Don’t believe the hype

Perusing this very ArtsJournal site — indispensable for me long before I started this blog — I came across the very sweet Florida Sun-Sentinel story on Ned Rorem’s 80th birthday. Now, nothing against Ned, whom I enjoy very much. I even wrote him, in fact, a note telling him my impression of his songs, when I heard them on a multi-day festival of new music in New York, encompassing just about every known musical style, including the most up to date: I thought Ned’s songs were the classiest pieces I heard.

So, believe me, this isn’t meant as any criticism of him. But I do disagree when I read the following quote from the story:

Despite his late productivity, Rorem said he becomes despondent at times over what he perceives as an exponential increase in ignorance and cultural Philistinism. “I think the world is becoming dumber and dumber and dumber in every way. I think it’s demonstrable. Look at the fact that there’s only about a hundred paid music critics of serious music in America; there’s several thousand pop critics. Even The New York Times Arts and Leisure section stresses pop music now.”

I disagree, because generally pop criticism is smarter than classical music criticism. It’s really no surprise by now — or shouldn’t be, to anyone who’s kept up — that a lot of pop music is perfectly smart, not as structurally complex as classical music, but you know…structural complexity, in many cases, isn’t worth much more than the paper the analyses that celebrate it are printed on.

In an informal talk on Beethoven I gave last spring, I went into this question a little. I was talking about the theme of the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, and observed something that, in fact, I’d just noticed myself — that the theme doesn’t develop as simply as the melody of a pop song might. It doesn’t have a complete beginning, middle, and end. Instead, it goes off in new directions. I take this for granted, because I’m used to classical music. Others might not, and might even find the melody difficult to follow. This doesn’t mean that classical music is good, and pop music is less good, but it is one difference between the two genres. Classical music, I went on to say, is musically more complicated, which is both a good and a bad thing. A good thing, because it can develop a lot of musical depth — and a bad thing, because often alleged structural complexity is put forward as a virtue, in discussions of pieces that actually aren’t very good. It can take the place of other values, like simple listenability. The great composers, of course — like Beethoven — score 100% on both measures.

But I’m veering off from my subject. Pop criticism tends to be smarter than classical music for many reasons. One of them is that it deals with more things. Pop songs tend to be newly written, and they’re embedded in the world we actually live in. Thus many of them deal with real issues in our individual and collective lives, starting with real issues in the lives of the pop musicians who write them.

Or, to put it another way, consider this wonderful line from Gilbert Seldes, an American critic who was the first to write notably and seriously about popular culture, something he got famous for in the 1920s: “The significance of a critic is measured by the problems he puts to us.” What problems do classical critics discuss? Whether the tempo of the second movement was too fast or too slow. Whether the soprano had the voice to sing Brunnhilde.

And now, by contrast, what do we find in pop criticism? This week, in my “Music Criticism” graduate course at Juilliard, I’ve asked my students to read several things written about music, that come from outside the usual orbit of music criticism. One is by Seldes, part of an essay called “The Daemonic in the American Theatre,” about two elemental forces in 1920s pop-culture life, Al Jolson and Fanny Brice. To explain what he means by “demonic” (to give the word its simpler current spelling) — Seldes writes the following:

To say that each of these two is possessed by a daemon is a medieval and perfectly sound way of expressing their intensity of action. It does not prove anything — not even that they are geniuses of a fairly high rank, which in my opinion they are. I use the word possessed because it connotes a quality lacking elsewhere on the stage, and to be found only at moments in other aspects of American life — in religious mania, in good jazz bhands, in a rare outbreak of mob violence. The particular intensity I mean is exactly what you do not see at a baseball game, but may at a prize fight, nor in the productions of David Belasco [a popular commercial playwright of the time, one of whose plays was the source of Puccini's Madam Butterfly], nor at a political convention; you may see it on the Stock Exchange, and you can see it, canalized and disciplined, but still intense, in our skyscraper archtecture. It was visible at moments in the old Russian ballet.

Now, this, if you ask me, is notable in many ways, not least because Seldes places the quality he talks about in the larger context of American life. And his judgments are fascinating. What’s demonic? The stock exchange, but not a political convention; boxing, but not baseball; and skyscrapers, which, as they reach up toward the heavens, seem, to Seldes, at least, to have demons frozen inside them.

Classical music critics, by contrast, throw around adjectives. One piece is “delicate,” another “spiky.” But rarely will we learn what those qualities mean to the critic, or what else in life he or she thinks might exemplify them. As a result, the music is subtly but firmly demeaned. It really doesn’t mean anything; it doesn’t evoke anything outside itself; it doesn’t take its place among things in our world that we’d all agree are striking or important.

And sure, you might say that Seldes is unfair competition, that he’s not a critic of current pop music (obviously enough), and that he came to popular culture from a literary and high-culture background that current pop critics might not share.

