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.

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  1. Bill Brice says

    I guess I’m on both sides of this one. After all, most art songs are under 5 minutes, and nobody seriously debates whether “Die Lindenbaum” is art or not. So, no, scale alone cannot be a meaningful standard for the “art” honorific. (apropos nothing at all, I am reminded of a colleague who once reminded me in a condescending tone that Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” was, after all “only a novella”).

    The standard seems to be more related to what is attempted within the chosen scale. I have gotten a lot of pleasure over the years from Elvis, or The Supremes, or The Beach Boys (you’re probably guessing by now that I’m not a youngster!). But that music seems happy to aim for the pleasing moment…..

    not that there’s anything wrong with that!

  2. says

    Isn’t the three minute pop music standard a limitation imposed by the mechanics of early recording technology (aka the 78 rpm record)? Some of the greatest masterpieces of all music (Armstrong, Parker, Ellington) were created with that limitation, but there is evidence through “live” recordings that they also enjoyed stretching out well beyond 3 minutes. And there’s the legend of Louis Armstrong playing endlessly inventive hot trumpet choruses at the Sunset in 1920s Chicago.

  3. Paul A. Alter says


    Let’s back off from this one.

    It’s dangerous. It’s the kind of stuff that has lead to the near-demise of classical music in the past several decades.

    Is Tchaikovsky worth listening to? Sibelius? Is Prokofiev better than Shostakovich? Is the Franck symphony a piece of kitsch that we shouldn’t play? Can we admit liking the even-numbered symphonies of Beethoven?

    And the answer is always the same: If you enjoy it, then orchestras should not play it and you should not — must not — listen.

    Oh, and has anybody mentioned that attendance at concerts is dropping?

    Live and let live. The music that moves me is good music; the music that doesn’t is not good music.

    So, while I used to scorn the music of Guy Lombardo, millions of people loved to listen, and dance, to him. It was bad to me, good to them.

    Of course popular music can be great. There’s no reason to argue about that, although we have to accept that there are also — as in the classical genre — lots of crullers.

    Go even further back than we have so far in this matter: Duke Ellington. His “Mood Indigo,” with the muted brass, moves me as much as any music I have ever heard. Jo Stafford’s version of “Haunted Heart” ditto. Benny Goodman’s “Mission to Moscow,” ditto. The trombone solos in Turk Murphy’s “Pecan Pete” are as cathartic as anything I’ve heard from classical soloists. “Concerto for Cootie/Do Nothin’ ‘Till You Hear From Me” had me from the moment I heard Woody Herman play and sing it.

    You know the way the brass section in British orchestras play; their attacks are absolutely fearless. Listen to the Spike Jones’ brass do that on “Cocktails for Two.”

    Even the syruppy sound that the Guy Lombardo sax section produced was technically stunning.

    Shirley Ross’s performance of “It Never Entered My Mind,” despite being done in dance tempo, is haunting.

    As for length, the three-minute-plus-or-minus limit on popular recording (but not on live performance) was part of the form. It wasn’t a limitation, it was a stipulation: You have three minutes, now compose something. Popular musicians agreed to that just as classical musician conform (for the most part) to the various forms of concert music.

    When Greg Sandow (anybody remember him? He hasn’t been around for a while) wrote his symphony, he wrote it within a format that included form, orchestration, et al. That’s the game. Composers attempt to write music within the concert music parameters. They may try to stretch it here or there (Franck took losts of flack for the English-horn solo in his symphony), but they deviate with care.

    It was that way with popular recordings: they fit on one side of a 10-inch, 78rpm, disc and could be danced to. And, within that format, they produced a lot of masterpieces — without a doubt as many as are found under the “classical” rubric.

    So, please, let us celebrate music in any form that appeals to us. No need to argue over value.

    Paul Alter

  4. says

    I think Paul’s got a great point…

    Also, for those who might dismiss pop music on basis of the 3-4 minutes per song or its musical simplicity, I suggest listening to any of the following:

    Pink Floyd; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Queen; Dream Theater…

    There’s of course a million other bands, but I think there’s a wealth of stuff for classical lovers to appreciate in those bands (particularly, their orchestrations & “weird” time signatures & song structures)

  5. Ries says

    Since musical enjoyment is, in the end, really subjective personal taste, no matter how many theorists try to “prove” otherwise, I would have to agree that argueing over “quality” is really just saying “I like what I like, and I dont like what I dont like”.

    But I would like to point out that whatever “pop music” is or isnt, its certainly not ONLY 3 minutes long.

