A serious problem (interlude)

Here’s something lovely and true about popular culture, from A. O. Scott’s New York Times review of a new movie, Be Kind Rewind. In this film, a video store loses its stock, and – so they’ll have something for their customers to rent – the staff of the store remakes classic movies, in their own homemade way. Which leads Scott to write:

Commercial pop culture is, too often, understood as a top-down enterprise, its expensive, disposable products passively consumed by the public.

And yet at the same time that stuff is capable of inspiring a deep and durable sense of ownership. The movies we love belong in some profound way to us, and part of us lives inside them. Sweding [the term the video store staff make up, to describe what they do] is Mr. Gondry’s way of making that rather abstract sense of connection literal, of suggesting that even if we are not strictly speaking the owners and authors of the movies we like, well, then, perhaps we should be.

It goes without saying that this is a naïve, utopian point of view. The travestied films in “Be Kind Rewind” are the intellectual property of large corporations (as is Mr. Gondry’s movie), and you can be sure that teams of lawyers were consulted and paid before the Sweding went very far. But “Be Kind” hardly pretends otherwise. Instead it treats movies as found objects, as material to be messed around with, explored and reimagined. It connects the do-it-yourself aesthetic of YouTube and other digital diversions with the older, predigital impulse to put on a show in the backyard or play your favorite band’s hits with your buddies in the garage.

And the deep charm of Mr. Gondry’s film is that it allows the audience to experience it with the same kind of casual fondness. It is propelled by neither the psychology of its characters nor the machinery of its plot, but rather by a leisurely desire to pass the time, to see what happens next, to find out what would happen if you tried to re-enact “Ghostbusters” in your neighbor’s kitchen. It’s inviting, undemanding and altogether wonderful. You’ll want to see it again, or at least Swede it yourself.

And the moral, for this blog, of these lovely Scottish thoughts? They were printed in the New York Times. They’re not revolutionary. This is what people read about popular culture, out in the real world. This is how they think about popular culture. How can we – we in classical music – go out to them, and tell them that they’re wrong?

(I’m sorry if some people are bothered when I talk, in this context, about the “real world.” Classical music lives in a bubble, and we’d better come to terms with that.)

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  1. David Cavlovic says

    Further thoughts on a previous comment : the main problem with a lot of classical music elitists who diss any other kind of music is that their mindset is almost Calvinistic : they are fated to be snobs.

  2. Dennis says

    I fail to see any problem with what Mr. Scott wrote, yet these innocuous opinions in a movie review elicit yet another diatribe from Mr. Sandow about how horrible it is that not everyone love pop culture as much as he does while also loving classical music. Why this endless obsession with trying to demonstrate how supposedly brilliant “pop culture” is, and with putting-down other high-art crtics for not being as enamored with pop culture as you are? This blog is becoming a one-note drone.

    A propo of the post below, for every Annie Lennox, Bruce Springsteen, or Neil Young you can mention (all overrated in my opinion) as supposed proof that pop culture success isn’t defined by extreme youth, you can find several counter-examples. Lennox et al may get some notice among afficianados, but you won’t find them at the top of the current sales charts (ditto for my personal fave, Nick Cave).

    But why these endless diatribes trying to prove the greatness of post-1960s pop culture, and the repeated claims that great cultural critics like Adorno supposedly just “didn’t get it” in his views on pop culture?

    In the end, for all you effort to prove pop culture is wonderful, it comes down to taste. Has it simply never occurred to you that many classical music and other high art critics write about what they do because they love it and simply have no intererst in pop? Why do you presume they should have such an interest, or that they are lacking as critics if they don’t kow-tow before pop?

    One measure of the greatness of classical music is it’s longevity. Do you honestly think any of the examples you’ve given in your recent posts – of music, films, or tv shows – will be as listended to, watched, or appreciated 200 years from now as the music of, say, Beethoven is nearly 200 years after his death? Think people in 2208 will listen enraptured by Ani diFranco’s feminist diatribes, Annie Lennox’s bland “adult contemporary” smoothness, or the aging-rocker efforts of Neil Young, Springsteen, and Tom Petty, and long for the golden days of early twentny-first century pop culture. Doubful. Pop culture will have moved on to the latest 23rd century fads – though I’d be willing to bet Ludwig van will still be around somehow.

