A serious problem (2)

I said I’d talk about a Dana Gioa speech in this post but instead I’m going to spend some time (in this post and the next) with other things that classical music people – and arts advocates – wrongly say about pop culture. Maybe some of this might seem a little bit arcane, but remember: These are the ways that the high-church crowd keeps popular culture at bay, or tries to. So all their arguments have sharp (though hapless) teeth.

Some years ago, a very fine classical music critic with a major newspaper told me that pop musicians “take no care with what they do.” I think those were his exact words: a trifle odd, somewhat stuffy, mildly awkward. I said, “But if you read the pop music writing in your own newspaper, you’d see how wrong you are.” To which he answered, just a little sheepishly: “The pop critics at the paper say that, too.” Which continues the discussion I began in my last post. Too often, hardcore classical music people don’t understand popular culture, and believe silly things about it. This hardcore purist got caught. Don’t let it happen to you!

The silly thing this critic believed was that pop music is sloppy and careless, that nobody involved with it cares about quality or fine details. What other silly things – about pop culture, and, in this post, specifically about pop music – have people said.

Here’s a good one, from Julian Johnson’s book Who Needs Classical Music?

Our collective fascination with the imagery of youth and youthfulness effectively dissolves any boundaries between the cultural diets of children, adolescents, and adults. Seven year-old children and thirty-seven year-old adults are equally fascinated, it seems by a musical culture defined almost exclusively [my emphasis] by the images of singers between the ages of seventeen and twenty-seven.

Tell that to Bruce Springsteen, Annie Lennox, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and countless others, who sell records, attract large crowds, and get widespread media coverage, none of which Julian Johnson apparently notices. (Well, OK, he’s British, so maybe we’d have to rejigger some of my list.) Johnson might as well saying that the sky is green. He’s a respectable academic, a lecturer in music at Oxford . His book is published by Oxford University Press. He argues that classical music has, in the end, a transcendent ethical value. And yet he says things about pop music that are irresponsible, by any ethical or academic standard, things that aren’t even remotely true.

Or how about this? Someone I know, an accomplished classical musician, told me that pop music is simple-minded. I gave him counter-examples. Fine, he said, but there’s something even worse — all pop is immoral. He never listens to pop music, and doesn’t know anything about it, so basically he’s making all of this up. He can’t even cite examples in defense of his views.

Someone else I know, a violinist retired from a major orchestra, told me he thought that all pop music had just two moods – a lively mood, and a quiet mood. At least he put this almost as a question – maybe, he seemed to imply, he was wrong. I honor him for that, but still he believed in what he said, and maybe didn’t quite realize that he sounded like an American going to China, and saying, “All Chinese look alike.”

Twice, serious classical musicians, both young, told me that pop music is so simple that all you hear are tonic and dominant chords. This can’t be true, since a lot of pop music (like most of the songs Tom Petty sang at the Super Bowl) is modal, so it doesn’t have tonic or dominant chords. And some pop music (Joni Mitchell, anyone?) really does have complex harmony. But the big mistake here is to equate language with thought, to assume that serious thought requires complex language. This proceeds, of course, from the fetish the classical music world has for analytical detail in classical music, as if fancy harmony proved that classical music is complex, and therefore superior.

Pop music works in a different way, dancing its meaning with rhythmic inflections far more nuanced than anything classical musicians know how to play or to analyze, and with endless varieties of pure, sheer sound. It communicates, in other words, with body language just as much as with logic, something which – getting fancy here – upsets the mind/body hierarchy that disfigured western thought for millennia, and which orthodox classical music analysis still blindly reflects. (On the mind/body hierarchy, and how jazz and pop unhorse it, see a terrific essay by Michael Ventura, “Hear the Long Snake Moan,” in his book Shadow Dancing in the USA.

And finally, there’s this. Pop music is commercial, created only to make money, then rammed down our throats – and for proof of that, we all should read Theodor Adorno’s famous thoughts about the culture industry. Famously wrong thoughts, I might add, quite discredited by now. Yes, there really is a culture industry, and yes, it does work in some of the ways Adorno described (which is one of the many reasons he was such an important pioneer in cultural theory).

But there’s lots about popular culture that he didn’t understand, for instance that popular culture is also spontaneous, and that – starting in the ’60s, but also before – it generated its own critique of corporate control. (Well, he died in 1969, so maybe he couldn’t have seen that, but he clearly didn’t understand that decade. He was, in the end, a good bourgeois, and when German students started demonstrating against him and his ideas – and especially when women bared their breasts at him – he was greatly disturbed.)

Adorno, let’s not forget, is the guy who said jazz musicians don’t really improvise. He didn’t know much about any culture that wasn’t high culture. He certainly didn’t understand that, with the birth of rock & roll, new trends in pop music started with ordinary people, evolving spontaneously, from the bottom up, and that the culture industry either resisted these trends, didn’t understand them, or jumped on the bandwagon only after the trends had proved themselves. And yes, Adorno couldn’t have seen all that (since, again, he died in 1969). But this only shows once more that his theories were forged many decades ago, so it’s tricky to cite them in defense of anything you might want to believe right now.

(I also find the appeal to authority quite curious. We should believe something just because Adorno said it was true? Then what about his classical music theories? For instance that Schoenberg is the model composer for our time, because the dissonance in his music is a form of frozen pain, and that pain is the only correct response to the world as it is now. See Adorno’s famous book, The Philosophy of Modern Music. An appeal to authority doesn’t really work if you’re going to cherry-pick, accepting some Adorno theories while ignoring others that have just as much to say about things you greatly care about.)


curious views of popular culture, apart from pop music.