    Since at least the early 60’s, a lot of musicians that were not classical, but considered what they did art, and were, sometimes in spite of themselves, popular, have released a lot of music that was longer than 3 minutes.

    (and shorter, too- the first album by the minutemen, a very influential and undeniably artistic band from the 70’s, crammed 18 songs into 30 minutes)

    The Doors released an edited, seven minute version of “Light my Fire” in 1967, and popular radio stations played it a lot.

    The Grateful Dead, certainly also “popular” routinely played 20 minute and 30 minute songs.

    Seminal Punk musicians like Tom Verlaine, of Television, of CBGB’s fame, released a 15 minute version of Little Johnny Jewel in the mid 70’s as his first record.

    Some of today’s most talked about musicians consistently release very long songs- Joanna Newsom, big buzz at the beginning of the year, has 16 minute songs on her CD, as do many other contemporary musicians, in all kinds of pop genres and styles.

    The point being that so called “pop” is actually just as varied, in seriousness, artistic merit, and yes, pure length, as any other type of music.

  6. BP says

    I think whether you will find value in pop music has to do with what you like in classical music. I suspect, though of course can’t prove, that people who are really into 19th century symphonies are much less likely to be interested in pop music. If your favorite thing about classical music is how it can build these really big structures over time, with grand harmonic plans and melodic development, telling some kind of psychodrama, then by your standards classical music IS superior to all the other kinds. Why you would only be interested in music that does these things is sort of beyond me though.

    I think there’s also a tendency of people who listen classical music, especially if they mostly listen to stuff after the middle ages and before the 20th century, to think of melody and harmony as the real substance of music, and rhythm and timbre as sort of add-ons. If you don’t hear rhythm and timbre as “real” elements of the music, a lot of pop music is going to sound very boring.

    On the other hand, I do think that a lot of the pop music that “smart” pop listeners go for actually is pretty boring. Especially the 90s/early 00s indie rock scene, I would watch my friends get really excited by the most boring music in the world and I would just not get it. Lots of Radiohead (though I like some of their music), Modest Mouse, the whole early 00s Strokes/White Stripes & co. revivalist thing, lately the Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene–what’s remarkable about all that music is that the sound is pretty smooth and the rhythm is just square as square can be. In the last few years I think a lot of people in that world suddenly noticed that really mainstream, top 40 music was actually more sonically inventive (and fun to listen to) than their music. That’s been a good thing.

    But anyway, at the risk of being a snob, maybe the reason a lot of pop music is boring actually does have something to do with the old critique a la Adorno that it’s an inherently commercial medium, and unlike in classical music where you had aristocratic patronage, so that dumb little baroque dances eventually turned into Bach’s D minor chaconne, pop still relies on the market. So the pop musicians doing the most interesting stuff are REALLY marginal.

    Sorry for the stream-of-consciousness comment, I’m at work and should get back to it…

    If this is your stream of consciousness, then you should stream any time you like. Very smart stuff, which I’m grateful for.

    In support of your “lover of 19th century symphonies meets pop” thought: Years ago I was part of a panel discussion at the Eastman School of Music. I said good things about pop music. Up from the audience rose a hardcore classical music guy, who said — maybe not without a smirk — that of course pop songs didn’t have anything as profound as Brahms’s development sections. My answer, back then, wasn’t adequate, but one of the first things I’d say now is that a lot of classical music also doesn’t have development sections a la Brahms, and no one thinks the worse of it.

    About lots of pop being crap — I remember the dictum of the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, who liked to say that 90% of anything is crap. I don’t know if the culture industry is the problem. But I do think if you compare a selection of current pop bands — even the ones smart people like — to Bach, most of the pop bands will lose. (Most classical composers would, too, living or dead.) But if we compared them to Bach’s forgotten contemporaries, we’d find out that classical music can be pretty bad, too.

  7. Howard Mandel says

    Long form pop-rock programs having come into existence at least as early as Frank Sinatra’s lps with Nelson Riddle, I fail to see what the 3 minute limitation has to do with the power of pop. The final, long decaying note of Sgt. Pepper’s “A Day in the Life” I thought decisively ended the debate in 1968. But also – why/how exclude jazz from this discussion? Is it neither popular music nor classical music, and so just off the table?

    Ellington’s first extended piece, conceived to be marketable, “popular” music, was “Creole Rhapsody” (length: 2 sides of a 78) recorded in 1931. How to consider the songs from Porgy & Bess or Showboat, for instance, and the arc of those scores?

    Broaden the context and the unproductive nature of this controversy is highlighted.

