One thread of the pop-influenced-classical-music argument is becoming clearer to me from the comments to my previous post. A recurring refrain among younger musicians heavily invested in pop is that those composers who use pop instrumentation but don’t really use it in an authentic pop style do so because they don’t really respect pop music. They’re doing it to make themselves look hip, or to try to “redeem” pop elements by dressing up a classical piece with them. Now most of the composers one might gather in by this description are friends of mine, and I can tell you one thing for certain about every one of them: they all love and respect pop music. They listen to it, they buy it, they comb it for ideas. Almost all of them played it and wrote it in high school and college, if not afterward. At this point, however, they are not writing pop music, and they abstract elements from it for their own music the way Roy Lichtenstein might borrow images from comics, or the way Copland borrowed stride piano style for his Piano Concerto. But I know for a petrified fact that they pay homage to pop music in their own work because they really do admire it.
No young musician I’ve told this to has yet believed me.
And I can recount an interesting and recurring experience from my own teaching that is revealingly parallel. I’ve supervised many senior projects in pop music. Though my pop credentials are rather preternaturally thin, I’ve never hesitated to take one on. The Bard College music department was allowing students to do projects in pop music years before I came there, and as far as I know, not once in the ten years I’ve been there has any music professor tried to discourage a student from working in pop music, even for course credit. We have a pop songwriting course taught by Greg Armbruster, who’s got tons of real-world experience in styles from rap to Broadway, and whose course we consider a staple of the department. (Hell, I was once advisor to a stunning rhythm and blues project by a guy who had Ray Charles’s arranging and singing style down so cold it was scary. Needless to say, I learned more from this kid than he did from me.) Musical academia has many faults, as I’ve occasionally hinted, but as far as I can tell in 2007, taking a disapproving or condescending attitude toward pop music is not a widespread one.
Nevertheless, year after year after year, we hear a refrain from students: “I’d really rather do my senior project with my rock band, but I hear I can’t get credit for that.” “I wanted to major in music, but since I’m a pop musician I know the faculty won’t let me.” “I’m doing jazz for my senior concert, because the faculty won’t like it if I do a rock concert.” None of this is true. Not one member of the faculty flinches when a student expresses interest in pop, nor do those students receive less support than anyone else. Yet they’re all certain, and they all have chimerical third-hand evidence: “A friend of mine knew a guy who did a rock concert and the department flunked him.” Never happened. I’ve rewarded many a rock-band concert with an A.
(OK, there is one real, famous Bard story in support: sometime in the late ’60s, the department refused to let Donald Fagen, later of Steely Dan fame, become a music major. But the reason was he hadn’t bothered to learn to read music and he didn’t want to take theory courses, and according to my colleague Luis Garcia-Renart, who was on his board, Donald agreed with the committee’s decision that he’d probably be better off majoring in English. But sheesh, that was 40 years ago, give us a break. Since then we’ve been petrified that anyone we flunk will become famous and make us look foolish.)
The point is, year after year after year the students come to us believing something that is not true. WIth no malevolent intent, they will subconsciously concoct evidence to support their belief. It’s as though their self-esteem as rebellious teenagers requires them to invent a myth of the pop-disapproving faculty. I am tempted to conclude from this that young people cherish a widespread irrational faith that Pop Music Is Under Siege. We oldsters would love to get rid of it, and make everyone study classical music and jazz. Therefore, anyone of my generation who borrows pop influences without the air of authenticity cannot simply be incompetent, or abstracting elements for some non-pop-related purpose: they must be motivated by scorn. We all secretly hate pop music, and use it in our ineffective music to make pop music look bad. We so despise it that we rip off its elements superficially, without really listening to it. We’re trying to show the world that any idiot can do pop music.
Well, none of it’s true. Like the pop-influenced music of my generation or don’t like it, but if you imagine it is motivated by opportunism, condescension, or classical snobbism, you are merely projecting your own self-doubt and resentment onto it. That it is not is a historical fact. And if anyone born after 1975 believes me, I’ll be tremendously surprised.