I don’t like British music. Scrolling through my playlist is like watching a Thanksgiving Day parade of artists from the US. Trying to explain why is difficult, but I think it has a lot to do with not only the music, but also the images we associate with it. Not to be a pretentious synaesthetic, but music is intensely visual. Maybe it’s partly thanks to film scores that we can so readily ‘see’ music. I can see the louche figure of Clint Eastwood squinting against the desert sun in the lonely guitar lines and galloping rhythms of Ennio Morricone’s legendary soundtrack to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. What’s more, forms of visual media represent an important way for artists to advertise themselves. The clothes they wear and the pictures they put on their album sleeves tell us what to expect from them, and what to think of when we listen to them.
And when it comes to visuals, America wins in a fight any day. In the ring are America’s canyons, lakes, deserts, prairies, highways, cornfields, and sprawling cities… It’s got Britain’s dimly lit streets, cramped housing, dull weather, and grimy pubs in a chokehold. I like playing the same game with colours: America is red, yellow, green, blue, bold and bright; but Britain comes out in a rash of grey, grey, and more grey (or, as the case may be, gray, gray, and more gray). Maybe my bias comes from the simple fact that I am British. If I were American, it’s possible I’d only listen to British music. Perhaps my enjoyment of American music is an expression of the known impulse to seek roads away from home. As a result, to engage in British culture for me feels stagnant and depressing.
I’m not saying that music shouldn’t explore difficult topics, or that it should keep us floating around in a vat of happiness. Great songs often involve themes of loss, conflict, or upset, but, as a Brit, I prefer the way America packages those themes. Let’s think about cake. Imagine, if you will, two identical sponges, one for America, one for Britain. Say these sponges are the thematic contents of a break-up song, containing in equal measure 250ml sadness, 2 free-range heartbreaks, 175g self-indulgence, and a pinch of I-can’t-live-without-you. America and Britain must now construct, ice, and decorate their respective sponges in a bake-off style contest. America wins, even though the ingredients were the same. Why? Because its presentation is better, its icing more colourful, its bottom less soggy. Cake USA wraps me up in its warm and heady world of idealism. Cake UK tried to look like Cake USA but the result was a pathetic mess.
A bit harsh maybe, but, I think, fair. Think of three classic British musical acts. What are they? For me it’s The Beatles, the Stones, maybe Dire Straits. All of them attempt to imitate American music. Listen to “What Goes On” by The Beatles. It’s country. Listen to “Sweet Virginia” by The Rolling Stones. It’s country too. Listen to the album Dire Straits by Dire Straits. It’s all country. But not as good as the real thing, in the way that an imitation is bound to lose something of the original somewhere along the line of recreation.
Many will say that at points I have edged blindly toward flying the red, white, blue flag of Mighty ‘Merica, but I have an answer to that too. If the past half-decade has shown us anything other than that pandemics suck, it’s that America has problems. It’s true that I wouldn’t want to live there. Having to pay for treatment for an ear infection doesn’t sound like much fun. But for me living across the pond, those problems do not represent an inescapable reality. I can engage in spirited debate about America without the result having real-life relevance. For me, America is a lever arch file of ideas, people, and images that I can flick through at my leisure. It’s my mental paddling pool, and I like to dip my toes in when I put my headphones on.