    Hi, Howard. Nice to see you here. I think jazz gets left out of these discussions because most people in classical music are willing to grant that it’s art. Pop music then becomes the bogeyman, especially when classical music purists say why they think classical music now might be endangered. They lash out at contemporary culture, and especially pop music, saying wildly unsupportable things, and smugly assuming that they’re right. In some ways, their arguments are beneath serious notice, but please trust me when I say that they recur so often (right here in this blog, as well as out in the wider world, when I do public speaking about these subjects) that they have to be thrashed out. Besides, the artistic standing of pop is an interesting question, just from a theoretical point of view. Classical music thinks it has iron-clad measures of quality. Do these apply to pop (surprisingly, they sometimes do, and show that pop music stands up very well)? And to the rather large extent that pop works by different rules, what are those rules?

    But I don’t want to give any impression that jazz is a settled question in the classical world. It’s still an outsider, an Other, almost an embarrassment, because its quality is taken almost as a given, but then nobody wants to deal with it. I’m constantly shocked because almost none of the graduate students I teach at Juilliard have ever heard Charie Parker, to pick just one great jazz name. They’ve heard of him, but they’ve never heard him. And when I play him in class, they’re utterly baffled. They can’t follow what he’s doing. They realize that he’s doing something that’s great musical art, but they can’t understand it. Often they can’t even hear that there’s motivic development going on (to take just one fairly simple aspect of his playing).

    Last fall I had two jazz students in one of my class, and they amazed the classical students with how well they could hear. They were modest about it, but one woman in particular — describing the harmonic procedures in some complicated music she’d never heard before (one of the tracks from Song X, the Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman collaboration) — left the classical students just about speechless.

  8. says

    I would feel ungrateful if I scoffed at Guy Lombardo’s music, as my Mom and Dad met over a jukebox when he played “Sweet Lehlani” for her when her date refused to.

    I have an Oxford American Music Issue CD which ends with a Laurel and Hardy clip of “Shine on Harvest Moon” followed by Jerry Lee Lewis singing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” I sometimes listen to them over and over again.

    And I never tire of the moving harmonies, lyrics and orchestration of Mahler’s “Liebst du um Schöheit” from the Rückert Lieder, both in the original version with Janet Baker and in the Uri Caine gospel version. Perhaps my aesthetic was shaped by the time limitations of the 45-RPM record when I began listening to Davy Crockett, Schubert’s Marche Militaire, the Benny Goodman “Sing Sing Sing” from the Carnegie Hall concert, and later “Stagolee” and “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin On.”

  9. Paul A. Alter says

    It is a long-lived truism that classical music is superior to popular music because popular music is transitory and classical music is enduring.

    So let’s look at the facts.

    We still hear Gershwin, and his music is at least 70 years old.

    They’re still staging “Show Boat,” 80 years later.

    Pop songs from the 40s are being used on TV commercials — last month I heard “What a Difference a Day Made” — one of my favorites from the WWII years — used.

    Yesteryear Music seems to do very well selling pop music recordings, some of which go back as far as the 1890s.

    During that same period, I have heard many, many classical numbers that are no longer in evidence.

    And, of course, need I point out the longevity of “Greensleeves,” a pop song that has outlasted a whole passel of classical compositions.

    Oh, another example. Think of the busts of famous composers that adorned the old Met Opera house. When was the last time you heard some — for example — Gounod?


  10. BP says

    Interesting responses.

    A side note on jazz: Charlie Parker definitely did not work for me as an entry point into jazz. In classic bebop there’s just a ton going on at once, with the harmony changing very quickly, the counterpoint between the different parts, the motivic development in the melody, the polyrhythms, etc. It’s way more than classical listeners are used to, even in a lot of 20th century classical music. Cliche as it is, the tune that first got me into jazz was Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” I think it’s a good intro-to-jazz song because the harmony and rhythm sort of “hold still” and then you can clearly hear what is going on and what jazz soloing is really doing. Also I think some “difficult” free jazz like Coltrane’s late stuff or Ornette Coleman can be easier for non-jazz initiates to get into, because they’re not as structurally complicated and more about melody and pure sound. For me, Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, etc. were always the most difficult jazz, way harder than the avant-garde stuff that’s known for being difficult.

    There’s an interesting parallel with classical music, where a lot of classical listeners assume that the best entry point for anyone into their music is Mozart and Beethoven, or whatever, where, as you say, for a lot of people the easier entry point might be 20th century music considered “difficult” in classical circles. I’m far from a jazz expert but I think jazz fans can be the same way about their music.

