Cultural disconnect

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.

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  1. says

    Ping! At last, it’s been found. the ultimate “hierarchy of values” that stems throughout classical music. This makes for broad and sweeping distinctions that are philosophhically and logically impossible. B is greater than B who is greater than M etc etc. You hit the nail on the head, Greg, the fact that we can sweep away any judgement by just saying,”oh well, A is better than B because it is so much more complex” is utter rubbish. (And an argument seen by Jean Duvignuad in the 1970’s in his book Sociology of Art). Recently, at our Sydney International Piano competition one of the panel dismissed a piece by Nikolai Kapustin as “trivial” because he saw it under the monuments of the great 3B’s and M!!! He invoked the hierachy of values and, of course, missed the point. This is the new world of classical music

    wher the big boys are just that big boys!!!

    Thanks, Felix. I’m no fan of that hierarchy of values, obviously. And the idea that something has to be complex to be valuable is silly. In classical music, the notion is usually built around particular notions of complexity. We look for complexities of harmony, motivic development, and structure. Leaving out complexities that are less quanitifiable — complexities of timbre, for instance, or emotional tone, or rhythmic inflection.

    One wonderful refutation of this line of thought is a paper by Edward T. Cone, called “The Limits of Analysis.” He takes one of the Schoenberg Op. 33 piano pieces, and inverts it — literally turns it upside down. Everything ever said about its 12-tone structure — all the rhapsodies about its deep complexity — remains true. But now the piece sounds terrible. Proof that, no matter what we think analysis uncovers, we haven’t hit on everything, or maybe even the main thing, that makes us want to listen.

  2. says

    What about Christine Schaefer and Alice Coote singing Winterreise? Or Ravel setting Tristan Klingsor’s L’indifferent in the Sheherazade song cycle? Both involve upsetting the standard-bearing gender stereotypes, and both can be heard relatively frequently in the concert or recital hall. Neither is about being upset or discomfited by the gender-bending, but simply living with it, which may be even more provocative, don’t you think? Maybe her brazenness is more apparent up on the surface than the classical examples, but then you have do account for the subtle rock example of Michael Stipe singing about his homosexuality in “Losing My Religion.” Subtlety and provocation aren’t exclusive to either realm.

    Women have been singing Schubert’s male songs for generations. Nothing new there, and the gender bending, if it exists at all, is subtle. To the vanishing point, maybe. I think David Daniels singing Les nuits d’été brings me much more of a shiver in that department, though its meaning isn’t very explicit, and maybe doesn’t even go very far beyond, “Wow, he’s in drag.”

    And then there are all the trouser roles in opera. I suspect that the biggest gender upset in opera history happened during the days of the castratos, because they were walking sexual scandals. And also because, in those years, with almost all leading roles being written for women’s-range voices, they were sung by both men and women. Or at least the male ones were, from what I know. I don’t believe that the castrati ever sung women’s roles. Which shows a limitation of gender-bending then — it all happened within a comfortable frame of accepted male supremacy. Women could, so to speak, upgrade themselves by singing male roles (same with those Schubert song cycles), but men, even castrated ones, wouldn’t downgrade themselves singing women’s roles.

    And I wonder if that’s still not generally true in the classical music world today. Apart, of course, from Ira Siff and his drag parody of a great diva. But that’s parody! (And also takes place within an accepted, non-shocking framework of gay men, drag queens, gay mens’ diva worship.) I’d love to know if any male classical singers sing Frauenliebe und leben. That might be a shock! I dare Ben Heppner to do it. Or Thomas Quasthoff — except that he’d bring it off (I’d guess) so naturally, with such utter sympathy for what it is (or was) to be a woman, that we’d see his assumption of the cycle as great acting, not as any transgression of gender.

    The point, in the end, is content, not the mere fact of gender twirling. Nowhere in the old classical repertoire will we find (as far as I know) any women jumping up and down because they sexually kissed another woman. Maybe someone will find a gay subtext in some classic opera — Susanna and the Countess? — but that’s an overlay put on the original. Nobody, in those old days, said what Katy Perry is saying.

    My most extreme gender surprise came during a conversation 20 years ago with a gay woman friend, who told me that her lover had had a sex change operation, and was now a man. The relationship had then fallen into difficulty, which maybe isn’t a surprise. Even though my friend had gone to support groups, and had made love to her partner while she/he was in the middle of the process (which involves, or did at that time, more than one bout of surgery) and was, genitally speaking, neither male nor female.

    That’s not a conversation that seems possible inside the world of old classical music, or in the eras that the old classical music came from. But Katy Perry’s song, at least for me, fits right in the same frame. Not as extreme, but same ballpark. Whatever gender surprises one might create with music from the past — or tease out with subtle analysis — they’re going to be worlds away from the gender melting we see today.

    Why should it be surprising that 18th and 19th century art doesn’t raise characteristically 21st century issues? Seems to be a given that, generally speaking, it wouldn’t. (There are a few exceptions — King Lear, in the ’50s or ’60s, being looked at as a precursor of existential thinking.) Except, of couse, in updated opera stagings, which exist, I think, precisely to leapfrog the problem I’m getting at — that the old classical repertoire doesn’t raise contemporary issues, and hence can seem musty in the world today.