    Dennis, you can’t imagine how grateful I am for this. I was wondering if anyone would ever post a comment disagreeing with this post. And you clearly know a lot about pop music, so I can respect your disagreement.

    That said, I wish you’d take a sip of wine, relax a bit, and reread what I wrote. I certainly didn’t say that people who love classical music are required to love pop, too. In fact, they’re not even required (this is a joke) to love the classical music I love.

    What I said was somewhat different. I said that outreach efforts from the classical music world are likely to fail, because they don’t take into account the artistic satisfaction the people these efforts are aimed at get from popular culture. Well, that’s a convoluted sentence. Let me rephrase. Outreach efforts are likely to fail, because they don’t understand the culture of the people they’re trying to reach. This isn’t about your taste, Dennis, or mine, but about the taste — or, more seriously, the deeper culture — of the people classical music outreach efforts want to address. My sense is that these efforts don’t take into account what the people they aim at really think. If you’d like to dispute that, please do — and, quite seriously, I’d like to see what you say — but please react to what I actually wrote.

    If this is a one-note blog, by the way, maybe you’ll grant me the right to decide which note it is. I’ll pick F sharp. More seriously, I’m going to devote several posts to this issue, because — as I believe I rather clearly said — I think it’s important. Sorry!

    As for A. O. Scott’s review, I don’t quite understand your comments on what I wrote. DId you think I disagreed with Scott? Please clarify.

    As for why all this is important, I’ll offer one more thought, which I beg you not to ignore or misconstrue, as I fear you did with other things I said. I’ve noticed classical music supporters and, even more, prominent arts advocates stressing the humane values that they think classical music (and, more broadly, the other high arts) embody. Someone here asked why they stress this so much, and I think the answer is pretty clear. They stress these things, because they believe that popular culture couldn’t possibly embody them, which then explains why the arts are so necessary. But if they’re wrong about popular culture, then what they say makes no sense, and will be laughed at or otherwise derided by the people it’s meant to convince. I’ve seen enough, thank you, of screeds from classical muisc people explaining, just for instance, that classical music _must_ be broadcast on public radio, because otherwise people will have no chance to hear it. Left unexplained is why it matters whether anybody hears it, something you and I, Dennis, might be clear about, but that the people these screeds are aimed at might not embrace. Thus, highly visible polemics, appearing in important media, are wasted, consisting of not much more than preaching to the choir.

    One last thing. The longevity argument. Yawn! Dennis, if you think you can predict the future, more power to you, and please e-mail your thoughts about what stocks I should buy. But in my view, it’s really a waste of time to weigh the value of something by our prediction of whether it will last. How could we possibly know? How could we possibly settle a disagreement? “Yes, people will listen to Neil Young in 50 years.” “No, they won’t.” “Yes, they will.” “No, they won’t.” Since no reasonable arguments can be made on either side, there’s no way to discuss the question reasonably.

    In fact — if you’ll forgive the excessive length of this — I fear that the argument actually becomes circular. We start with the idea that we can prove that Neil Young isn’t all that good because we think his music won’t last. Well, why won’t it last? The most obvious way to approach that question — since we can’t really predict the future — is to say it won’t last because it isn’t all that good. Thus we’re arguing in a circle. And, Dennis, I fear that this is what your certainty amounts to. You’re certain of who’s going to last and who isn’t, because you’ve decided who has quality and who doesn’t.

    If I’m wrong, please explain, as fiercely as you’d like.

  3. Dennis says

    I had thought you were criticizing Scott actually. Perhaps I misunderstood your paragraph under the quote from his review. I thought the phrase “these lovely Scottish thoughts” was meant ironically and that the following several lines were criticizing his take on pop culture rather than supporting it.