  11. David Cavlovic says

    I still get as emotional over Mike Nesmith’s Joanne as I do over the Vier Letzte Lieder or Die Hirt auf dem Felsen. In fact, Nesmith often has a Schubertian quality to his songs, not harmonically, of course, but in succinctness of ideas within a miniature form.

    I feel the same way about many pop songs. And thanks, David, for pointing out that an idea, in a pop song, may not be the same thing as an idea in classical music. In classical music, musical ideas tend to be identified as motivic, or harmonic, or else as some aspect of structure. In pop music (of course now I’m giving my own ideas, which might not be David’s) a musical idea might be a sound, a texture, a rhythm, or a tone of voice.

  12. Ries says

    I wonder, when I hear a “pop” musician described as “really marginal” what that means- when compared, say, to a contemporary classical composer.

    Most of the “marginal” non-classical bands, which compose and play 10 and 20 minute long instrumental pieces, like, say, God Speed You Black Emporer, or CAN, or Sunburned Hand of the Man, or Underworld, or Kinski, or SunnO, or a couple dozen others I listen to, all are decidedly fringe by pop standards- they dont sell out stadiums, or get constant rotation on MTV.

    But they, and maybe a couple hundred other bands like them, worldwide, make a living from their music without teaching or grants, consistently fill halls of 500 to 2000 people, and sell CD’s in the range of 5000 to 100,000 copies.

    As pop musicians go, they are also rans.

    But compared to “serious” music, they are wildly successful.

    If you look at the actual numbers of people willing to commit time and money to enjoy a band, even quite obscure pop bands outdraw all but top few contemporary classical composers.

    So to consign an entire genre of serious, conceptually challenging, and, yes, long, music to the category of “marginal”, and therefore discard it from your arguments, so you can focus on easy targets like Justin Timberlake is a bit disingenous.

    There is an enormous amount of “pop” music out there that is just as rigorous as any classical, and its thriving. Some verges towards jazz, or experimental, or techno, or electronic. Much of it is influenced by Stockhausen or Cage. And a lot of it still has electric guitars, and a beat you can dance to.

    Pick up a copy of Wire magazine some time, and wonder upon the variety and breadth of music today.

  13. says

    Perhaps it is looking at pop music only in terms of its micro representation (a single song) where the achievement of pop music is being overlooked. So often a pop artist’s merits are best detected in the efforts of their albums.

    I would like to direct everyone’s attention to the latest Kate Bush album (can anyone really argue that this woman doesn’t have a legitimate musical genius?), “Aerial.” The second disc of this double-CD offering (they are titled “Sea of Honey” and “Sky of Honey,” respectively) is essentially a symphonic poem, with pointed musical development of several themes (the most prominent of which are a bird call whose rhythm and pitches are extracted and synthesized with titles of the discs, and a melodic line that consists of a two wavering whole steps that is thrust in the middle with a little decending four note line) that are treated rather traditionally in their permutations. The disc also narrates the passing of a day-from dusk till dawn-and includes a series of characters and vignettes, all told through developing musical ideas. (She even references C. V. Standford’s “The Bluebird” at one point!)

    I challenge all the classical stiffs to listen to this, from beginning to end, and tell me she is not Schubert incarnate…and a chick.

  14. BP says

    Ries–calm down, I’m on the same side as you. I never said anything about Justin Timberlake. I did say something about “mainstream indie” music, which I’ll stand by. I like the artists you mention. I’m just saying it kind of sucks that their music isn’t very popular.

    Contemporary classical composers are probably as marginal as it gets. Though to be fair, Sunburned Hand of the Man don’t need grants because their costs are much, much lower than an orchestra’s. Also I doubt they make as much money as an average orchestral musician. But I could be wrong about those things.

    Anyway none of this has any direct bearing on whether pop music can be art. I thought I made it clear what side I’m on.

  15. says

    The aim of Pop music is to become popular and to sell. Popular music need not be created by people seeking to develop as artists. How many one-hit bands have there been in the last 50 years? Dozens.

    Classical music is dominated, in my opinion, by composers who seek artistic development, and of course they may or may not have been popular in their own time.

    I can only think of one person in the last 50 years who was both popular and exhibited a real artistic development and that was Joni Mitchell and she was an extraordinary artist. (The line for rebuttal forms to the right…)

    Therefore classical music (even that written in the 21st century) is driven by its goal to exhibit development and pop music is driven by its goal to be accepted.