  3. says

    Of course it can seem musty. It’d be shocking for something hundreds of years old not to, and to raise contemporary issues in contemporary terms. I think that’s the real objection here, that these works were created when people discussed this sort of thing, when they did at all, using very different terminology. Sure, gender-bending and -exploration or whatever you want to call it was worked out with very different mindsets back then, but so were politics, the law, and property ownership, so I don’t see why the arts should be any different. At the same time, there is something there in the old stuff, which explains the success of Aimard’s recent Goldberg Variations disc, and the ongoing renaissance of plainchant. If you go there expecting your world to be reflected back at you in the exact terms you already know, you’re going to be disappointed, but where’s the excitement in that? Where’s the new?

    Exactly my point. Art from long ago reflects the world from long ago. And when we read 19th century novels, or look at old paintings, we’re completely aware of that. Or even when we watch old movies. We can be deeply moved by something from the 1940s, and at the same time smile at it, because in some ways it’s quaint.

    But does this happen when we hear classical music from the past? Maybe not! It seems current and familiar, because it’s played all the time, without being put in any context of the past. Only when we hear recordings of old performances are we immediately struck by the feeling of the past. Or, sometimes, if we encounter something we hadn’t known before. I found that when I listened to many Bach cantatas, one after the other. After a few of them, Bach’s Lutheran theology started to seem (at least to me) dark, ugly, restrictive, entirely unpleasant. That put the music squarely in a world other than mine. Or take my recent experience (which I cited here somewhere) with Handel’s Solomon. It seemed comfortably bourgeois, and not very interesting to me — too pleased with itself — though obviously fine music. Like seeing fine furniture displayed as a lifestyle accessory in the home of someone who doesn’t interest me. These, maybe, are samples of the kind of reaction we’d have if we genuinely experienced old classical music as something from the past.

    As for finding the contemporary world reflected exactly as we expect, in something niew (whether it’s a pop song, or an art film, or this year’s Whitney Biennial, or a new piece by Nico Muhly) — isn’t it really the other way round, Marc? I mean the other way round from the way you put it. Often there’s a surprise when you encounter something contemporary. I’m really struck, for instance, by what sounds to me like an undercurrent of serious distress in Muhly’s recent CD Mothertongue, and also in Jefferson Friedman’s second and third string quartets. To me, this reflects life in New York, post 9-11 (to be fairly simplistic about it).

    But how often are we surprised in that way by an established classical masterpiece? In my own experience, not very often, because I know them too well. And if I do get some surprising insight (as I did when I heard all the Beethoven symphonies in a single week at the NY Philharmonic maybe 10 years ago) the insights are about the music and its history, not about life. And if I might bring this discussion back to where I started it — by talking about what’s reflected in everyday pop and classical reviews — you really can’t, I think, read a lot of writing about classical music and find very many (if any) instances of complete surprise, in reaction to some well known piece, or insights about life, or a shock that changes you entirely. As you’ll find in the 19th century reactions to Wagner I quoted in another post. The paper trail here points to a comfortable familiarity — “basking” in some beloved Mozart piece, as a critic I know once wrote; or rediscovering that a Mozart symphony is “adored.” to quote some marketing copy this week from Mostly Mozart. Someone whose life naturally brings them in touch with contemporary culture — and who therefore is routinely surprised, energized, challenged, whatever — might find the classical music world too safe, too dull, too predictable. Because that’s what many of us actually like about it! Or so I fear, especially after hearing and reading many comments about how valuable classical music is as a refuge from ugly, sordid modern life.

  4. Noah Stern Weber says

    This might be a trivial point, but what does an uneducated audience expect to get out of an opera (for discussions sake)? Your comment about the plot being transparent I think might miss the point. We inevitably know the plot sequence (I personally never go to an unfamiliar opera without first reading a synopsis if not the libretto in advance), but we relish in dramatic tension and the (sometimes not so) subtle ways the composer, conductor, singers and directors manipulate each scene.

    I hope that I do not oversimplify the next generation (spending the last month conducting 12-18 years olds may have exaggerated my impressions), but they are simply not concerned with the epic. People fall in and out of love, affairs (and subsequent divorces) are more common than functional relationships, and the sexual exploration of an adolescent girl will not brand her for the rest of her life. With that said, writing in the dramatic style (operatic style) about a girl exploring homoeroticism is not terribly organic. I will reference an opera a colleague of mine wrote about his own experience coming to terms with his homosexuality; The verse “My life is shit,” cannot be properly set in any musical context. Where as some of the more serious music (not confined to classical music) will try to reflect the text it is dealing with to intensifying the experience, Katy Perry’s producer was probably not struggling to imitate the angst of a confused and aroused young lady when he chose the 80’s accompaniment strangely reminiscent of an early Michael Jackson album.