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  1. Bill Eddins says

    A short list of albums for my fellow classical musicians who don’t have their ears open to listen to:

    Beatles – The White Album

    Yes – Relayer

    King Crimson – Larks Tongues in Aspic

    Jethro Tull – Thick as a Brick

    Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

    Gentle Giant – Freehand

    Bjork – Debut

    ELP – Tarkus

    Talking Heads – Remain in Light

    And the scary thing is that I could go on and on and on and on……..

    Hi, Bill. Nice to see you here. And the endless list you or I or others could compile — maybe it’s not so scary. There’s so much good music in the world! We should celebrate that every day.

    And of course we could make a long list of classical albums for people who don’t know classical music.

  2. Jim says

    Is there such a thing as “pop culture” that encompasses Brittany Spears, Thelonious Monk, the Louvin Brothers, and the Velvet Underground? A lot of the criticisms of “pop culture” you cite seem more reasonable if they are taken as aimed solely at Brittany Spears’ aural soda pop. The classical snobs seem unaware that there are a number of very different popular cultures with separate audiences, but perhaps the first step in educating them is to stop using “pop culture” as an undifferentiated cover term.

    Good point, Jim. Thanks for making it. Maybe we should talk about popular cultures (plural), some of which aren’t even popular.

    What’s all too easy — and it’s what the classical music hardcore types do, sometimes in all innocence — is judge popular cultures by their worst examples, not realizing that there are alternatives. Thus, I once attended a major discussion of these issues, and when two panelists, supremely famous names in opera and Broadway, refused to differentiate between art and entertainment, the moderator of the discussion asked a question i’m afraid I could see coming a mile away. “Yes,” he said, “i’m sure some things in pop culture have some value. But what” — here it comes! — “about Britney Spears?” As if the poor woman set the standard that labels everybody.

    The more sophisticated version of this, of course, is to say, well, fine, there are good things in popular culture(s), but they’re the exception. Poor Britney is the norm. The best refutation of that would be to turn things around, and ask who’s representative of classical music. Turn the clock back a decade. The Three Tenors! Just look at them? “See? Classical music is empty and stupid. ” “Oh, you don’t understand! They’re not what classical music is about!” “Really? Aren’t they the most popular classical musicians?” Nobody in classical music would be convinced for a minute that the three tenors represented anything that mattered. So how can they turn around, and try the same trick with pop music?

  3. says

    I couldn’t agree more, Greg. Pop works in a different way than classical music. I saw the U2 3D movie on Friday; it reminded me that one cannot deny the power of pop music.

    In their opener “Vertigo,” Bono sings, “You give me something I can feel.” This encompassed the entire experience. It was something that we the audience could really feel and relate to.

    It wasn’t simple minded either. The quality was state of the art and the musicians were on their game. Larry Mullen Jr. is one of the most innovative drummers I ever heard (classical included!).

    Hi, Sophia. Nice to hear from you. I went to hear Neil Young with some classical music people in December, and one of them — the only one who hasn’t gone to rock shows — was just about overwhelemed. “Everyone in classical music should go to one of these every year,” she kept saying. “Just to see what it’s like when an audience really cares!”

  4. ... says

    Lulzy article

    Before you read on, I am a pop-rock writer. Not gonna give a name but whatever

    Pop music is like this. You can put in alot or you can get careless.

    With pop it’s all about what’s actually important. Not the countermelodies (or riffs/basslines to rock musicians) or progressions (pfft) or even “beats.”

    It’s about melody and lyrics. What does a non-musician listen to? Melody and lyrics. What should we focus on even if it means forsaking everything else? Melody and lyrics.

    A non-pop writer would think this:

    So melody. What do we do with writing a melody? Ohhh, that must be a couple of random notes, how insanely easy to write.

    Haha, hilarious. I’ve actually had that said to me. A good melody is structed, meticulous, catchy, interesting, singable, intelligent, repetitve (without being obnoxious) and purposefull. This calls for alot of experience in writing and alot of skill. Keep in mind alot of pop composers are Juliard or Berklee graduates.

    Simple progression? Wow, especially coming from a classical student. One aspect of Schenkerian analysis (which is primarily classically based) is that all music is merely an I-V progression with predominants and occasionally a modulation. Why should pop be nay different?

    Pop has more than just two feelings. Let’s put this in some perspective. The melody is undoubtfully what creates the biggest emotional impact. What do I spend most my time doing when writing? I focus on the melody. I spend more time on vocal melodies than chord progressions and so on. So by logic shouldn’t pop music have more feelings than regular music?

    I like the usual excuss, “pop is only popular because the image of the singer appeals to idiots.” For some people, yes. Kids with masculinity complexs are drawn towards “masculine figures” like ‘gangstas (sic)’ and br00talz rockers like those idiots that scream unmelodically and thrash some ‘powerchords.’ These guys don’t write a melody, these guys only barely write an accompaniment.

    Sure, that’s one ugly side to pop I’d like to avoid. Sure. I’d never write a song for a kiddie metal band or a gangsta act.

    But what about the beatles? What image did the beatles produce that made them popular among both straight guys and straight girls? It wasn’t that they’re good looking, else straight guys wouldn’t like them (according to the theory) and it definitely wasn’t because they were perfect figures of masculinity, else girls wouldn’t like them.

    No the real reason is that they wrote great music, whether archaic hardcore classical fans like it or not.

    So yeah, I completely agree with greg