    That is the best distinction I can articulate, and it is left to each individual to assign value to the goals of each musical type.

    Paul, I’m glad you’re saying all this. It was an argument that someone had to make.

    You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I disagree with you. I think the first problem with what you say is Joni Mitchell. Not that I think she’s non-artistic, or that I’m going to jump in with some long list of other artistic musicians in pop. But conceptually, I think there’s something wrong here. There can’t be just one serious artist working in pop music. If there’s one, there are bound to be others. How could Joni Mitchell — or anybody — do something that’s impossible for all others to do?

    I also think you’re making a mistake in looking for people who are both popular and artistic. As numerous people have pointed out here, there are all kinds of pop bands that aren’t popular. This is a key feature of the current pop music scene — it isn’t all popular, or meant to be.
    Which more or less invalidates your overall theory, I think. Pop music has developed in many directions since the ’60s, and not all these directions have anything to do with popularity.

    Besides, I think it’s a little simplistic to turn to classical music, and say that all of it is written (at least currently) only for artistic reasons. In my gut — and I’ve been working with new classical music for more than 30 years — this just doesn’t feel right. Classical composers, in my experience, are often very timid. They don’t break new aesthetic ground. They just write what everything else is writing, or what their teachers tell them to write, or whatever they think can get performed, or get funded, or get them hired for teaching jobs. Which is to say that they’re as human as anybody else.

    In fact, I’d happily argue that pop music is a much better field for a creative artist. In classical music, there just aren’t many opportunities. In pop, there are so many styles and so many subcultures, that you have quite a good chance of finding an audience for just about anything you want to do. Certainly my experience with both pop and classical music would bear this out. I don’t find new pop music to be any less creative, honest, and interesting than new classical music. In fact, overall I’d say it’s more interesting. I’ve been going to hear new operas for decades. And I’ve been listening to new pop albums. I’m not going to pretend that the new pop albums are all good — that would be ridiculous — but the new operas are by and large terrible. Obviously there are exceptions, but if you gave me a choice between going to the premiere of a new opera and listening to 10 new pop albums chosen more or less at random, I’d quickly choose the pop albums, for the sake of keeping my brain cells alive. At least the pop albums will be part of a living tradition, which among other things means that people know how to create them effectively. Neither of these things seems by and large true with new operas.

  16. says

    I think the poem vs. epic novel analogy to the whole debate really makes sense. Or how about this? Don’t some of Basho’s elliptical haikus contain more than any Bukowski long-rant? I just can’t believe that “bigger & longer = better” kind of formulation is still around, even, in discussion of art.

    Also, the 3-minute pop song is an unfair way to evaluate work by some pop artists. Then why don’t we view each sonata, each symphony, not a whole, but mov’t by mov’t? Or the Goldberg Var by each short variation (some less than a minute!) Okay, so Bob will argue: “thread of continuity.” Then what about Sufjan Stevens’ “Illinois,” or as a matter of fact, his ambition to do 50 albums for 50 states? Please don’t tell me that there’s no ‘thread of continuity’ in his project. And what’s so miniaturistic or artistically modest about that?

    I think this kind of discussion shouldn’t even be relevant, given the times. Pop music artists are (and have been for quite some time) constantly borrowing from sources like Steve Reich or Messiaen. And many classical composers appropriate elements from popular music, too. Last year some time, I saw Wilco’s drummer Glenn Kotche’s great solo project “Mobile” reviewed in the pages of the Gramophone mag VERY favorably. Let’s just appreciate these musicians making their music, and forget about the labels & prejudices. (Did I just paraphrase Rodney King or something?)

  17. says

    “High art music” is a phrase that I rarely hear any more. If there is high art music, is there low art music? Just what is high art music? This is the kind of elitist verbiage that has become a damaging cliché for the classical music industry. And why do we have to keep music in such sharply defined boxes? As if by defining it as “high art” it instantly has a value greater then music that falls outside that category.

    I am fine with “art music,” just like I’m fine with “pop music.” But “high” art music? That may seem picky, but it shoots the core of why the classical music industry is having trouble connecting to a broader audience. We need to stop propping up art music as being higher, better, more serious or more deserving. If we don’t, we will continue to stumble in our efforts to bring awareness of the power of classical music to a broader audience. Today’s audience, that elusive demographic that every performing arts group’s marketing team is trying to capture, cares less about categories and more about expanding their understanding of the world around them.

