Let’s face the music and yawn

Charles 4 Comments

Poor Ed Miliband. Challenged on Desert Island Discs to name the record he’d take, if he could only take one, he abjectly nominated Robbie Williams’ Angels. Derision was universal and prompted David Cameron to make that quip about ‘loving Engels instead’.

It prompted Janice Turner to observe in The Times: Music is rather overrated in my view, though I know to admit this is like saying I have an aching void in my soul. I would exchange all eight records and my luxury for non-stop Radio 4.

I found that comforting. Brits are peculiarly nuts about music. In this country you defensively map your personality profile by the bands you claim to love. One slip and you’re in the Ed doo-doo. I expect a lot of people lie. Remember Gordon Brown’s Arctic Monkeys? I bet your toes curled when you heard that.

Which is why music is so important at funerals. If you want to define a clear and admirable legacy, do it with pop songs. They’ll express the very essence of you. Just have a look at YouTube and see how many people have posted their funeral playlist.

Music that was special to a dead person may well not be exclusively or even partially evocative of that person. If it does not embody the spirit and personality of the dead person, we listen dutifully and either enjoy it for its own sake or for the associations it has for us; or we just sit dutifully and passively and wait for it to stop.

Music is unquestionably powerful. But a pop song has peculiar power to take each of us back to a particular time and place and fill us with the particular feelings we had about what was going on in our lives back then. It can be a massive distraction.

I can only recall one funeral where the music embodied the person who’d died. Actually, he’d killed himself. I can’t remember what the music was, and no one knew it. But it was jazzy, quirky and droll, just as the dead young man had been — it was perfect. And because we’d never heard it before, it was powerful enough to make us smile.

Sorry, but ‘This was a song she loved’ usually just doesn’t hack it. So what?

And if it’s a song that’s often played at funerals, it depersonalises the occasion and makes it generic.

For me, please, silence. At a pinch, Radio 4 on in the background — I used to sleep with it on until my most recent wife made me stop.

Actually, I could be tempted by this elephant playing a piano duet. 


  1. Charles

    Lovely! I wouldn’t say music is ‘overrated’ but it’s certainly difficult to choose a single piece that’s ‘defining’. Especially publicly: Ed’s Engels and Gordon’s Monkeys! Music is the shorthand of emotion and we all change moods all the time. Tolstoy said that, after silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music. He wasn’t referring to lyrics about twerking.

  2. Charles

    Larkin is wise, in his less deceived way. In one poem he describes a visit, his mother in the kitchen, he in another room listening to his beloved jazz. his mother calls out ‘that’s a pretty one dear’ and he reflects:

    ‘Oliver’s Riverside Blues, it was. And now
    I shall, I suppose, always remember how
    The flock of notes those antique negroes blew
    Out of Chicago air into
    A huge remembering pre-electric horn
    The year after I was born
    Three decades later made this sudden bridge
    From your unsatisfactory age
    To my unsatisfactory prime.

    Truly, though our element is time,
    We are not suited to the long perspectives
    Open at each instant of our lives.
    They link us to our losses: worse,
    They show us what we have as it once was,
    Blindingly undiminished, just as though
    By acting differently, we could have kept it so.’

    The last three lines seem very apt. Music is often the point in the service where emotion surfaces. It’s used sometimes as a shared joke or a private memory. Sometimes it’s there as a surprise or even a shock for everyone not in on the secret.

    However it is used though, it has the merit of not being words and even songs with twerking in them can carry all sorts of meanings for the people listening.

  3. Charles

    I wonder if the problem is that it may have been his favourite song, but does it have a funerary function? Does it help with what’s happening? Vera Lynne singing “The White Cliffs of Dover” may work for the edlerly in the congregation, but the young ‘uns will probably just wait until it is over.

    And I don’t know that, recently, coming in to a jaunty early rock and roll number – his favourite artist – was a lot of help to his family. He’d died, by modern standards, quite young, and there was a lot of sadness in the room.

    The symbolic function of his favourite song may be a long way from the ritual or ceremonial function latent in music. Why not keep the less evocative, more purely personal stuff for the wake, or whatever you want to call it?

    This is nothing to do with high/low culture. We’ve all heard pop songs at funerals that, in context, and in relation to the dead person, can be very moving and effective – but that’s because the music was right for a funerary purpose, not just because he liked The Big Boppa.

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