    I suspect that classical music will need to wrestle with its own self-importance if it is going to emerge as a popular art-form in the next few decades (I do not mean to trivialize classical music, but as I once heard John Corligiano say, “I can’t compete with Britney Spears’ belly button). For example, take such artists as Edwin Starr, Jimmy Hendrix and Pete Seger; Each composer used their own medium to express their frustration with the Vietnam War, and each one of them had a remarkable effect upon their following. Yet our country is now in an uncomfortably similar war, and the “warhorses” of that previous generation are completely irrelevant (let’s not discuss the fact that most artists today refuse to even address the turmoil that our country is in). Either composers trained in the “classical language” will remove the notion of every piece written being compared against the cannons of the established repertoire (and thus become a sort of neo-gebrachtmusik) or it will need to find a new language to express itself more clearly.

  5. richard says

    What about instrumental music? As both a composer and listener I am somewhat ambivalent about the voice? How can we make Bartok or Webern relevant, let alone new non-pop music. Whe have no “text” to rely on, unless one writes programatic stuff, and the problem with program music is you usually need to know what the program is before one can hear it in the music. Unless a piece uses musical onomatopoeia the story line is not always evident. I had to be told that the opening of the Hary Janos suite was supposed to be a sneeze.

    Instrumental music, in many contexts, has an immediate meaning, quite apart from onomatopoeia or any story it’s supposed to tell. You can see that in pop music writing. Often the sound of music communicates a worldview immediately, regardless of lyrics. As I noticed, driving a couple of days ago in a rental car, listening to a ’60s station on satellite radio, you don’t have to listen to lyrics to know a song is from the ’60s. It just sounds that way.

    There’s also a lot of pop instrumental music (for instance much dance music in the styles of the past couple of decades), and people who know about it can instantly place it. Take (going back decades) the difference between house music and techno — those are two different worlds, the warmer, more encompassing sexy world of Chicago clubs vs. the harder, edgier, more metallic world of Detroit clubs. And then we could look at the immediate reaction to Debussy, let’s say, or Vivaldi, when they were new — culture shock, for many people listening, just from the sound of the music.

  6. Dennis says

    Until reading this post, I was blissfully ignorant of what Miss Perry’s song sounded like (I had assumed from the title that it was simply a cover of the mid-1980s song of the same name, which featured quite often on MTV back when they still played music videos). Given that it’s apparently the number one song of the moment, I didn’t have highs hopes for it’s lyrical or musical quality. After sampling it on Amazon’s mp3 download site (for once I’m thankful previews are limited to only 30 seconds!), I can say my hopes, as low as they were, were not dashed. It is simply awful – the epitome of everything wrong with the kind of “pop” music that tops the charts these days. Ear-gratingly bad musical arrangements, terrible voice, awful singing style, dumb lyrics (sorry Miss Perry, play-acting at “gender-bending” and lesbianism is not shocking or interesting any more, it’s just tired and lame).

    I’m not surprised such schlock is the most popular song at the moment. To paraphrase that old cliche, no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence or taste of the American people (just ask Simon Cowell of Ameican Idol fame. By the way, can we have him deported for committing cultural crimes against humanity? – just kidding, sort of!). But, what I am shocked at is the attempt by our esteeemd blogger and others commenting here to treat Miss Perry’s song as something worthy of serious attention by critics, something that devotees of classical music can learn from, something one shouldnt’ be embarrassed to admit liking. Why, Mr. Sandow, are you so obsessed with “pop” and constantly harping on how wonderful “pop” and how much classical music fans, critics, and performers can supposedly learn from pop?

    Is it fear of seeming “uncool” that makes so many apparently educated, reasonable, and adult people (the NPR listeners referenced above) grovel before such mind-numbingly awful music? I just don’t get it. There is so much genuinely worthy “pop” music out there (in this case by “pop” I simply mean all non-classical music) that if we must compare and constrast classical and “pop”, let’s at least use some worthy artists – such as Nick Cave, Sigur Ros, Leonard Cohen, Dylan, Radiohead, The Dirty Three, etc., to name just a few – rather than lowest common denominator bubble-gum-pop trash like Katy Perry.

    Some people have only highbrow taste. Dennis, you seem to be in that category, popwise. God knows I’ve cited Radiohead here many times, so it’s not that I don’t share some of your preferences. And Dylan! He’s one of my artistic gods.

    But it’s also common enough for people to have both high- and lowbrow taste, excluding the middlebrow stuff, which is what I find really hard to take. Many of the best rock critics would share that profile — Greil Marcus would be an example. And also Nick Hornby, who has a wonderful essay on a Nelly Furtado song, which I’m going to talk about here in a bit.

    Anyhow, Dennis, did it strike you that you hate this song so much, that you don’t stop to think that someone with brains and taste might disagree with you? Strange as that seems! I don’t need to seem cool to myself, or to anyone else. I just like the song, as I’ve liked many other pop hits in the past. Not only that — I liked it the moment I heard the first 30 seconds or so, which is all they played on WNYC. And I’m certainly not alone, among people in our general demographic. Note that public radio listeners in NY also loved it, in online voting for the best song of the summer. And these, if you want to get very specific, are listeners to Soundcheck, the WNYC music talk show that does a great deal with classical music, so it’s not as if we’re talking about listeners who only like pop.