    And I can’t let Bob off the hook — he really sent my hackles up with his comment that pop songs’ “artistic goals are much more modest than those of high art music.” Ouch! Three pop songs that instantly leapt to mind and easily dispel that notion are Darrell Scott’s Double Headed Eagle, Gay Clark’s The Dark, and Ron Block’s ethereal “three-minute” song, A Living Prayer, as performed by Alison Krauss. Pop? – sure. High art? – absolutely.

  18. Rebecca Smith says

    I’ve been following these discussions for a while without having any time to post a comment, so I’ll try to keep my thoughts semi-brief (i.e., smaller than a novel) :-).

    First, going back to your original challenge regarding pop music, Greg, I’m not going to take it up, but I do want to challenge your challenge. You ask someone to take a shot at serious pop music, as opposed to, say, Britney Spears. That is essentially the same as saying, “Go ahead – criticize classical music. But stick with the Brahms symphonies and the Beethoven piano sonatas and the Shostakovich string quartets. Don’t cheapen the argument with things like early Poulenc or Respighi’s piano works or those banal Reiche quintets.” Why protect Britney Spears? Why protect Respighi’s piano works, for that matter? If someone wants to rip either of them to shreds in an intelligent way, why keep that out of the discussion?

    I understand what you’re wanting to avoid: the tendency of classical music snobs to dismiss pop altogether because of Britney Spears and all she represents to them. But wouldn’t we get further in the conversation by conceding the point? Yes, Britney Spears is trashy at times, but so is Saint-Saens (at times). If the wall between “high” art and “low” art has really dissolved (and I believe it has), then we’re all going to be doing ourselves a favor by truly speaking and behaving as if it has. Vehemently defending pop music just further emphasizes the idea that it is radically different from classical, and it’s not. It stands to reason that if they’re basically the same, we should be able to criticize them for the same fundamental virtues and flaws.

    It seems like it would be more productive to make an earnest attempt at making both sides of this argument understand just how imaginary the genre divide is. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to hear Regina Spektor sing her own songs and some Russian art songs side by side, and somewhere along the line have an intelligent, non-condescending discussion of, say, the dialogue that occurs in a song between text, melody, and accompaniment? You don’t need a music degree to understand that, and it’s going to be interesting to the kind of audience who is interested in visual motive in film or the idea of personae and their meaning in literature. And that’s the audience that is embarrassingly absent at our concerts, right? I’m not knowledgeable about nationwide programming strategies, so maybe that idea has already been tried and thrown out. But it’s always been my experience in talking to people about music that drawing out parallels with known material is hands-down the most effective way to go.

    Secondly, in response to the three-minute pop-song discussion – there’s no question that a three-minute pop song can be just as or more moving than a Mahler symphony. But the fact remains that there are limitations to what you can do in three minutes. One of the things that I think is really unique about art music is the notion of a discourse in sound, something which you can’t do very well in three minutes. That’s not to say it never occurs in pop. It does – but very often over the course of an album, not within an individual song, and given the dawn of the iPod Age, it’s important to make that distinction. Miniatures in classical music are the same way. They can be very touching on their own, but they get really powerful when they’re in a context where they can interact, dialogue even, with other pieces. The late Brahms piano sets and the Schumann song cycles are the first pieces that pop into my head. The individual pieces are gorgeous alone, but together they make a very powerful experience. So the question of whether long pieces are “better” than short pieces seems a little silly. Of course they’re not. But let’s not conflate “better than” with “different from.” A three-minute song cannot do the same thing that a 45-minute symphony can do, or vice versa. It’s not about classical vs. pop or good vs. bad, it’s just about basic aesthetic limitations. There’s nothing snobbish about admitting that.

    And before we go criticizing those narrow-minded people who think that nothing interesting can come out of a three-minute song, let’s not forget that there are far more “narrow-minded” people who think that nothing interesting can come out of a 45-minute symphony. And we have outreach concerts for them. I’m not saying we shouldn’t, nor am I saying that we should go around criticizing their narrow musical tastes. But let’s at least be fair and recognize that the two modes of thinking are alike in many, many ways.

    That’s as brief as it gets, I’m afraid. I apologize if all this seems abstractly snippy. The direction of this conversation has been frustrating me for a while, and I was afraid I’d explode if I didn’t chime in soon… :-)

    Hi, Rebecca. Good to hear from you. Thanks for all of this, at any length.

