The other night I was channel-surfing and stumbled on an edition of the talent show Britain’s Got Talent at just the moment when a young man with a Fender Strat was about to perform in front of the audience. These talent shows tend to be dominated by histrionic singers, so I was curious for a moment to see what this young man would do and how it would go down. What followed was a ghastly collision of a hostile context with a fundamental lack of musicality, prefaced by the usual humiliation of such contestants.
Said young man (who I think was 26) began a solo rendition of ‘Beat It’ and within half a minute had abandoned the singing bit for the guitar solo. He dropped to his knees, executed some Van Halenesque tapping, and finished off by playing the guitar with his teeth in the manner of Hendrix. These bits didn’t connect up. The fact that he was running his guitar into a very small Fender combo amp didn’t help much either. By this point the jury had voted him off and the audience weren’t impressed either.
What struck me about this was not the humiliation he was put through, which you expect from those programmes. It was the way he had unconsciously set himself up for it by not understanding what would work in performance. Playing electric guitar parts on your own that need a full band backing is never a good idea. Although he had some technical ability (probably hampered by nerves) and was apparently a guitar teacher (!), he didn’t seem to realise that in 2015 those theatrical guitar show-off gestures don’t mean anything. The only place for playing guitar with your teeth is in a Hendrix tribute band. Outside of that, it doesn’t mean anything other than perhaps you have watched videos of Jimi playing guitar in 1970, and your dentist may be unhappy next visit.
It didn’t mean that much when Hendrix himself was doing it. His creative genius as a guitarist lies in other things altogether, despite the fact that rock documentaries continue to try to convince us that he was a great guitarist because he liked setting fire to his guitar or smashing it up. It’s a bit like doing a Hendrix version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in 2015. It’s either a Hendrix tribute gesture or pure establishment, or both. But it can’t mean what it meant in 1969, not least because the electric guitar doesn’t mean what it meant in 1969.
Whereas, if this contestant had concentrated on making his own musical statement – maybe not requiring much guitar technique – he might have fared better, and even if he had been voted out it would have had a kind of integrity to which the vote was irrelevant.
An important lesson really about musicality and musical awareness.
Now, where’s my lighter fuel … I fancy Strat Stroganoff for dinner …