    As for outreach efforts that fail to understand pop culture and classical music critics who are dismissive of pop, I guess in the end I just don’t see what all the fuss is about. Why the incessant focus on the classical-pop dichotomy and the need for “outreach” from one to the other? Let each camp do its own thing and feel free to not be bothered by the other. It seems to me classical music only makes itself look foolish when it attempts to “reach” pop audiences with things like Metallica and the Rolling Stones teaming up with the London Philharmonic, or orchestras producing programs with titles such as “Classical Hollywood” which focus on film score music from Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc. Similarly, most pop musicians make themselves look silly when they attempt to bolster their musical credibility by either bringing classical muscians into their work, or attempting to write “classical” pieces themselves.

    I happen to like a lot of “rock” music (I tend to avoid the term “pop”, reserving it for the bubble-gum music of Britney Spears, Aquiliera, Hannah Montana, etc.) – especially artists/groups like Nick Cave, Sigur Ros (who are a rare example of a “rock” group putting a string quartet to good use in their own music), Radiohead, The Pogues, Loreena McKennitt, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, just to name a few – as well as a lot of classical music, which has really dominated my musical interest for the past 5 or 6 years. I’d say I probably listen to about 80% classical and 20% “rock” or other “popular” music at this point at this point. Though again, “pop” is relative here, since most of my favorite artists (except Radiohead), for all their brilliance, aren’t likely to be topping the Billboard charts anytime soon.

    Which brings me to another point that may be germane to your focus on classical music outreach. I didn’t start listening to and appreciating classical music in great quantities until I was about 27 or 28. My interest certainly wasn’t piqued by any “outreach” program or a classical critic who aimed his reviews toward appealing to people whose listening habits almost exclusively tend toward “rock” or “pop”. In fact, I’m not sure I could explain why my interests and listening habits changes so dramatically! Perhaps I’m weird or highly unrepresentative, but I think my own experience and tranformation into a devotee of classical music – itself a rather vague term that could mean anything from mediaeval plainchant(which I do love) to the Second Viennese School (much of which I also love) – demonstrates that people’s taste and interests can change in a number of surprising ways, and helps explain why I’m just not convinced that “outreach” and appealing deliberately to the “popular culture” crowd should be such a big concern for classical music. I’d rather see classical music focus on quality rather than appeals to the masses.

    As for longevity, yes it’s impossible to predict flawlessly, but I think one can make reasonably educated guesses based on the merits of certain music versus other music (unless one takes the relatvist position that rules out all discussion of comparative quality as illegitimate in the first place). The main reason I think most pop or rock will have little longevity of the kind demonstrated by the music of, say Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven, is that pop and rock songs tend to be so intimately associated with their creators/initial performers that they have little existence as pure music capable of being performed convincingly by others. Thus they have no performance future beyond the lifetime of their creators. The origianly recordings may still be around, but they also tend to become sonically dated rather easily. Though there have been some good “covers” of pop and rock songs over the years, for the most part the songs fail to convince when someone else tries to perform them. I have yet to hear, for example, a decent cover of a song by Nirvana, Radiohead, U2, REM, or even Nick Cave, just to name a few. Nearly two centuries after his death, Beethoven symphonies can still be convincingly played by a contemporary orchestra and sound appealing to a modern audience, but I’d be surprised if most pop or rock music doesn’t sound bizarre and woefully dated if played (whether recorded or in a live cover version) to audiences two centuries from now. To use Neil Young as an example again, imagine an audience two centuries from now responding with anything other than befuddlement at songs like “Rockin’ in the Free World” – Huh?Rockin’? Free World?

    Hi, Dennis. I’d be happy for rock and classical music each to stay in its own place. Except — the classical world is shrinking, and trying to reverse the shrinkage, so they reach out. And the rock world is omnivorous — it absorbs and blends every kind of music there is, and in fact has been doing that with classical music for a long time. Plus, some of the newest rock sounds (as I’ve said in the blog before) more like contemporary classical music than like any kind of pop, so the blend becomes natural. The people who run and attend the Worldless Music series I’ve talked about don’t think they’re doing any kind of crossover. They’re just enjoying music that fits their varied tastes.