    My reason for excluding Britney Spears and her like from any serious discussion of pop music is pretty simple. You can’t imagine how many times I’ve heard her name invoked as if she represented all pop music, as if she were the typical pop musician. It’s happened in comments on this blog; it’s happened in public discussions, I’ve come across it in books. The subject of pop music comes up, and somebody says, “But surely you’re not saying that Beethoven can be compared to Britney Spears?” I’ve had people get up from the audience when I speak on panels, and tell me in tones of utter certainty that all pop music is crap. They haven’t actually listened to pop music, except maybe what they overhear in stores or on the street, but they’re sure they’re right. So sometimes, when I speak in public, I offer my challenge. I declare up front that I’m simply not going to accept any criticism of pop music that’s not based on some kind of knowledge of it. People have to cite specific songs and albums, just as I specified in my challenge here.

    Of course there’s classical music that’s very fluffy, but this doesn’t often come up in these debates. Have you ever heard anyone say, “Look, pop music is much better than classical music. We have Bob Dylan, but in classical music, they have Massenet”? I’ve never heard that. People take for granted, even people who don’t like classical music, that the representative composers are the great ones. But when classical music look at pop, they sometimes take the trivial pop people as the representative samples of the field. If people show up in these comments slagging classical music because it’s all as lightweight as Gounod, then I’ll impose the classical equivalent of my pop-music challenge. I’m really not interested, at this point, in some overall assessment of both fields, exactly how artistic each is. I just want to establish the same point you’re making, that there’s good and bad in both. But the people who keep yelling about Britney Spears are — at least in the circles where they’re listened to — preventing that point from getting across.

  19. Donald Clarke says

    Theodore Sturgeon was right, but if 90% of everything is second-rate or worse, today it is true that 99.9999% of pop is crap, and the reason is that there is too damned much of it. Every ten-year-old can write ‘songs’ in his/her bedroom, and a lot of this rubbish gets published, recorded and broadcast; I work in a big-box store in a shopping mall, and I hear pop music all day long in the store and out in the mall, and all of it is awful. You can talk all you want about ‘serious’ pop or ‘indie’ pop, but I’ve got classical, jazz, roots music, world music etc etc and no time to waste on stuff that’s been disappointing me for 30 years. The sad truth is that for most people Britney Spears is pop, and that’s that.

    PS: I heard a symphony by Gounod on the radio recently, played by Nicholas McGegan and (I think) the St Paul Chamber Orchestra, and very nice it was too.

    Or in other words — “Don’t confuse me with facts. My mind is made up.”

    You’d really judge all pop music by what you happen to overhear at a mall!? Next you’ll be telling us that all food is terrible, because you’ve eaten at the food court.

    More charitably, I’ll tell you a story. Years ago, when I was music editor of Entertainment Weekly, we did a story on the Three Tenors. One of the photo editors, someone in her 20s with no background in classical music, had to watch the video, to see if there were any stills we could pull from it, to illustrate the story. She came to me midway through, and said, “This is terrible. Why do people like this?”

    I agreed that it was terrible, and suggested that opera (and classical music) could be much better than that. Soon she was marveling over Franco Corelli, Maria Callas, and (with tears in her eyes) the late Beethoven quartets. Are you sure, Donald, that you couldn’t have an experience like that with pop music you don’t know?

  20. richard says

    Boy, If my first experience of classical music had been the Gounod Symphony, I would have never gone any further. Glad to see you back Greg.

  21. Bob says

    Thanks Greg for drawing attention to my (too-hasty, of course!) comment re size. Of course everyone who drew attention to “classical music” gems from Webern, Schubert, Wolf, and so on, knows their merit. I had a certain set of pieces in mind when I wrote my note, and didn’t really think through all the ramifications.

    Interestingly, I return to the thought of a fundamental bifurcation (hands up, everybody who hates binarisms–prove me wrong please!): song and dance.

    My original comment had in mind such songs as Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” or the Beatles cover of “Kansas City.” This latter has a salient instance of words-to-dance-to that I always enjoy: “Kansas City, gonna get my baby one more time (2x) / It’s just-a one two three four, five six seven eight nine.” We’re not going to compare this text w/ Goethe, and that’s clearly not the point of “Kansas City.” It’s a dance that has words. Same with “Long Tall Sally.” (Is that video of Little Richard at the Hollywood Bowl up on Youtube? It should be.) These are great moments in music, I’m not denying that. I just don’t want to compare them with a Mahler symphony (I had in mind the Second). Tonally and harmonically and music-developmentally, these two pop songs should not be compared to the big cousins in the classical world– they’re not intended to be, either. I’m not saying they’re not great, just that I don’t see the point in comparing the big stuff with the little stuff. But I’d be happy to be disabused of this prejudice– let me know…



    Bob, thanks again. I love the warmth of the way you debate these things.

