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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

King's Day - 'Koningslied' Revisited; or: on quality and taste.

It is the evening of the first King's Day - or is it the last Queen's day? Or both? In the morning the kids watched the television to see Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses; and in the afternoon we went to buy other people's junk. I hoped for a 4th-hand working Hoffner bass guitar, violin model, but the only thing I managed to buy was a Beatles record  which I hadn't collected yet.

And this evening, we watched the live emission of the newly composed (?) song for the King, 'Koningslied' - it was sung in Rotterdam, the King and Queen listened in Amsterdam. And that will be the end of the Koningslied-craze. The craze already had waned a bit, thanks to Joop van den Ende, our musical-tycoon and the only real Statesman we have left nowadays.

For those of you who missed the details of the story: as you will remember (see my previous blog), lots of people gathered on the internet to show their dislike of the Koningslied. (Already political commentators have drawn parallels between the massive mobilization of people around the Koningslied with the X-party in Haren, or even with the riots at the inauguration of Queen Beatrix  in 1980 - parallels which, in their turn, show the hysteria surrounding all this.) After a while, the composer, John Ewbank, was fed up with it all, and withdrew the composition.

Then the National Committee which looks after the festivities and had ordered the Koningslied had a crisis meeting. In that meeting, Joop van den Ende banged his fist on the table and said something like: "And now it's finished! We ordered a song. The song is there. It can be sung. It will be sung. If people don't like it, they may not sing along, or even not listen to it. But IT WILL BE SUNG!" Adding, in a comment to the press, that personally he kind of liked the song, that many people probably did given the commercial success of it (by the way, 3.5 million views on YouTube as I write this), and that  in retrospect maybe the text should not have been compiled from fragments sent in by the general public, but that it was now too late to change that.

Joop spoke. The song was sung. The Netherlands will fall back to its normal inertia.

And I am happy, because all the conundrum around the song for me was a bit too familiar. Of course, again it has been shown that music is important, and of course, this specific conundrum was definitely interesting for the ethnomusicologist in me. But I also feel this has all been too much about 'my music' and 'your music', about good taste and bad taste. And because I believe there is no good or bad taste, but only taste, I was not so interested.

I had a good discussion with one of my dear colleagues in the conservatoire the other day. At some point he said that he really tried to follow my ways of thinking about music but that he could not follow me in this respect because actually my reasoning excluded thinking about music in terms of quality. In your line of thought, he said, quality becomes absolutely relative. Anything goes. You're a post-modernist.

Now that's hard to swallow. A post-modernist. It made me think hard. And after that hard thinking, let me put the small result of it in the following three points.

1. Of course, quality is not relative. It is absolute. But it is only absolute within the confines of the rules of the game. A superb point in volleybal is hands in football and meaningless in chess. As Bruno Nettl once said, Beethoven may be interesting in Europe because of its harmony but rather boring in Africa given its rhythmic features.

2. Then, there is a difference between thinking music is nice and thinking music is good - between liking and judging. I like, for reasons unknown to me, a lot of music which I think is (within the rules of the game it belongs to) not very good. And I know loads of good music which I, for reasons also unknown to me, do not particularly like. The idea that you are supposed to like good music - that you are supposed to have good taste, rather than simply a taste - is related to the parenting idea that kids should like to eat healthy food. Some of them may. Sometimes. But most of them rather eat at McD., I can tell you as an experienced parent; and are still nice kids growing up to become God-fearing as well as vegetable-eating citizens.

3. Finally, there is a difference between my particular likings and those of the rest of the world. I like certain music: Beethoven, for example, the Beatles, and - recently - Bob Dylan, to stick with B's. I wish everybody liked the music I like, because I wish everybody the same happy experiences with music that I have. But I know other people have those same happy experiences with other music. Rather than hoping to convince others of my tastes, I hope to understand other people's tastes, in order, to quote Clifford Geertz, to “enlarge the possibility of intelligible discourse between people quite different from one another in interest, outlook, wealth, and power, and yet contained in a world where tumbled as they are into endless connection, it is increasingly difficult to get out of each other’s way”. 

Alexis Chottin wrote a book on Moroccan music nearly a hundred years ago. For those of you who speak French, this quote may be a nice final one: "Quelle monotonie intolérable à nos oreilles! dira-t-on. Soit; mais il ne s'agit point de nous."

