Garth’s appeal eludes the arts elites

Opinion: The people who like popular entertainment pay their taxes too

Why the impulse to ignorantly dismiss, rather than explore, the phenomenon that is Garth Brooks? Photograph: AP

Why the impulse to ignorantly dismiss, rather than explore, the phenomenon that is Garth Brooks? Photograph: AP


When her husband was back in their flea-ridden Parisian hotel sweating over Finnegans Wake, Nora Joyce entertained herself by going to music shops and listening to romantic music.

In 1997, Nuala O’Faolain was in HMV doing something similarly lowbrow, as she wrote at the time. Headphones on, she was having a “free listen” to Andrea Bocelli and Sara Brightman duetting on Time to Say Goodbye, from an album that had “gone gold” in three weeks.

“And why wouldn’t it,” she asked tartly. “It’s the last word in lush accompaniment and swelling manly voice. It’s gorgeous . . . He sings this ballad as if he means it with all his heart and that’s why it speaks to so many people.”

To those people, she said, that is art.

Her readers, she knew, would include the local high priests of culture, the ones who rolled their eyes at Bocelli’s sentimental balladry. But the people who loved Bocelli paid taxes too, money harnessed for the cool, young artists who still populated Temple Bar, the elders of Aosdána, the theatres, the orchestras.

That same year, Garth Brooks returned to Ireland and over three nights (sold out in hours), 120,000 fans whooped it up and bathed their souls in choruses of ruin and redemption, cigarette lighters flickering in the north city darkness, tears coursing down more than a few faces. I was there because I had got press tickets after an interview with him and because I was curious.

The backstory was of the permanently fat-fighting, marketing-graduate son of an oil company draughtsman, both of whom wanted to be cowboys and who finally got the ranch with the son’s first record contract; the likeable, Grammy-winning megastar who had apparently settled into domesticity with a hilariously wild woman (it didn’t last, alas), who called records “units”, who had featured on the cover of Forbes, and provided health insurance and a pension plan for the band.

You would have to be stone dead not to be curious about how this persona translated to the stage. I marvelled at how this mild, exquisitely courteous interviewee could morph into that rambunctious, crazy man up there, entrancing 40,000 people, belting out the chorus to You May be Right and reducing them to tears with The Dance. And managing to sound as if he meant it with all his heart. If that’s not art, there is surely an art in it, a quality given to very, very few.

With hindsight, the surprise is not that 400,000 tickets were sold in a day or two last January, but that the same impulse is there all these years later, to ignorantly dismiss, rather than explore, the Brooks phenomenon. You don’t have to love an artist or lower your hipster-cool guard to admire a masterful act or to respect another view, a quality lamentably lacking in this country in recent weeks.

One wit dismissed the concerts as “singsongs”. But isn’t the sing-/dancealong vital to the heart-soaring, communal magic of much live music? Just look at Glastonbury.

Another christened the whole sorry affair culchie-geddon, which had the virtue of being funny at least. And yet, was there a more plaintive cry for resolution than that which came from the lips of a true-blue jackeen, the Lord Mayor of the city of Dublin himself?


Are there execrable country singers? Millions. Just as there are execrable sean nós singers, and clichéd jazz singers and ear-bleeding opera singers, like one fabulously robust, hammy Violetta – supposedly wasting away from consumption – who reduced a group of us to such hysterical laughter in a European opera house that we had to flee.

Our late, great classical music critic Charles Acton used to say opera audiences waited just as eagerly as any concert audience for their “favourite bits” – known as arias. Each time I hear the wildly overplayed Nessun dorma (Turandot), Che gelida manina (La bohème) or O mio babbino caro (Gianni Schicchi), I age 10 years. But I will defend to the death people’s right to play them, even to sing them.

A few years ago, in a small theatre filled with some of Belfast’s coolest music fans, Duke Special and Paul Noonan of Bell X1 performed a light- hearted, gorgeously harmonious version of the old cowboy ballad, The Streets of Laredo.

A young man nearby smiled wistfully and dabbed his eyes. Regretting the wasted German techno years, someone asked with a snigger. It had been his late brother’s party piece.

So yes, to paraphrase the writer William Gibson, taste may well be the building block of the “personal microculture” that defines us creatively and intellectually. So let’s cultivate great creativity and complexity. But let’s not confuse all that with getting a life. Above all, remember the critic Carl Wilson’s neat summation of cultural snobbery: “It’s always other people following crowds, whereas my own taste reflects my specialness.”

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