    Here’s my two cents. Whenever I’m asked which is better, pop music or classical, I try to remember to answer, “Better for what?” Of course I agree that the Mahler 2d and a Little Richard song don’t do the same thing. I don’t really have a preference between them, because they serve such different functions, and I need both in my life. But if what Mahler does means more to you, even though you perfectly well respect what Little Richard does, well, why not? Maybe the problem comes in trying to weigh the two things in the same scale, as if the entire world needed to figure out which should rate higher. In actual fact, Little Richard and Mahler are going to coexist for the foreseeable future, so (this is my take, which your thoughts helped me to get to) there shouldn’t be any reason to choose between them.
    I suppose the danger classical music faces does pose an extra problem here. If classical music is threatened, then it’s important for more people to value Mahler more strongly than they currently do. But I’m not sure that any comparison with Little Richard will help that to happen. In fact, I’d bet that seeing the two as complimentary would do more good.

    Thanks again for pursuing this. It’s very helpful.

  22. Donald Clarke says

    Oh, sure. I could mention Miracle Mile, a British pop group: nice tunes, intelligent and witty lyrics, good singing. The only reason I know about them is that singer-songwriter Trevor Jones used to send me his CDs. (He stopped because I can’t even get an entry for the group into my online Encyclopedia of Popular Music.) In today’s pop music biz, I’m just asking, who can sift through the dross? How do you find the time?

    The music I hear in the store changes every month; the record companies are paying Barnes & Noble to play it. The music manager in the store has more brains and better taste, but is not allowed to play anything else. Don’t get me started!

  23. Gabriel says

    First time here, and let me say that I quite like the blog.

    As a musicologist, and one who generally teaches about pop music/jazz (a seminar last semester on Tom Waits, and one the semester before on Blues, for instance), I find this all immensely interesting. I can’t imagine why people could possibly think pop music isn’t as good as classical, but I work with them (and meet kids who think so) all the time. I generally assume they just don’t get it. Or that they’re statusconscious (as in Pierre Bourdieu’s argument in _Distinction_), and truly believe that the social capital they’ve managed to accumulate by specializing in classical music is under attack by philistines like myself and worth defending.

    For me the experience of music is all about the interplay between cyclicity and linearity as experiences of time, and about the play of tension and release that is found in those two modes of temporality. This for me is the reason to listen to so many different types of music; to hear this basic aesthetic play out in so many different ways.

    Apropos an earlier comment:

    “You’d really judge all pop music by what you happen to overhear at a mall!? Next you’ll be telling us that all food is terrible, because you’ve eaten at the food court.”

    I don’t think that’s quite fair. It’s a bit more like saying “All restaurant food is terrible, because I’ve eaten at the food court.” Still a logical fallacy, but a slightly different one.

    Thanks for all of this, Gabriel. Come back often, and post all the comments you want. You’re exactly right about my food court analogy. Thanks for sharpening it.

    I think you’re very wise about some of the reasons people think classical music ought to occupy a privileged position. It’s such an antique stance — a crumbling shard of something that used to be unquestioned.

  24. says

    I’d just like to thank everyone on this thread for setting me up with a killer playlist for tomorrow’s drive – I have four hours of driving to do and already I’m looking forward to listening to all these (to me) fresh tracks & artists you’ve recommended. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m heading over to the iTunes music store…

  25. Matthew McKee says

    I’m still the blog-comment neophyte, as well, but I want to bounce off my rather relativistic position. I’m dovetailing off Paul’s earlier post with this because I agree with his viewpoint from subjectivity.

    How does a “high-art snob” (like me) ever justify why his or her art is “better” or “artistic”? I think we can easily throw these terms around in search for an objective quality, but the problem is an objective quality or standard does not exist.

    I’m sure we’re searching for the categorical imperative justifying the defense of classical music, and I’m sure your challenge, Greg, wanted to achieve that by establishing classical music as the higher art form.

    But then, I’m always depressed because, like Paul, I’m constantly asking “So what?” Even high art depends on subjective values not adaptable to everyone in society.

    Does philosophical reflection translate well into policies? I don’t think so. Some can argue all night that there are no objective reasons for classical music for survive, but that doesn’t stop the few of us from yearning for its preservation.

    Forgive my rambling (and somewhat useless) post, but I think that even establishing classical music as the higher art means nothing philosophically and in America’s social constructions of art’s value. Instead of attempting to stratify art subjectively, I think it would be more productive to continue discussing policies and statistics with actual concrete effects.