BP, in a comment to my last post, suggested we resume the debate about the artistic merits of pop music. I’d lain down a challenge — can anyone argue the negative side (pop music doesn’t have much artistic value, or at least less than classical music) with detailed reference to specific songs and albums from pop musicians widely accepted as serious?
Bob Judd — the executive director of the American Musicological Society — posted a comment to my pre-vacation post, in which he didn’t quite do this, but did raise an interesting and important point. I’m sorry to say that his comment came while I was on vacation, and since I’d said I wouldn’t post comments while I was gone, I was stuck — if I posted this one, I’d have to post everything that came in.
Here’s what Bob wrote:
Now, as to the challenge: I’m not going to reject popular music or culture outright, but let’s face it, the artistic goals are much more modest than those of high art music. The three-minute time limit of most pop music is just extremely limiting; no way could the Donizetti ending you describe have any significant impact. Is there anything remotely like this in *any* pop song? One has to turn to “the long songs” for something to chew on, but they’re so few and far between (there’s a stats-question: what are the pop songs that last more than five minutes?) as to have no thread of continuity.
Pop songs are miniatures by definition. Many are gems, but… Imagine an art historian comparing a cameo brooch with the Sistine Chapel.
That’s nicely reasoned, but in my gut I’m not convinced. Pop songs have moved me just as deeply as classical music has (which in my case is saying a lot), so Bob’s argument doesn’t work for me. It tries, on theoretical grounds, to prove something I haven’t found true in practice. So I’d conclude that something’s not quite right with the theory.
And the first problem might be the assumption that a three-minute song has to have modest artistic goals, simply because it lasts only three minutes. Tell that to Hugo Wolf! Tell it to Webern. Tell it to Schubert. I’ll grant that we often seem to think that big is better, and that long is better (or at least more profound) than short. We think that symphonies go deeper than lieder, that novels are weightier than short stories, that a large oil painting counts for more than a small watercolor.
But what about poetry? With poetry, we don’t make these assumptions. We accept short poems as masterworks. Yes, there are long poems, even epics, but I don’t think there’s any serious body of criticism that says that their length makes them more profound than sonnets. If we made a list of the greatest poems ever written — or, rather, the ones most consistently cited as great — wouldn’t most of them be relatively short?
So then why do pop songs have to be long? Why should we assume that they have to be judged by the standards of classical music? Maybe the poetry model applies — maybe pop songs work more like poems than like symphonies.
And is it really true, as Bob says, that musical details (like the surprising Donizetti ending I talked about in the post he responded to) can’t have the same effect in short pieces that they have in long ones? Look at the end of Schubert’s “Erlkönig,” the two sharp, devastating chords in the piano that bring the song to a close, and aren’t like anything else in it. The song is just a few minutes long, but isn’t this ending one of the most chilling moments in all classical music?
I’d also cite the start of the development section in the first movement of Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21, the long Es and Gs in the clarinets. The whole movement must be shorter than many pop songs, and still those Es and Gs stake out unmistakable new territory, in the most profound and calm way. Or, for a pop example, how about Bob Dylan shouting, “How does it feel?” at the start of each chorus in “Like a Rolling Stone”? That’s as powerful now as it was in the ’60s, when the song was new. And its power doesn’t simply come from Dylan’s performance. It also comes from musical details — from the way the notes change each time the refrain comes in, and from the way these notes sometimes send tonic and dominant chords slamming into each other, with the instruments playing one harmony, and the voice suggesting the other.
I could also cite the heart-stopping last verse of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Being Boring,” whose power comes from something that doesn’t happen — suddenly you understand that the song is about AIDS, and that the “people missing,” so casually sung about, are all dead, even though the word “AIDS” (or anything that might point to it — “sickness,” “epidemic,” “tragedy”) is never mentioned, and the music doesn’t change. But here we’d run into fascinating differences in the way pop and classical music function, that classical pieces typically develop by changing their musical material, but pop songs typically do more or less the same thing from beginning to end. Which means that you can’t analyze or judge them by looking for classical music-like structural details. And that would be a longer discussion.