Saturday, May 12, 2012

Jessie J, Price Tag and Poetry

Here are a few statistics. Two years and four months ago, I made a video of myself reading a poem. It wasn’t a professional job, just my stepson holding a video camera and me standing in a blizzard reading ‘White Noise’. I guess there is a certain humour about it as the snow beats down on me and the book (which I had to cover in clingflim to save it from disintegration), but there is no other concession to the entertainment industry. I uploaded the video to YouTube where it has received 421 views. Not bad for poetry – that’s about one view every day and half.

Contrast this with a video uploaded one year and four months ago of Jessie J’s Price Tag, the official video of the international smash hit single. The video helpfully reminds us that the money doesn’t matter – just as well for me, although I suspect its budget would have been just slightly more than mine. Even a vertical strip torn from one of Jessie’s outfits would have cost more than my video camera. In case anyone thinks I’m being cynical about her, I’m not. She’s obviously a highly talented songwriter and singer (unlike some of her contemporaries) and Price Tag is an extremely catchy song. I’m not surprised it was a massive hit. And the viewing figures? Well, I measured them over the last four days:

Today - 208,692,483
Friday - 208,405,142
Thursday - 208,250,000
Wednesday - 208,133,000

Basically, the views are rising at a rate of anything between about 120,000 and 300,000 a day! By the time you read this, they will have risen significantly again (edit: 16,000 people have watched it in the 1 hour and 20 minutes since I posted this article). At the time of writing, nearly 209 million (209 million!!) people have watched this video and that’s only the official video. It doesn’t count the hundreds of live and acoustic versions of the song, some of them very high quality recordings.

So there you have it: 209,000,000 versus 421. In fact, if you add another year’s viewing to Price Tag to catch up with me, it would be more like 421,000,000 to my 421. A Jessie J song is officially one million times more popular than one of my poems!

Clearly, there are tie-ups between poetry and music – lyrics are obviously a close relation, and good poems are built on rhythm, sound, music etc, but none of that seems to have entered popular consciousness. Poetry suffers from complete lack of exposure. Most people wouldn’t know where to start. And most of them wouldn’t want to start. The latter is fine by me – I wouldn’t want to start doing all kinds of activities that other people find fascinating e.g. playing computer games, watching basketball, cricket etc. I am also resigned to the fact that poetry is a minority and non-commercial activity, and that brings its own creative freedom from commercial pressure, for which I’m grateful. There is also no point in competing for space with genuinely popular art forms like pop music – there is simply no competition, as the figures above demonstrate.

But somehow, I still believe that good poetry is important and that a society is diminished when it loses sight of it. Good poetry is not entirely invisible yet, even if it is about 99.9% of the time, but I do think that the 0.1% is vital to build on. I don’t think poets should pander to the commercial side of things – poetry is more akin to an obscure Scandinavian trio, with a cult following, playing weird music in 5/4 time with terse Norwegian lyrics, than to a new Lady Gaga single with accompanying superficial ‘shock’ banalities. But I’d bet the Scandinavians would still succeed in reaching a bigger audience than an average Faber poet (let alone everyone else). I also believe there is no reason for that to be the case.

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