In the early-1980s, there was debate at theological college about which books were to be included in the prescribed reading lists. There were students who insisted that the books that reflected their views were not being placed on the list. The professor of biblical studies insisted books were not chosen on the basis of evangelical scholarship or catholic scholarship, but whether they were good scholarship or bad scholarship.
The distinction between good and bad, rather than that between particular traditions or approaches or styles, seems one that is applicable to other debates – debates like what music deserves a hearing.
In teenage years in the 1970s, the music that was determined to deserve a hearing was whatever was in the charts. If the only music you could hear was on BBC Radio 1, then every day the playlist reinforced the idea that some records were worth the time spent listening and others were not. In a typical day, a particular record might be played half a dozen times.
Did being in the charts and being played on Radio 1 mean that music was good? Were sales a reliable criterion?
The 1970s were a time when there were groups that sold millions of seven inch singles, they were times when thousands of teenage girls might stand screaming at pop concerts, they were times when magazines provided glossy colour photos that were stuck on countless bedroom walls. But would anyone have said the music was good? Is there anyone who would argue that the Bay City Rollers’ Shang-a-Lang was good music?
It’s not about one musical genre deserving priority, it’s not about suggesting that one style deserves airtime and another should not be aired.
As a teenager, there was a feeling that I should conform to popular tastes, that I should like what others liked. It was only slowly that I learned that good music was not defined by style and was certainly not determined by sales.
At school, one staff member had a connection with a member of the band King Crimson. We were impressed. Among teenage boys, rock bands had credibility, but, while having their own cult following, King Crimson did not enjoy the commercial success of pop groups that featured on Radio 1. At Sixth Form College, John Martyn had fans among the student number, yet, while being an artist with extraordinarily evocative power, his style did not bring the massive sales enjoyed by pop bands.
My list of what I think is “good” would include King Crimson and John Martyn and many and diverse other musicians. I learned from the professor that what mattered was not the tradition from which it came, but whether it was good or bad.