Morbid Curiosity – Culture Is Dead (Move Along…)

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Image: Wired

What a week. First there was the Slate piece that declared classical music dead. Then spiked decided that pop music was overWhy is it that people keep wanting to kill off great swaths of our culture?

These are only the latest in a long series of articles declaring the end of orchestras, of Netflix, TV, the demise of book stores, movie theatres, publishing, video games, the English language, higher education, the World Wide Web… it goes on and on.  Now, even Fox News is dying, writes Frank Rich.

Partly it’s a device to draw attention to change. Don’t take X for granted, it declares, for better or worse things are changing. The ever-perceptive demographer James M Russell plays with the “death of…” meme over at Pacific Standard in a series of posts that uses the dying theme to explain change. The spiked essay is an interesting version of the genre. No, pop music isn’t dying, but it is fundamentally changing as a definer, chronicler or barometer of popular culture.

For previous generations, pop music was as much about the social side of music as it was about seven-inch singles and chart rundowns. Today, when young people are encouraged to hunker down in the bosom of the family well into adulthood, and with the outside world presented as a fearsome place to be, pop music is no longer quite so resonant as a symbol of excitement and independence, sex and romance. The desirability of pop music has faded, not because of MP3s and free downloads, but because the desire to be extraordinary, independent and free is less of a smash hit today.

Mark Vanhoenacker’s Slate piece about the death of classical music, on the other hand, undercuts its premise by cherry-picking stats that may or may not have anything to do with his point, and knitting it together with dubious anecdotal observations. Others have thoroughly dismantled this piece – Frank Oteri addresses the major points in NewMusicBox, while Andy Doe does a gleeful point-by-point take-down at Proper Discord, so there’s no need to duplicate here.

But stepping back, Vanhoenacker’s piece is a great example of a good question hitched to a faulty premise. The question is whether classical music is still relevant or viable. The premise though is that the definition of relevant or viable is something it was in the past and Vanhoenacker doesn’t even entertain the notion that the definition might have changed.

Culture keeps on reinventing itself. It would be peculiar then if the definitions of its relevance were frozen in eras that no longer exist. If an art form doesn’t evolve, it dies. The Slate piece defines success of classical music for a world that doesn’t exist anymore (Time magazine covers? Really?). That classical music doesn’t occupy the cultural moment that it once did is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s an inevitable thing. We’re living in an era when every creative industry is having to reinvent itself as old models that support them change or fall away. Audiences want to have different relationships with art and artists; digital media has changed our access to artists and creativity. That doesn’t have to mean decline; it could mean opportunity.

Any time a medium changes – whether it’s technology-driven or a shift in the way an artform is supported, it’s difficult not to measure the changes using the frame of the old model. But when the medium changes, the values we measured in the old model might not be appropriate to the new.

Just one example: In the 1900s and 1910s audiences were bewitched by silent movies. That pictures could move seemed like magic. A generation of actors became famous at a heretofore unimaginable scale. The best of them could convey with a wink or glance the depth of a character.

But after 1927 with the release of “The Jazz Singer”, the silents went into quick decline. Many of the most famous stars couldn’t make the transition to talkies. The expressive qualities they had developed that worked so well without sound didn’t carry over. Critics of the time claimed that the quality of movie-making had taken a dive and that the art of good movie-making had died. The death of movie acting indeed.

I don’t think anyone inside or outside of the classical music world disputes that something profound is happening. One orchestra manager recently boasted to me that his orchestra was very different from other orchestras, and he ticked off examples. They were, of course, things that many (most?) orchestras are now doing – informal concerts, cross-genre concerts, concerts in unusual spaces, different collaborations. His orchestra was different from orchestras of the past, but not different from other orchestras now. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the new “normal” at symphony orchestras is trying new things. Whether such initiatives are a reinvention into renewed relevancy, I don’t know. But dead? Pretty difficult to see from my vantage point.

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