For the fifth straight week, the number one pop song in the U.S. is Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.” Which was also voted the best summer song of 2008 by public radio listeners in New York, giving it double cachet, upscale and mass market. And what’s the song about? A straight girl who kisses another girl, tastes her cherry chapstick, she’s amazed, and she’s turned upside down… but she loves it.
And this, I want to suggest, poses a problem for classical music. Out in the world, gender boundaries are melting. “You’re my experimental game/Just human nature.”. And this is the second song with the same title and the same subject! (The other is by Jill Sobule, whose fans are not exactly thrilled with Katy Perry.) But in the standard classical repertoire, gender boundaries still are written in stone. Out in the world, NPR listeners know that Katy Perry is talking about something they understand, something going on right now, something some of them have done themselves. While we in classical music soberly tell them why they should love Dichterliebe, or some other 19th century song cycle, with an old-fashioned 19th century romantic view of love.
Please understand — I’m not saying that anything’s wrong with Dichterliebe, or that I don’t like it, or that nobody out in the world can be turned onto it. Nothing exists in black and white; the world doesn’t divide into Katy Perry and Schumann, with nothing in the middle. People still read Jane Austen; they still went to the last movie version of Pride and Prejudice. The problem is that, in the mainstream classical music world, it’s all Schumann and no Katy Perry at all, which makes it hard to recruit many people to be the kind of full-time classical music fan who buys subscriptions to the local orchestra and opera company. We’ll recruit some people, of course, if we work on it, but fewer than we could in generations past.
Another way to put it is that in 1935, or 1955, or even 1975, popular culture wasn’t very different from classical music on the subject of love. That’s one reason the standard classical repertoire held on so long. It still talked about things people instantly related to, maybe not in highbrow classical form, but elsewhere in their lives. So the leap to classical music wasn’t all that great. Now it’s bigger. I’ve seen, with my own eyes, and heard, with my own ears, an enthusiastic opera popularizer, one of the best in the business (or so his reputation says), try to excite a crowd about “O mio babbino caro,” getting all amused about the young girl soprano playing her father, trying to manipulate him into letter her marry the man she loves.
Try that on Katy Perry! “She’s a bozo. Why doesn’t she just marry him?” And sure, that shows not much understanding of history, but is that why we listen to music? For history lessons? Any anyway, the opera popularizer, a master of the traditional version of his trade, had no idea that he was talking about something that might not resonate with younger people any more. Reminds me of the 20-somethings coming out of a Tosca performance, whom someone I know observed.”I knew that execution was going to be real!” one of them said, meaning that the opera was silly, that anyone smart could see right through it.
Or how about Rigoletto? Gilda sacrifices herself for the worthless Duke, and all of us thrill to the ghastly pathos of it. Even in avant-garde circles in the 1950s, the thrill could be real. I’m thinking of The Story of O, the great avant-garde porn classic of that time, written by a woman, which became a genuine literary event. I read it; it’s penetrating, searing, brilliant. A woman completely subjugates herself to a man (who then gives her to a more powerful man he admires, giving the book an unexpected, troubling subtext about male sexuality). In a world where this is the latest edgy thing, Rigoletto still works. Gilda’s impulse and O’s aren’t so different.
But Katy Perry? She should have killed him herself!” (“And then she could have had Maddelena.”) And Katy Perry might not like Butterfly, either. “She should have killed him at the end!”
We have a new culture, and — duh — mainstream classical music doesn’t speak to it.
Possible objection: Dichterliebe, Rigoletto — they’re much better music than “I Kissed a Girl.” To which I’d reply, first, that the person who’d say this is treating quality in music as if it’s an absolute value, that something is simply better than something else, without reference to any reason why it’s better, or any purpose that being better might serve. “I Kissed a Girl” has music that’s completelyl appropriate — perfect, in fact — for what it’s trying to do. If you want to do something else (contemplate the divine, delve to the deepest depth of human possibility), you’ll want some other music. But that’s obvious — we knew it before starting this discussion — and doesn’t reflect at all badly on the song, which isn’t trying to contemplate the divine.
Second, what exactly is the better music of Rigoletto telling us? (I love Rigoletto, by the way.) I suppose we might say that it shows us depths in the older view of love and gender that make those older views more understandable, or else that it shows us things about humanity that remain valid even in “I Kissed a Girl”‘s world. But maybe someone just doesn’t care about those older views. Soppuse I say to you, “Hey, come hear a lecture on ancient Chinese agriculture. The lecturer is really brilliant!” Nobody would blame you if your answer was, “I’m sure she’s terrific, but the subject just doesn’t interest me.” I could try to persuade you, and say, “She’s such a great mind that you’ll learn something that enriches your life,” and maybe I’d be right, but you still might respond, “Maybe, but there are lots of things that enrich my life, so I think I’ll just skip this one.”
Or maybe I tell you the minister at my church is a truly noble soul, and her sermons teach me reams about human nature. You say, “But I don’t share your religion!” I can then say, haplessly — in the manner of someone trying to tell a Katy Perry-besotted NPR listener why she should listen to Dichterliebe — “Oh, but this minister s so profound that you’ll get something from her even if your own faith is very different.” To which, again, you’d reply, “I can get something just as deep from things that aren’t so alien to me.”
Which is the problem we’ll have — that we have right now — trying to win new converts to mainstream classical music. They can, and do, get something just as deep from things whose culture doesn’t reflect the lives that people lived in past centuries.