The crazy topics for which researchers are awarded grants are often a source of great amusement to me. During the past year I’ve read about a project that, after many months of expensive labour, ‘successfully’ created a formula for the ‘ideal’ slice of toast and marmalade (it wouldn’t succeed in our household, where some of us like our toast burnt and others don’t); a study that ‘proved’ that there is a link between depression and being unhappy at work; and, just this week, a piece of research that shows that the pop songs of today contain twice as many references to alcohol as the ones of twenty years ago.
At first I thought that the last of these was very funny indeed. Good on the researchers who have persuaded whomever awarded their grant that it would be a good use of scarce resources to pay them to sit around endlessly listening to pop music. More power to their (drinking?) elbow. But now I’ve had time to consider, I’ve begun to wonder if there isn’t something more sinister afoot here. Assuming that this study is not entirely mindless and redundant, to what use is it intended to be put? Is the government going to start censoring pop songs? If so, it would very decidedly be the thin end of the wedge. It’s not just about pop music: from the earliest times, alcohol has been a part of almost all cultures, as is reflected in their art and literature. Just imagine what would happen if a Nahum Tate style of censorship were to be applied to books. Offending works would have to be covered in brown paper, and an approximation of their titles offered instead:
• Tizer with Rosie, by Laurie Lee
• Irn Bru Galore, by Compton Mackenzie
• Cakes and Tea, by Somerset Maugham
• Dandelion Juice, by Ray Bradbury
However, having to alter the titles would be a mere bagatelle compared to the changes that would have to be made to the works themselves. Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’, almost his trademark description, would have to become the ‘grape-juice dark sea’; Lady Macbeth would have been stuffed if, instead of being able to observe, as the grooms slipped into a drunken stupor, ‘that which hath made them drunk hath made me bold’, they’d all been swigging elderflower water and sitting up playing cards, as lively as crickets; and ‘wine, women and song’ (which I’ve just looked up, and find, to my amazement, that it is a saying usually attributed to Martin Luther) would not have the same ring to it if it became ‘water, women and song’.
I jest, but I am also being serious. This type of statistical analysis is not only nonsense, but also very dangerous. Cultures cannot be manipulated, and even if this particular statistic is true, it doesn’t necessarily mean that society is becoming more decadent. One interpretation might be that, at present, writers of pop songs are going through a very literal phase, which may mean that there are fewer double entendres to pick up on and correspondingly more overt references to be spotted by the earnest conductors of surveys. The pop songs of my youth were full of allusions to drugs, drinks and sex, but many of these were disguised. I wonder if present-day researchers would have spotted them? Self-evidently, also, my generation survived and turned out to be no more or less decadent than any other. Culture must be allowed to regulate itself.
If the government interferes in this, you may find me in my local singeasy.