    So there you are. Different points of view. Your comment, it seems to me, just bristles with anger and annoyance. And I fear that it becomes an example, maybe, of the kind of cultural disconnect I was talking about. Here we are, trying to expand classical music’s audience, and we enter the world of our hoped-for listeners, bristling with fury about their cultural choices. That’s not going work, for two obvious reasons. First, you certainly don’t make friends by lecturing people on what’s wrong with their taste. And second, you can’t make a workable plan to reach people with something they don’t yet favor, if you don’t understand (with at least some degree of sympathy) where they already are.

    Not, by the way, that many other people don’t hate that Katy Perry song. Which is absolutely normal for a No. 1 pop hit. But what’s missing, I think, at least a lot of the time, inside the pop world, is hating something with an assumption of superiority. That brings a chill into any kind of culture.

  7. Brendan says

    It’s funny that you write about that song, because I was recently talking about it with my girlfriend. I don’t think it means what you say it does.

    First, to get this out of the way–yes, the song is really awful, musically, on its own terms. This isn’t genre snobbery. Listen to it next to last summer’s big pop hit, Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” which was brilliant, and I don’t think you’ll want to defend “I Kissed A Girl.” It really has nothing going for it. The melody is so forgettable I can’t entirely call it to mind even though I’ve heard it a whole bunch of times, the production sounds like some amateur MySpace thing.

    Second, the song’s gender politics aren’t subversive at all. Actually I think they’re pretty regressive. The speaker repeatedly disavows the significance of her act, or allows it significance primarily as a temporary transgression against a life otherwise lived within normal heterosexual gender boundaries (how she’s not “in love,” the thing about her boyfriend, how it’s not what “good girls” do). There’s the thing about how “us girls” are “soft,” “touchable,” with “red lips,” laying on the conventional feminine gender presentation really thick. The whole thing comes off as presenting a kind of fake female sexuality conceived for the pleasure of straight men, a la Girls Gone Wild.

    I agree with you, of course, that 19th century European views of love and sexuality have little or nothing to do with most living people’s experience. But “I Kissed A Girl” doesn’t either, and people like it anyway (God only knows why). I just don’t see any evidence for the idea that people are asking lyrics in the music they hear to reflect their own experience. A lot of well-off white kids, including me, like rap music about selling crack and shooting people in the face. Somewhat atypically, I also like Dichterliebe. Neither describes my life in any way.

    I think you’re taking me too literally. I didn’t mean that lyrics — or art in general — should reflect exactly, literally the lives that people live. When I got turned on to gangsta rap (I was the first journalist ever to write about NWA) of course the gangsta experience wasn’t mine. But I recognized the world I lived in, though obviously a part of it I didn’t (luckily) directly share. Same thing when Antonioni’s film L’avventura became one of the great artistic moments of my life, when it first came out, and I was in high school. (I still carry it around on my iPhone, as a talisman of what art means to me.) I didn’t know anything about alienated rich Italians, but the feelings at the heart of the film spoke directly to me. Again, I recognized my world, though not a part of it I directly lived.

    As for the song, it’s not news that many people hate it. I don’t think it’s as “good” a song as my favorite summer hit, the Four Seasons’ “Rag Doll” (which really dates me). I put good in quotes because the concept is so elusive, really. Good for what? That’s the important question, for me. Anyhow, I’m interested in your scale of subversivity, so to speak, on which acceptance of traditional feminine/female qualities seems (at least to you) firmly regressive. But didn’t Madonna help change that, back in the ’90s, or even the ’80s, turning those traditional traits into a source of power, and even a weapon? And isn’t that reflected endlessly now, for instance in the new burlesque (to give just one example of something that’s accepted pretty widely as genuinely edgy)? In that light, the song wouldn’t look the way it looks to you. In 1965, the Four Seasons sang, “Such a pretty face should be dressed in lace.” Being a woman = being soft and frilly = yielding, submissive. Now it’s quite different. Katy Perry talks about how soft the girl she kissed is, but that doesn’t make her (or the girl) yielding or submissive. Both of them might well know martial arts, and could kick your or my butt.

  8. says

    Coming from a classical performer’s point of view, I think we-along with the prevailing arts educators and presenters of the last thirty years or so-need to accept responsibility for the cultural disconnect you describe. Unless I have also lost all touch with reality, the purpose of performing music is to communicate with your audience, be they smart, stupid or otherwise. Discussion of the relative merits of classical/pop, while necessary and interesting, always reflect personal prejudices.

    Like most people, I’ve had lots of involving, exciting, sexy experiences hearing and seeing popular music, but it can and should happen in classical performance too. For me, it’s a lot about the artists and their commitment to transcending or obliterating the silly barriers of convention (artistic and physical) that the classical world seems to cling to lately.

