In a comment on my last post, someone I respect says something that of course I should have expected–that MUSO, the magazine I praised, makes “classical music about the sex appeal of young performers.”
Now, that’s not all the magazine does. As I pointed out, it supports new music, putting a composer and a new music ensemble on the covers of the two issues I’ve seen. But the comment isn’t completely wrong. MUSO likes good-looking young classical musicians, which, when I think about it, is part of what I meant when I called it a “real” magazine, meaning a magazine that looks and reads like all the magazines we see about more popular subjects. This kind of reality–looking like we belong in the mainstream world–is important to classical music, I’ve long thought.
But of course there’s a downside. Make us part of the mainstream world, and we’ll share the mainstream world’s problems, including too much emphasis on good looks. Yet I think we need to do it, even in spite of this danger. For one thing, it’s impossible to be completely pure. Theodor Adorno, somewhere in his book Minima Moralia, says that even people who object to the dominant and crippling trends in society are themselves crippled by those trends, and I think that’s true. If you try to purge yourself completely of any concern for looks, you’ve made overreacted, and made yourself inhuman.
Second, classical musicians (maybe in part because of the situation I’ve just noted) don’t care enough about how they look when they perform. They don’t look pure, or artistic; they just look boring, and seem as if they don’t care about their audience.
Third…well, here’s an experiment. Pretend Britney Spears is a classical musician. She’s still a bimbo, still shallow, still annoying, still hypnotized by silly surface values. But if she (with all her silly fame) were a classical musician instead of a pop star, what kind of world would we be living in? Clearly a world in which classical music was very popular. And would that be a bad thing? “Oh, yes, it would be horrible, all these silly people getting all that attention.”
OK, fine, maybe that’s the human condition, silly people getting attention, but…classical music would be popular! Wouldn’t we like that? Wouldn’t that be a good thing for serious classical musicians? In a world where classical music was wildly popular would have much more scope than they do now.
(One of the things I learned when I worked in pop music: In a huge market, even the fringes are huge.)
People who think we can get more attention for classical music and also save it from mass-market silliness are asking for something impossible–they want classical music to be somehow exempt from the human condition. It’s not going to happen. And in past generations, and past centuries, when classical music was much more central to cultural life than it is now, it had both popular and serious aspects, and the popular side of it suffered from whatever silliness was going on at the time. In fact, I’d say that you can’t have a thriving serious activity without rooting it in a popular version of the same thing. There wouldn’t be serious pop music–there wouldn’t be Neil Young or Elvis Costello–if there weren’t mass market pop.
So anything that helps classical music get more popular might be a good thing. And from that point of view, MUSO does something important–and, given everything serious that’s in the magazine, does it better than some people might expect.