So now I have to introduce exhibits B and C, from other writing I’m assigned over the years to students in my music criticism course. One, which I’m using for the first time this year, is a chapter from Nick Hornby’s recent book Songbook (which I’ve quoted from here before). Hornby, as you might know, is a British novelist who wrote the novels that two popular movies were based on, High Fidelity and About a Boy. Hornby is a great pop music fan, and in this book discusses songs he loves. The chapter I’ve assigned talks about Ani DiFranco’s “You Had Time,” and Aimee Mann’s “I’ve Had It.” Hornby’s thoughts on the two are actually musings on larger issues — how can you write a song about your own life in the music business that isn’t self-indulgent? Why would someone write a heartstopping tune for a song about a band that isn’t going anywhere? What’s the relation between words and music? What’s the proper subject for a song?

The truly great songs [he writes], the ones that age and golden oldies radio stations cannot wither, are about our romantic feelings. And this is not because songwriters have anything to add to the subject; it’s just that romance, with its dips and turns and glooms and highs, its swoops and swoons and blues, is a natrual metaphor for music itself. Songs that are about complciated things — Canadian court orders, say, or the homosexual age of consent — draw attention to the inherent artificialithy of the meidum: why is this guy singing? Why doesn’t he write a newspaper article, or talk to aphnone-in show? And how does a mandolin solo illustrate or clarify the plight of Eskimos anyway? Buit becasue it is a convention to write about affairs of the heart, the language seems to love its awkwardness, to become transparent, and you can see straight thorugh the words to the music. Lyrics about love become, in other words, like another musical instrument, and love songs become, somehow, pure song.

Hornby writes with such great ease about these large subjects; I admire him for that.

Finally (exhibit C), I’d mention an essay by Ariel Swartley, written for one of the great collections of rock criticism, Stranded, a book edited by Greil Marcus, in which many rock critics say which album they’d take to a desert island. Swartley picks Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, the innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, because for her it gives a hopeful answer to an impossible question: How can anyone live at the same time in the world of art, and the world of everyday life?

It must have been the summer of ’65 when Sandy’s, our late night rendezbvous, closed down and the action moved across the street. The Cave & Pit was in tune with the times — two entrances and a wall down the middle that divided more than the bar and burger havles of the establishment. You didn’t just go in one door or the other; you picked a isde and made a stand: dope or booze, freak or straight, FM or AM, dove or hawak. Lines were drawn down the middle of everything, including old friendships. But down in back where the jukeboxes were, there was a connecting door that was always open. And standing in that doorway you were on the fitring line in the loudest confrontation of them all — the battle of the bands. Nikghtly the Kingsmen fought it out with Dylan, party boys against the prophet, Louis knocking at the gates of Eden. Usually I knew which side of the wall I belonged on (and where I couldn’t get served). But back between the Wurlitzers I was caught out on the fence, wanting both: the visions and the dumb exuberance, a prophet and a party, rock and rock and roll.

Or, someone might say now, wanting both classical music and rock, hopelessly simplifying the question, because “rock” isn’t one thing (as Swartley assumes everybody knows), and is riven by its own fault lives, sellouts, high-church obscurities, and dueling ways of life. I’ve found, interestingly enough, that her essay is over the heads of some of the students I have at Juilliard, because her range of reference is wider than anything you’ll find in most classical music reviews. She assumes you know James Joyce, basic physics (there’s a wicked pun on Brownian movement and James Brown), Homer, and a lot of other things, including a lot of old rock & roll records. You need a little culture to follow what she’s saying, in other words, something you won’t need for much of what’s written about classical music. Well, you need to know classical music to follow many classical reviews, and, sure, classical music is part of culture. But knowing only classical music doesn’t make you cultured. And in general — I’ll go out on a limb and say this — you need to be more cultured to read good pop criticism than you do to read good classical criticism.

I’m not saying, by the way, that all pop criticism is good, that some of it isn’t elementary, or badly done, or so overintellectualized that it stops being useful (and sometimes even stops making sense). But I will insist that it’s very often on a higher intellectual plane than classical music criticism, because it deals with larger, more important social and cultural issues. It deals, at its best, with the meaning of the music it talks about — why the music exists, who it speaks for, who it speaks to, why anyone should listen to it, and what they get from listening. Classical music writing tends to take all that for granted, as if we needed to know was that classical music is great art. But then even that proposition isn’t necessarily true, since classical music occupied all kinds of artistic spaces in the past, from the most rarified art to the most blatant popular entertainment. And its position in our culture today isn’t even remotely clear.

Classical critics should address these questions. I should address them myself. If anybody — critic or not; music professional, or just plain salt of the earth music lover — wants to send me something about what some piece of classical music means in today’s world, I’d be happy to post it here. Not about classical music in general, but about some particular work. What’s the difference between going to hear Beethoven, Mahler, and Stravinsky? How are we changed? And if we can’t answer these questions, why does it matter which music anybody plays?

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