    As a youngster I remember hearing Arthur Rubenstein play the Schubert A-flat Impromptu as the opening piece on a recital; I can feel to this day the erotic caresses of his right hand arpeggios, crossing all gender boundaries and making love to an entire audience-“I Kissed a Girl” indeed! At the same time it was true to style, sophisticated in architecture and technically exacting. He had the hierarchy right: communicate from the gut (or groin) first, let the rest follow. Of course, the music doesn’t need to be traditional or familiar to succeed in this way. Horowitz’s Scriabin 10th Sonata was a tangibly disturbing, skin-crawling, liberating event for me and everyone around me in the audience; most had probably never heard the work before.

    Yes, these are old icons from generations past, but I think these extraordinary individuals have a lot to teach about artistic courage and honest expression. I’m hopeful that the mostly-deserved financial desperation being faced by so many arts organizations today will force out the old, unsuccessful attitudes about the “role” of classical music in our culture, and help get us back into the business of making music in ways that people can get excited about.

  9. says

    Is your actual point that the way to get more people to listen to classical music is to create lightweight paeans to teenage sexual experimentation? Or is it the whole gay/lesbian/transgender thing in general? Or is there a more subtle point about how classical music needs to engage in more contemporary topical issues, or keep up with the latest social trends?

    This is certainly possible. In fact, it’s already being done. There are loads of “protest” pieces and works addressing contemporary issues. And that’s as it should be. There’s certainly no reason for this art form to be stuck in the past, creatively. But I’m not sure why we have to pretend that these works don’t already exist just for the sake of this argument.

    However, I suspect this is just another facet of your long-time obsession with telling us all that we really need to stop pretending that classical music is “better” than pop music in order to reach out to new audiences. So, one has to ask: Can you name any other art forms that can bring in new audiences by saying they’re not any better than what people already like? All you’ve done in your replies to other comments so far is to repeat that we can’t say that classical music is better, and that we need to address the same topics as pop music. I have no problem with the latter, of course. It’s the former that makes no sense. Especially when one considers the fact that a more “serious” genre of music might be able to deliver much more powerfully whatever message you think the kids will like. If we’re really talking about the message, that is.

    One other problem with your contention about the Katy Perry is song is that you’re wrong about why it’s popular. It’s not popular because people have been dying to hear a song about “gender melting”. All this sexuality stuff is really the focus of a minority of the population, not the majority. The majority of people pay attention to this song because they like the pop tune itself, and because the topic of teenage sexual experimentation is still a bit of a cultural taboo. There is still the feeling of “Ooh, look at that!” After all, the whole point of the song is supposedly that she’s surprised she liked it.

    So, calling on composers of classical music to write something addressing these issues is not anything like a great way to bring in new audiences. If you write songs about homosexual love, these will not have the widest of appeals, unless the music is supremely wonderful (which brings up another obvious “taste” obstacle). There is no large audience dying to hear about transsexual relationships. That doesn’t invalidate these topics, of course, but it does put things in perspective.

    Maybe composers could do it for shock value (like Katy Perry’s song), but that’s not at all what you mean, is it?

    So, David — you speak with such authority on why people like the Katy Perry song because you’ve done some authoritative research, or seen some? Or are you just making some assumptions here? My point was a little simpler. Nothing more than if the song is such a big hit, a lot of poeple at least tolerate its content, thus showing that our culture has moved to a somewhat different place. Especially as compared to the 19th century.

    And classical protest pieces! Excuse me while I giggle quietly into my cherry chapstick. These are reaching lots of people, right? And also — I’m not sure I ever quite defined poor Katy Perry’s little song as a protest piece. For a better comparison, I might take David Del Tredici’s many pieces about gay life, including the song cycle of that title, and also his “Penis Songs.” Which have quite a hard time in the mainstream classical music world — which, while I’m dotting i’s and crossing t’s, I might note was the point of my post. I was talking about the mainstream of classical music, with its obsession (to borrow your sweet word) with music of the past, and how disconnected this is with our contemporary culture. You understand, of course, that Katy Perry’s song would only be one small example of that. A delicious one, in my opinion (maybe not in yours), but still only one single small one.

    Also, I’m not sure I’ve ever said that “we” can’t say that classical music is “better.” Rather, I thought I’d been insisting that I wasn’t saying that pop was better. Anybody can hold any view they’d like. They’ll be responsible for why they might hold that view — the reasons they give to support it — and those might be open to argument. But anyone who wants to think classical music is better than pop is welcome to that view, as far as I’m concerned.

    Can I name other art forms “that can bring in new audiences by saying they’re not any better than what people already like”? I think museums have gone that route, in their own way. I also think that many other art forms don’t need to bring in new people. Plenty of people read novels, plenty of people see art films. New visual art is doing just fine, as far as I know. Dance might like a larger audience, but I haven’t seen (maybe I’ve missed this) a discipline-wide quest to look for one.

