Last night I did one of my occasional jobs, which is to DJ for the National Portrait Gallery’s Late Shift. I love doing this. One thing that attracts me is the complexity of the place itself. Grayson Perry has recently infiltrated the National Portrait Gallery with his TV series and exhibition ‘Who Are You?’, which highlight and contradict the institution’s predominant focus on powerful, white, middle class, heterosexual males. And yet, while the gallery has this focus, it also attracts one of the most democratic art audiences. The crowds that come and go as I play my tunes are truly diverse. Last night, for example, I spent the end of the evening talking to a nightclub bouncer who is giving up bouncing and taking up drawing.
From a DJ's perspective, this diverse crowd has to be approached with caution. Some genres work (jazz, soul, fifties rock ‘n’ roll), some don’t (punk, understandably; disco, perhaps less so). It is also the case, as with all music performances, that different songs cut through at different times. This doesn’t just apply to the crowd; it also applies to me.
This brings me to the real focus of this piece. The record that affected me most last night was Christina Aguilera’s ‘Beautiful’. It’s an incredible song: a perfect lyric, matched to the perfect tune, matched to the perfect singer. It has a universal message and it nails it. Who hasn’t felt in need of reassurance that they are beautiful? And who hasn't wanted it to be known and understood that they are more beautiful on the inside? It’s also brilliantly contradictory, a song that says ‘words will never hurt me’, but is in need of words in order to feel strong again.
What really excites me about this song, though, is not hearing its message but instead thinking of other people hearing its message. Its one of those songs that you know will have helped people though ordeals in their lives. It is a tonic and it is deeply moving. There’s another thing that excites me as well: what on earth must it feel like to create a piece of music like this? Hearing the playback of the final mix, the singer and the writer must have known they had a hit on their hands. More than that, they would have known that this would be a song with a life force. When songs like ‘Beautiful’ enter the wider public consciousness they help to make pop the most powerful art form that we have. They conjure deep emotions and they give us a way of sharing those emotions. To be able to play them in public is a privilege.