It's not about me. It's about you.

Alexis Chottin. La musique marocaine. 1934.

Clifford Geertz. Works and Lives. The Anthropologist as an Author. 1988.


  1. Intriguing. You are saying that for the coronation of a new king - who is fundamentally supposed to be the Real Head of State - it is okay to serve a Happy Meal (c) for coronation dinner. The reason is that this is what the public wants, and therefore it is good (enough). We do not need to seek beyond the borders of formula food (or music) nor do we need to demand a dinner (or song) that requires a little more - yes - quality. It is o-kay to address our new king like he's a little boy on his first day at school, or with a commercial slogan for bratwurst.
    Of course Van den Ende is right for banging his fist on the table and demanding that the commissioned song is sung. And in these times of democratization in culture we get what we are. But there is no need to complain about the amount of bitching that followed the release of the song; comments have also been democratized, and this is the age of social media. If people's participation is what they want, then that is what they get. Too bad that the participation turned out not to be what they were expecting. Not everyone uncritically obeyed by blaring along with the song yesterday, like they were supposed to. Instead, people told the world at large what they thought of it. And that hurt, apparently. Too bad, the W for peanut spread.

  2. I am not defending Happy Meals from my personal point of view. I am defending the idea that I might try to understand that, for some (or many) people, a Happy Meal is a great present, even if I personally don't like it. Just as I would like the Happy Meal-fans to understand that for other people, haute cuisine makes a great present; without obliging them to like - or give as a present - a meal at The Librije themselves.

    And it is precisely the 'amount of bitching' from all sides that worries me, because I don't think the world gets a better place by it (there you go: a standpoint after all - I am not a post-modernist, hurray!). The bitching is done by everyone, we live in a culture where bitching is the highest command, preferably in public and following the example of great culture bearers as Paul de Leeuw and Geert Wilders. What I show is that this bitching is done by everyone; and that discussions about 'quality' and 'good taste' by professional musicians often function against that background and probably close more doors than they open.

    'Too bad' for me is the too easy way out of this.

  3. Understanding, however, is not the same as condoning. Where are we if we do not defend our standards to other people? I once had a discussion about a person who said he understood that in some cultures it is okay to stab your sister when you think she has brought shame to the family. While I can do my utmost to understand this viewpoint, I certainly believe that it is very wrong to act upon it. I have no intention to make this into a Godwin, but the principle stands. If there is nobody to speak up and say that Happy Meals, even if they have their use merit in certain circumstances, are simply not a suitable present for formal occasions.

    And I actually agree with you on the ´bitching´ bit. I should have phrased that differently; I meant the amount of negative feedback. Bitching carries within it a rudeness that is unnecessary.
    However, by posing the song as a song of the people, by the people, for the people, etc. it should be little surprise if the people talk back now that they have the means for it: the internet. There is little admiration from my side for anti pages like Mrs. Witteman started because it is just plain rude. Rudeness killed the radio star, not comments. As it is, once such a song is published, it becomes public property, exactly because it was never intended as an autonomous work of art. It was supposed to be shared by all. That was the set-up. That failed.
    (Besides, how bitching is handled, is the true mark of greatness. Mr. Ewbank is obviously not very great. Mr. Van den Ende is a good deal greater. He knows what it is like to be critisized, I suspect.)

    And yes, professional musicians are well-known for their alienating capacities. I sometimes fear that it is because they are frightened - with or without reason - that one day a little child will point them out and say that they have no clothes on. Will they have sufficient knowledge of how to handle that conversation in a society like ours today?

  4. I agree with you that understanding does not have to imply accepting. But that is a question of boundaries. Not accepting violating the human body does not automatically lead to not accepting 'bad' songs. I believe in a society where there are boundaries to what is acceptable - but also where those boundaries are drawn rather wide. And I believe in a society where, within those boundaries, people try to accept differences rather than fight them. I won't deny anybody the right to speak up; but I quite like people speaking down, as it were.

    I share the remark on Ewbank - not because he told us he had enough of it (the right signal) but because he started 'bitching' back (not the right language).

    And as for professional musicians - a good start would be to take other people's musical predilections just as serious as you would like your own to be taken.

    Hard enough.