    A better question to ask, in my opinion, would be: Can we name other art forms that have completely absorbed popular culture, so that they can use its languages and frames of reference, deal with its tone and subject matter, without losing their artistic depth? That’s easy. Film, novels, poetry, painting, theater, sculpture, performance art, dance, video art. And more, I’m sure, that I’m too tired to think of right now. (I almost forgot video art and theater.)

  10. says

    I read your post with interest because I am a young woman who has recently developed into an opera fan. But at the same time, my education (at a college where I bet 90% of the female students can relate to “I Kissed A Girl”) has taught me to find and critique the gender stereotypes and misogyny found in old works of art. I worry what it might say about me that I am a fan of a genre that regularly kills off its heroines in an attempt to jerk tears from the audience. Does that mean that I am (gasp!) a self-loathing female? Some of my teachers would want me to think that; though I obviously wouldn’t go that far, I am still trying to reconcile my modern feminist beliefs with my enjoyment of opera. As you suggest, opera can make past attitudes and beliefs more understandable to us, and that’s one way I enjoy it–though I understand that many of my peers don’t have this same sense of history.

    One of my favorite contemporary opera singers is Natalie Dessay and I have read some interviews where she seems to struggle with this same question, of being a feminist performing in potentially misogynistic works. I saw her in “Lucia di Lammermoor,” which she says she interprets as a a cautionary tale of what can happen to a woman who is bullied and abused by the men in her life. Dessay has also talked about her struggle to make “La Traviata”‘s Violetta a believable character…despite feeling like Violetta really ought to just say “screw you” to Germont!

    At least there are some opera heroines whom I can admire without guilt, such as Rosina in “The Barber of Seville.” Her claim “I may look sweet and innocent…but really I’m a viper!” wouldn’t be out of place in a Katy Perry song, would it? But then, that brings up another point: “The Barber of Seville” is a comic opera, and I think Katy Perry has a sense of humor, or at least lightheartedness, about herself. And I think it’s easier for people to accept things like homoeroticism if they are presented in a lighthearted context. But it seems like only an infinitesimal amount of new classical music/opera is meant to make us smile or laugh, which could be contributing to this problem…

  11. David Preiser says

    Thanks for the response. Please allow me to address the questions you raise.

    you speak with such authority on why people like the Katy Perry song because you’ve done some authoritative research, or seen some? Or are you just making some assumptions here?

    Only fifteen plus years in and around the record business, plus knowing plenty of people who know this song, sing along with it for a few verses, then shut it off once the exciting part is over. They feel very naughty singing those words for about 30 seconds, then the novelty wears off until the next time it comes around on the radio or the iPod. I’ve seen this phenomenon time and time again, from Samantha Fox to Madonna to Frank Zappa. A few of us in high school liked to sing the “Gay Bob” song from Joe’s Garage because it was naughty (and funny because of it), not because it addressed popular culture issues that were important to us, or because our culture was free and open to homosexual acts with a small doll.

    And classical protest pieces! Excuse me while I giggle quietly into my cherry chapstick. These are reaching lots of people, right? And also — I’m not sure I ever quite defined poor Katy Perry’s little song as a protest piece.

    Actually, I was trying to expand the definition of popular culture issues that might resonate in the way you were claiming this teenage girl thing was. I know things like Del Tredici’s gay songs don’t reach a wide audience; that’s why I brought it up. You seemed to be saying that this “new culture” eats this stuff up, and I’m saying No, not for the reasons you think.

    Once again, I’m saying that the lyrics of this silly song are popular because of their naughtiness value in the context of the exact same Old Culture values and sexual mores that you’re saying are passé. If all the younger generations were as completely free and “gender blending” as you intimate, this song would be boring to them, not popular. Instead, I submit that the reverse is the case here.

    Can I name other art forms “that can bring in new audiences by saying they’re not any better than what people already like”? I think museums have gone that route, in their own way.

    Now that is a very interesting statement, which really ought to be applied to the concert hall. Why is something in a museum? Because somebody says it’s really good and interesting and worth your time. Why is it in this particular museum? That’s a topic for another discussion, obviously. The debate you’ve started with all this could eventually head in that direction, I think.

    I also think that many other art forms don’t need to bring in new people. Plenty of people read novels, plenty of people see art films. New visual art is doing just fine, as far as I know. Dance might like a larger audience, but I haven’t seen (maybe I’ve missed this) a discipline-wide quest to look for one.

    This is entirely beside the point. I’m saying no art form stands a chance without at least pretending it’s great and worth your time. In my view this is analogous to religion: there are many paths to “enlightenment” or “grace”, etc., but if one starts to admit that other paths are equally valid, then why would anyone else be interested in the particular path one is championing? It’s not an easy question to answer.

    Thanks, David. That’s a terrific contribution to this discussion. I’m grateful for it.

