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.