This is a big subject. We’ve discussed it here before. (Here, for instance.) I myself don’t like the “vs” part, since I enjoy pop and classical music more or less equally, with no thought of pitting one against the other.
But I can see that many people don’t think that way. In a recent discussion in my Juilliard class on the future of classical music, some of the students defined the value of classical music by saying that it was spiritual, or that it had a great range of emotion. I realized that in saying these things, they were also making statements about pop music. They were implying that pop music isn’t spiritual, and doesn’t have a great range of emotion, beliefs that in fact became explicit, once we started talking about what they said. Why should it be crucial that classical music can be spiritual, or can have a wide range of emotion, if pop music also does these things?
Parenthetically, I’ll add that defining classical music as spiritual — or at least saying that a spiritual component is a crucial part of it — leads to at least one problem. What makes one classical piece different from another? If they’re all spiritual, and that’s what matters most, why should it matter which ones we play?
But here’s another thought I had. Often, when I talk about some pop song that means a lot to me, or meant a lot to someone else, I’ll be told that this is because of the words. And rock criticism — at least in a superficial reading — can encourage people to think this, because it normally doesn’t talk about music in the purely musical ways that classical music criticism does (along, of course, with classical music theory, and musicology). It’s easy to believe that the lyrics and the cultural impact of pop songs is more important than their music, and that rock critics believe this, too, whether they know it or not.
But here I cry foul. We’d never apply the same logic to classical music — to a Schubert song, let’s say. Suppose I said that Schubert’s “Erlkönig” made its impact largely because of the words, because of the wonderful poem Schubert set to music. People in the classical music world — maybe the same ones who say that pop music gets its impact mainly from the words — would say I was crazy. “Erlkönig” is great music! That’s what they’d say. If they were scholarly, they’d trot out settings of the same poem by other composers, to show how much better Schubert’s setting is, and thus prove that the impact of the song comes from the music.
But then shouldn’t we extend the same courtesy to pop? If the words of a pop song get to us, shouldn’t that be — using the same logic we’ve just used with Schubert — because the music makes the words matter? I smell a double standard at work here. In German lieder, the music is important, because we’ve defined it in advance as great music. In a pop song, the music is less important than the words, because we’ve defined the music in advance (however covertly) as not very good. Or at least not very good compared to classical music.
Enough of that. Let’s at least fight these wars on level ground.