    I don’t think I’ve ever said that classical music isn’t worth people’s time. And obviously that’s how you get people interested in something, whether it’s Pepsi or classical music — they’re going to get something from it. But that’s not the same thing as saying that the thing you’re selling (forgive the term) is better than everything else, or better than its competition. Really what you have to do is establish that it’s different. So you can easily say that classical music and pop are both fine, and there are reasons to like both, but classical music offers something no other kind of music offers. That’s exactly what I’d say. It offers, for instance, music that unfolds with (variously) rigor or whimsy (and lots else) over long stretches of time, the way a novel or film does. Pop normally doesn’t do that. And it offers the discipline of following the great minds and hearts of the great composers along paths they’ve set down for us. That’s not all classical music offers, but those are terrific things. I don’t have to say classical music is better than pop to make that case! This is why I tend to put “better” in ironic quotes in discussions like this. Better for what? There are things pop does that classical music can’t do.

    In the end, we’re not going to appeal to everyone. So we make our case, and the people who respond, respond. I think we make a better case, though, if we acknowledge all the other worthwhile things in the world, things that compete with classical music for everyone’s time, money, and attention. You don’t want to say “Stop watching the Mets on TV! Turn off Project Runway! Throw out that Feist CD you just bought! Listen to Beethoven instead!” You just want to point out that classical music is well worth people’s attention, and let them figure out how to allocate their time, and what things currently in their lives they might move aside to make room for classical music. You also want, in this communication, to treat the people you’re talking to with respect, by not telling them that things they spend their time on currently might not be worthwhile.

    As for Katy Perry, I see why you said what you said about how people hear the song. I could contrast it with Marissa’s comment about 90% of the women at her college relating to the song (though you might have more data to work with than she does). But I think you might be too caught up in specifics. That is, something can have, or reflect, important things in culture without a person by person survey necessarily showing that. An example from the early ’60s. When “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” was a hit, I doubt you’d have found by talking to people who loved or didn’t love or ignored the song that it was saying something new about women. Or rather saying something that hadn’t been said so prominently in rock & roll before that. But in retrospect, it’s very clear that it was doing exactly that — giving a woman’s view in a way that rock & roll hadn’t done — and that, again in retrospect, this was an early sign of the cultural movement that led (through girl groups, musically) to the women’s movement.

    So the real question isn’t who, specificallly, thinks what about a song, but what big cultural developments we can read into things that start crossing our horizon. Would any song with Katy Perry’s lyrics have been a hit in the ’50s? Silly question! The fact that this song is a hit now shows that things have changed — especially when we add in so many related things that everyone knows about — no matter how many people hate it, ignore it, or hear it once and don’t care.

  12. gary panetta says

    I enjoyed reading these exchanges very much (I’m also rather partial, by the way, to “I Kissed a Girl”).

    Regarding the paragraph where you discuss those who treat quality in music as an absolute value: You implicitly raise two questions that anyone should ask of any piece of art: What is this piece trying to do? Does it succeed? By that measure, I suppose, “I Kissed a Girl” succeeds.

    But here is a third question: Is the whole affair worth doing in the first place? An artist may have goal, and may succeed at attaining that goal. But so what? I think it’s occasionally legitimate to question the goal itself — to raise critical questions about what artists are doing and why.

    You write that “I Kissed a Girl” isn’t trying to “contemplate the divine” or “delve into the deepest depth of human possibility.” But I think the fact it doesn’t may constitute a problem — not with the specific song, obviously, which isn’t trying to do these things, but with the whole genre that this song is part of, its goals and interests.

    For not all artistic goals and interests are created equal.

    If they were — if there were no “hierarchy of values” — then a steady diet of romance novels and nothing but romance novels would be just fine. Why bother with Jane Austen?

    And I’m by no means disparaging romance novels. I think, in fact, that a lot can be learned from some of them about story telling and keeping a reader’s interest. But the fact remains that there is more going on with language and tone and character in Jane Austen than in a romance novel. And the reason — besides genius — is simple: The standard romance novel storytelling conventions don’t allow a writer to do that much, and don’t make that many demands on a reader’s attention.

    But why am I pressing this point? Why isn’t it enough to ask what an artist’s goal is and whether she succeeds at meeting this goal? Why add the third question: Is the goal itself worth while?

    The third question is important because struggling with it forces us to grapple not only with a given piece of art but also with the human desires that piece of art is trying to fulfill. In other words, we have to confront ourselves, individually and as citizens in the social order. We have to reflect on what we want (or what we think we want)and the choices we are making about how to live and what as a society we should most value.

    Conversely, if we only ask whether an artist has succeeded at meeting her self-imposed goals and fail to question the goals themselves, we are relieved of having to question ourselves or the social order we are creating. Or to put it another way: We simply let the social order take over and dictate to us via the market place (and in older societies it would have been tradition) what being human is really about. It isn’t popular to talk about “a hierarchy of values” these days, but I don’t see in the long run how we can avoid it.

  13. jerome langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    I am afraid that “hating something with an assumption of superiority” is at least as common in pop criticism as it is in the classical world. Just to bring some perspective to this discussion of the ubiquitous Katy Perry, here is an excerpt from the ALL Music Guide review.

