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The deafening rise of ‘background’ music

The unstoppable rise of ‘background’ music

17 April 2021

9:00 AM

17 April 2021

9:00 AM

One of my favourite things on British Muslim TV is Ask the Alim. An alim is a learned expert in the law. He’ll answer anything, live. The 2020 Best Bits highlights programme included a question about divorce. Can a man take back a woman he has divorced? Good question. It depends whether the divorce is revocable or irrevocable, according to the alim.

Boris Johnson has been doing something similar on Facebook recently: Ask the Prime Minister. Instead of expertise on Shariah, he offers an ‘irreversible roadmap to freedom’. But there has been something a bit weird recently about the broadcasts (easily viewed and reviewed to your heart’s content on Twitter, too). It’s the music.

The alim certainly does not speak accompanied by music. Music can be a bit suspect in Islam. That is something to ask the alim about. But the Prime Minister can sometimes hardly be heard for the music. He has barely delivered his habitual greeting of ‘Hi, folks’ (a constitutionally approved mode of address, perhaps, to the several peoples of the United Kingdom) before the tinkling starts or the strings rouse.

‘The vulnerable who have not had the first dose,’ says the Prime Minister, explaining who can and can’t do what, before the words are swallowed up in a sandy sizzle on the high-hat cymbals. ‘Outdoors, keep to the rule of six,’ he says to the tinkle of a xylophone as though we were soon to expect a chorus of ‘Shine, Jesus, shine’.


Surely the music must be bought in, by the foot, in easy iron-on sections. Does this musical soundtrack win over viewers? Responses on Twitter are almost universally hostile, even if you count as favourable remarks such as: ‘Oh glorious leader we are humbled by your munificence.’ But hostility is normal on Twitter. ‘Is the video meant to have a sinister kinda vibe?’ asks someone called Tony Osman, surely with no lively hope of an answer.

‘Am I allowed to restart my Angel Delight (butterscotch) wrestling matches in my garden if I have no more than five bikini-clad strumpets competing?’ enquires Sartorial Thug (not his real name). Somehow one wonders if these questioners have been listening to the current answer session. Maybe they can’t, because in my experience, an intrusive music track sends television viewers into such a red fury that no reasoned words can penetrate. It reminds listeners of being put on hold during an emergency.

Readers of the Daily Telegraph love nothing more than writing wrathful letters about being unable to hear dialogue in television dramas because of the music. Howard’s End? Turned it off because of the ‘cacophony’ of music and the inaudible dialogue. Poldark? Nothing but mumbling. David Attenborough? ‘Unnecessary and intrusive “background music” drowns out the speech and rainforest sounds.’ And what was the BBC trying to achieve by Clare Balding’s between-match summaries of results being accompanied by ‘mindless music’? The perennial horror for them is BBC television news. Drumming effects smother the initial headlines, punctuated by explosions.

It’s worse on the wireless: listeners can’t even try to lipread. The latest victim has been mild-mannered Jim Al-Khalili. His success in The Life Scientific, a series of more than 230 interviews, has come through not talking too much, but bringing out the interviewees by lending a kind ear. To celebrate, the trailer department, with a budget that must dwarf Test and Trace, has spliced together remarks taken from interviews without context and added a wall of sound that in seconds drowns out everything else.

It’s funny that Boris Johnson is now using the same gimmick. ‘Hi, folks,’ he said the other day from ‘this extraordinary AstraZeneca plant in Macclesfield’. The loud music was upbeat, reminiscent of a 1970s documentary about manmade fibres. ‘Hi, folks,’ he said, this time from Cornwall, where ‘there’s a real buzz’. More than a buzz, there was a full orchestra. Prime Minister and orchestra were at it hammer and tongs, Sturm und Drang, mad as the sea and wind when both contend which is the mightier.

Speaking to music is no easy task. Edith Sitwell tried with her poetry suite Façade, to music by William Walton. She spoke through a megaphone from behind a curtain, but still precious syllables were lost. ‘Thetis wrote a treatise noting wheat is silver like the sea,’ she intoned. ‘The lovely cheat is sweet as foam; Erotis notices that she will steal the wheat-king’s luggage, like Babel before the League of Nations grew.’ From what I could hear, Boris Johnson said something similar recently.

Perhaps the Prime Minister approves of his music videos because, as a classicist, he knows about the Greek chorus of the Attic stage addressing the attentive audience to the sound of the flute, or double flutes, played by the aulete. But the chorus also spoke from behind masks, quite an achievement in an open-air theatre. That might be something for the PM to try next.

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