of his own, who I managed to persuade to attend the choir once, described the choir as ‘so uncool it’s almost cool’, in a classic example of postmodern ‘ouroboros’. That comment probably broke the camel’s back for me, as seeing it through someone else’s eyes in this way made the scales finally fall from my eyes as to what I had involved myself with. While my club promoter days are long behind me, there is still within me a very real desire to maintain my subcultural capital and this choir was doing precisely the opposite (in my mind, at least).
An association with rock/pop choirs with a particular type of post-Diana over-sentimentality is probably another factor as to why I left. While I don’t own a television, I was certainly aware of Gareth Malone’s various choir programmes, particularly the one for military wives, for which I watched the final programme on BBC iPlayer. As The Guardian commented: ‘I defy any sentient creature to remain dry-eyed watching choirmaster Gareth Malone transform a few dozen women on a Devon military base into a group able to sing together in beautiful harmony. There are lots of obvious pushes towards the box of Kleenex’ (Freedland 2011). Rock/pop choirs for me therefore have a (perhaps unfair) association with a particular type of mass sentimentality, with which I personally did not want to involve myself with.
The social factor is also important. There was part of me hoping that joining the choir might generate some new friendships and widen my social circle. The nature of rehearsals, however, meant that conversation was limited to a few quick bursts between songs and a ten minute ‘comfort’ break. While choir members do go to the pub afterwards, I usually found that a) I was so hungry by that point, I needed to get home and eat, and b) I didn’t to go to the pub with people from the choir because, in a kind of Groucho Marx logic, I don’t want to belong to any rock/pop choir that will have me as a member, or, since rock/pop choirs don’t seem to be my kind of thing, people in rock/pop choirs are therefore not my kind of people. More brutally, I didn’t want to go to pub with the choir people because they didn’t strike me as the kind of people with whom I wanted to hang out. As Simon Frith concludes in his article on why live music matters, ‘Music is now tied up with people’s sense of self … This egocentric and essentially lonely aesthetic is shaped, though, by an equally passionate drive to share our musical tastes’ (2007, pp. 13-14), and these were just not the people with whom I wanted to share my tastes, musical or otherwise.
The final point is about a clash of ‘genre cultures’ (Negus 1999, pp. 24-30) between the space, the people, and the music. In my (narrow minded) head, music + church = hymns or other religious music, not popular music, and choirs will forever be associated with choristers and Handel’s Messiah. The rock/pop choir rehearsing in a church therefore obviously interfered with some personal notion of authenticity for the music that we were performing. Or perhaps there is a smiling bright-eyed earnestness to much of what we were doing (or from what I’ve seen of rock/pop choirs on stage) which just doesn’t work (for me anyway). What interests me here, however, is that, as an atheist, I have no problem singing a Mozart Mass, but I do have a problem singing a pop song such as ‘Just The Way You Are’. Could this simply be because the Mass was originally written for a choir and therefore sounds ‘as it should’? Or could it be simply that I do not like the Bruno Mars song and all its insipid, bubblegum sensibility, particularly when sung badly by a large group of people?
To conclude, I obviously left the choir because of a range of factors and conflicting emotional responses, but ones which hopefully shed some light onto people’s musical choices in general. As Ruth Finnegan states, musical paths are voluntary, ‘something essentially self-chosen not primarily for monetary reasons but in some sense for their own sakes’ but for which ‘constraints and opportunities – sometimes partly outside the actors’ own awareness – help to draw individuals towards or away from particular paths, or shape the way they tread them’, such as the influences of gender, age, stage in life-cycle, links to various other social groupings, and family musical background (2007, pp. 316-7).
Perhaps if my family had been rock choir aficionados, I would still be there, but, as they weren’t (and find rock choirs as cringe-worthy as I do), the upshot of all of this is that I have a new-found self-awareness about the kind of people with whom I want to participate musically, and, more importantly, I am once again on the lookout for a choir – but only one that sings the music that I want to sing!
Finnegan, R. (2007) The hidden musicians: music-making in an English town. 2nd ed. Middletown, Conn., Wesleyan University Press.
Freedland, J. (2011) The success of The Choir’s military wives suggests we’re losing our taste for malice TV. The Guardian, 20 December. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/dec/20/the-choir-military-wives-reality-tv>
Frith, S. (2007) Live Music Matters. Scottish Music Review, 1 (1), pp. 1-17.
Lewis, P. (n.d.) Bruno Mars: Out of this world! Blues and Soul, n.d. <http://www.bluesandsoul.com/feature/593/bruno_mars_out_of_this_world/>
Negus, K. (1999) Music genres and corporate cultures. London, Routledge.
Thornton, S. (1995) Club cultures: music, media, and subcultural capital. Cambridge, U.K., Polity Press.