    As for “Rockin’ in the Free World,” how about “Begin the Beguine”? What’s a beguine? I’ve liked that song for years, and I’ve never stopped to ask.

  4. Jim says

    Greg is certainly right that we should have a better understanding of what our would-be audience is actually listening to. In my experience the kind of people whom we would like to win over: a) have very eclectic tastes in music, and b) almost never attend concerts and get almost all their music via recordings. When I look at my friends’ and neighbors’ CD collections, I’ll find Australian aboriginal music next to jazz next to some singer/songwriter I’ve never heard of next to the Who next to Beethoven (often the 5th piano concerto and/or 5th symphony). So these people do listen to classical music — along with a lot of other things.

    I think that one of the biggest obstacles for getting them more involved in classical music is that it is a very demanding branch of music. To enjoy it fully you have to a) go to concerts b) get an overview of the breadth of composers and styles. That requires a systematic commitment of time and money that’s quite foreign to their casual and eclectic tastes.

    In a way, the real task is to get them to devote more of their lives to music. If we can get them to do that, we’ll probably find them drifting more towards classical without any further persuasion from us.

    Thanks for this, Jim. I think people who identify mainly with pop music have a general grasp of its variety, but go only to hear the artists they really love. That seems natural. In classical music, we have the idea of going to a classical concert, more or less regardless of what’s being played — or of going often, to get variety. It’s as if what’s on display is classical music itself, not any particular classical piece.

    I think there’s probably a middle ground between what your friends do now (and thanks for the wonderful description of them0 and what a dedicated classical concergoer might do. And that’s to buy a few more classical recordings, or go to a few more concerts. One orchestra I know reports that an astoundingly high percentage of its single-ticket buyers go only once. If they went twice, the orchestra would be thrilled.

  5. T.D. says

    Don’t want to weigh in too strongly on one side or the other (I don’t agree with all of Greg’s reasoning, but he’s grappling with difficult problems).

    However, I find the hoary “longevity argument” increasingly tiresome, and possibly leading to a [i]reductio ad absurdum[/i]. For instance, if we use the oft-cited 100 years as a criterion (let alone the equally oft-cited 200 years), it seems like our cultural universe would be rather hermetic. For instance, motion pictures would just now be starting to receive consideration (but maybe not that upstart D. W. Griffith). And James Joyce wouldn’t make the cut as a novelist. Etcetera, etcetera.

  6. Dean Rosenthal says

    I fail to see anything whatsoever unusual in Scott’s subject matter or expression. Perhaps you might look at, reflect upon, and write about your own viewpoint a little more closely, in specific detail with examples and reveal a prejudice that held you back after you opined a very personal perspective.

    Perhaps the “real” world had caught up years ago. What does that really mean? Why do you express your disappointment in terms as such?

    I’m afraid I don’t understand this. I liked A. O. Scott’s comments on popular culture. I agree with them. I think he describes, very affectionately, an aspect of popular culture that many people in classical music haven’t understood.

  7. says

    Somehow, I remember sending in a similar comment to Dennis’s, but I suppose it was never posted, or perhaps I forgot to hit the send button….in all cases, the dynamic you suggest is predicated, if I can use the fancy terms here, on a generational cultural vocabulary, That means that the very probably misunderstood passage of Mr. Scott’s was critiqued without a prominent understanding of the real issues that face the classical music world today.

    I’m not going to go into detail, give examples, or list reasons why I believe this to be the case because this is a blog comment and not a classroom, but I have to say that what you write about in your post has, to me, an outdated quality that is not in touch the culture of today, even if for only this particular post, of course.

    Schoolroom or not, you’ll have to explain what you mean. Your opinion comes through, but not any of the reasons for it.

  8. says

    I suggest that the mindset of “classical music lives in a bubble, and we’d better come to terms with that” is close minded. To wit: only those trapped in the bubble need to come to terms with it. For the rest of us, classical music is, as some folk wisdom suggests, as free as the birds. Thank heavens for that.