First, I’ve taken out the “vs.” — as you might have seen it in the title of my previous post on this topic, which was “Classical vs. pop reviews.” I’ve learned a lot from the comments that contentious (and controversial) post of mine got, and especially from the people who disagreed with me, sometimes very sharply. My thanks to all of you. You helped me understand exactly what point I was trying to make, and how to make it more sharply, and with more courtesy.
So let me start again. There were two things I definitely was not meaning to say. I wasn’t saying that classical music is better than pop music (whatever that might mean), or that pop critics are better than classical critics. My point was far less global than either of those statements, and I’m going to restate it in a simpler, more formal way:
Imagine a pop show and a classical concert, both equally serious. Suppose they’re reviewed by pop and classical critics of equal ability. The pop review, as a rule, will be more compelling for general readers, because the music will be connected to the world outside, and the review will show that.
(Of course, some people can’t imagine pop music being as serious — or thoughtful, or deep, or however you want to put it — as classical music. So if I want to be even more rigorous, I’ll say that the seriousness of a performance should be measured by the critics themselves, apply the usual standards of their fields.)
Individual reviews can demonstrate what I mean by this, but they can’t show that the contrast is true as a general rule. The only way to do that would be to read lots of reviews, for instance all pop and classical reviews in the New York Times over a couple of months at the height of the season. I’d choose the Times because the critics in both fields are quite good.
There were objections to my original post, and I’m sure there would be many of the same objections to my revised thesis. Here are some, with my responses:
Pop music is crap, and pop music criticism is crap. That’s a conversation stopper. I’m not going there. This is a larger discussion, for some other time.
Most pop music shows aren’t serious. People like Britney Spears are the pop music norm. How do we know this is true? Has anyone taken a census of pop events, and then counted how many were serious? I suspect, actually, that there are far more small and serious pop shows each year, in any city, than large and empty ones with silly stars. Certainly that was true when I was a pop music critic in Los Angeles late in the 1980s. But quite beyond trying to count the uncountable, I’d reply that the objection here is meaningless. You can define the pop music norm however you like. But the fact remains that there are many, many, many serious pop shows and records. Just read the Times critics day by day, and see what they review. Or read The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, and see what serious pop critics have to say about every important musician and trend since rock & roll emerged in the mid ’50s. And besides — since pop critics can find serious cultural meaning in just about anything they review (and why not? how could someone be a huge pop star without touching some cultural nerve?) they can write serious reviews about shows that someone else might say aren’t serious.
Classical reviews aren’t likely to talk about connections to the outside world, because many classical pieces are instrumental, and thus don’t have lyrics that can make these connections. Or because pop musicians mostly write their own songs, while classical musicians play music written by others. Or because so much of the music played at classical concerts comes from the past. This excuses the problem I’m defining here, but doesn’t solve it. That is, we can say, if we like, that classical music reviews shouldn’t be expected to do what pop reviews do. But still pop reviews will (if I’m right about this) be more interesting to general readers. And at a time when we want more attention for classical music, this doesn’t seem helpful.
This objection to my point, then, actually raises a challenge for people writing about classical music. If we can’t expect classical music to connect readily to the outside world, what exactly does it do? What, exactly, is valuable about it? I’m
not — repeat not — saying it relating to the outside world is the most important value classical music might have, but what is classical music doing for us when we listen to it? Of course it’s doing something very powerful. But how would we define that — and, most important for the point I’m making in these posts, do reviews convey what the power and meaning of classical music might be?
Certainly we’re not immersed in classical music because we want to check whether the latest pianist to come along really knows what to do with Beethoven — whether her tempo in the slow movement of some sonata really is correct or not. And probably we’re not so deeply tied to this art because some work can be called “magnificent,” or because we identify a particular emotion inside some classical piece. We can go to the movies and get emotional. I think we’d say that the rewards we get from classical music go pretty deep. But I’m not sure we could say that reviews of classical concerts normally convey how deep and powerful those rewards can be. Whereas pop reviews pretty accurately convey what we get from pop, which among other things might mean — I think it does mean this, actually — that pop reviewing is easier. My own experience, writing both pop and classical reviews, is that I’ve had to work much harder to say what’s powerful in classical music.
I should really end here, one good rule for writing being to end with the strongest, most imoprtant thing you have to say. But I’ll add a footnote. I don’t think the lyrics are as important in finding the meaning of a pop song as many classical music people think they are. There’s a lot of cultural meaning purely in the sound of any music, and this is something pop critics talk about that, and certainly live out in their reviews. They don’t hesitate to draw meaning from the sound, let’s say, of the opening instrumental riff of a song. And not only that. An entire recent school of pop music, or maybe I should say a collection of schools — dance music in all its varied forms — consists mainly of instrumental pieces, in which pop critics don’t hesitate to find all kinds of meaning.
Nor has the classical music world hesitated, in the past, to find meaning in how music sounds. Look at the reactions to Beethoven, in his time, or to Wagner, or look at the resistance to modernist music, or the rejection of Sibelius by serious critics (hard to believe as this may be) before 1950, or the dismayed reaction to Vivaldi — his flamboyance, some people thought, could threaten civilized life — among musical conservatives in England in the 18th century. They were talking about his concerti, not his operas.
Nobody in France at the turn of the 20th century could miss the meaning of the new sound of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun. And early 19th century critics and aestheticians thought that instrumental music had far deeper meaning than vocal music, precisely because its meaning couldn’t be put into words, and therefore could go deep into the human soul. The very new, very modern, almost shocking sensuality of Afternoon of a Faun, I’d think, might actually have been more tangible, when the piece was new, than anything conveyed by the libretto of Pelleas et Melisande, another Debussy piece that had wide impact in its time.