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posted September 29, 2010

A spicy Fry-up

I didn’t come to Stephen Fry’s new volume of autobiography expecting insights into contemporary music. Witty anecdotes, yes. Wry self-deprecation, yes. A certain amount of luvvie-ish back-slapping, but of course.

But on p,290, in a passage about our society’s obsession with celebrity, Fry draws a striking comparison between our infantilisation of food and culture. He writes:

The Earwig

‘Humanity has never lived in an age when infantilism was more sanctioned and encouraged than now. Infantile foods in the form of crisps, chips, sweet fizzy drinks and pappy burgers or hot dogs in sugary sauce are considered mainstream nutrition for millions of adults… As in food so in the wider culture.  Anything astringent, savoury, sharp, complex, ambiguous or difficult is ignored in favour of the colourful, the sweet, the hollow and the simple.’
As a music-lover whose taste is largely for the astringent, complex and all the rest, I can only agree. And I think the food analogy very appropriate. I always think of dissonance in music as similar to spiciness in food, not just in the way they both add fizz and whizz, vibrancy and depth to their respective dishes and pieces, but in the way we find them as an acquired taste. The way children initially recoil from dissonant music is very similar to the recoil from a first curry. But unless the sensation is given the opportunity – and usually repeated opportunities – the strange attraction won’t get the chance to work its magic.

Just as infantile food in excess rots the teeth and furs up the heart, so infantile music rots the ears and eats away at the soul. True satisfaction and satiety is to be found in the complex, the challenging and the slow-to-digest, and moving beyond easy-eating and easy-listening should be the ambition of gastronomes and music-lovers alike.

But I don’t eat only curry any more than I listen only to Stockhausen. In cultural life, as in diet, variety and balance are the true virtues, and sweet confections have their place in both. But it is unfortunate if the cultural marketplace becomes too concerned with promoting the equivalent of chips and burgers – which people will eat anyway – at the expense of the harder-won but more nutritious work which requires time, effort and commitment to enjoy, but whose rewards are ultimately more delicious.

This article first appeared at See all postings by The Earwig.
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