    “All the pros give One of the Boys a cross-platform appeal, but there’s little question that its revolting personality is all down to Katy Perry, who distills every reprehensible thing about the age of The Hills into one pop album. She disses her boyfriend with gay-baiting; she makes out with a girl and she’s doesn’t even like girls; she brags to a suitor that he can’t afford her, parties till she’s face-down in the porcelain, drops brands as if they were weapons, curses casually, and trades under-the-table favors. In short, she’s styled herself as a Montag monster. Perry is not untalented — she writes like an ungarbled Alanis and has an eye for details, as when she tells her emo meterosexual boyfriend to hang himself with his H&M scarf on “Ur So Gay” — but that only accentuates how her vile wild-child persona is an artifice designed to get her the stardom she craves. Maybe if the music were as trashy as the style, she could get away with it, as it would have a junky thrill, but that’s where all the high-thread-count producers actually work against One of the Boys. They flatten everything out, turning the stomping Gary Glitter beat of “I Kissed a Girl” into a leaden stumble and burying Perry’s voice underneath Pro Tools overdubs so it all winds up as a faceless wash of sound designed to be placed in TV shows, movie trailers, and malls — which is of course part of the plan, as this is music designed to be everywhere after Perry’s taboo flirtations break down doors. The problem is not with Katy’s gender-bending, it’s that her heart isn’t in it; she’s just using it to get her places, so she sinks to crass, craven depths that turn One of the Boys into a grotesque emblem of all the wretched excesses of this decade.” AMG 2008

    This is far stronger language than your earlier commentator used, and it comes from what is perhaps the most consulted of all Internet review sites. I actually find that critics of classical music and jazz are on the whole more open-minded than pop critics (check out Pitchfork if you doubt this). That is one of the reasons that I regularly read blogs like On An Overgrown Path, The Rest is Noise, and Greg Sandow’s blog.



  14. scooper says

    attempts to unpack the significance of pop music by looking at lyrics always seem to me a little bit funny: i would submit that the popularity of ‘i kissed a girl’ is somewhere on the order of 90 percent the tune and 10 percent the lyrics or the subject matter, and i’m probably being generous. what you’re right about is the alienation most people feel from classical music, but it has almost nothing to do with subject matter and almost everything to do with musical syntax. if ‘i kissed a girl’ were an abstract indie-folk song sung by, say, joanna newsom, it would not have topped charts and npr listener polls. abstract indie-folk music is remote from most people’s lives in the same way that classical music is remote from most people’s lives, whereas techno-pop in the form of madonna or nelly furtado or katy perry or rihanna or whomever else is not: it’s the music we’re surrounded by, the music we swim in, the music we dance, shop, make out, and share experiences to. simply put: it’s far, far easier for pop music to be popular by the simple virtue of having chosen pop music for itself to be, whereas classical-music composers, in selecting an esoteric language with which to explore their musical ideas, distance themselves from the vast majority of people before a single note has been struck. it’s not a question of pandering; there is almost nothing classical music composers can do qua composers to change this, unless you count ceasing to be classical-music composers. it’s interesting that you mention nico muhly, who is one of the few young composers whose names i see pop up (pun intended) outside of a classical-music context. that, it seems to me, is what it’s going to take for classical music to appeal to people on a wide(r) scale: someone to bridge that gap of alienation that classical music has chosen to pitch its tent on the far side of from the outset, a cover boy (or girl) who looks like his/her audience, is closer in age to them, cares about the same stuff they do, and is able to communicate those interests in the very syntax of his/her music, and certainly not in the lyrics (nico muhly stacking up fragments of female voices singing about their bi-curiosity? not likely to earn him a spot in the billboard hot 100, either). in purely musical terms, muhly does nothing for me, but i can see his music finding an audience among a certain coterie of young urban hipster in a way that could end up refracting back through the cultures of both young urban hipsterism and contemporary classical music to the point where each is swept along into a kind of third-stream variant of both. another example would be the “postclassical” music of artists like deaf center and jacaszek, who bring the syntax of post-rave ambient music to bear on instrumentation familiar to philharmonic concertgoers. my guess is that it will be a cold day in hell before i attend any concerts with deaf center and szymanowski on the bill, however.

  15. says


    Just to your earlier point about the Katy Perry song being the number one on WNYC. As the producer of that show in question (and that particular segment, in fact) it didn’t surprise me in the least that she won our listener poll. Not to sound self-promotional, but our listeners are remarkably well-versed in a huge range of music. People will comment on our web site on everything from Stockhausen’s Helicopter Quartet to obscure country-music singers of the late 19th century, to the latest Lil’ Wayne album. People generally don’t tend to draw arbitrary boundaries around styles and genres.

    That said, I also think NPR listeners want to feel like they’re “in the know” – they’re up on what’s hot, interesting, and current. They may well know that Katy Perry is not of the same genius as Schubert or Mahler but they also know that her songs serve as a barometer of modern-day sensibilities. It would be great to see more living composers try and tap into that sensibility rather than acting as if they’re in an ivory tower, removed from it all.

    Thanks, Brian. Good to see you here. WNYC listeners are in the forefront, I’d think, of classical music’s future. And the station wants it that way!