The second of five posts about the current state of classical music.
This one is about some good news. I think there’s a new spirit in the air — a new openness to classical music. I first noticed it in commercials. I could even go back a few years, to something I didn’t understand at the time, a commercial for the Starz movie channel that featured the big tune from Beethoven’s Ninth, with people singing, “Movies, movies, movies, movies.”
Try it for yourself. It’s insane. What were they thinking? Or so I asked myself. What’s the connection with Beethoven? Now it’s clear that they just used the tune because it sounded grand and festive, shorn of any classical music connection. And what I also didn’t see is that this is a good thing. Someone who knows and loves Beethoven’s Ninth may roll her eyes, but for the rest of the world, the point is that classical music no longer signified — as it so often used to — something exclusive, expensive, and elite.
But the commercial that really drove this home to me was more recent, something from one of the big fast food chains. McDonald’s? Wendy’s? I’ve Googled and Googled, with no results. Can anyone help? This commerical introduced a new sandwich, something we were meant to think was very special, something we should think a lot about. A guy was contemplating it, and on the soundtrack we heard (if my memory is right) one of the Bach cello suites.
Again, somebody’s going to say that’s an insult to Bach. Bach means more — much more — than fast food. (Or “Quick serve,” as I believe they prefer to call it in the biz.) But turn your telescope around, and now look at the commercial as if you didn’t know Bach. Now what you hear is an admirable, serious piece of music, something that shows you how you’re supposed to think about the new sandwich. A classical piece, in other words, is being used for its intrinsic qualities — for its sound, and for its feeling. The fact that it’s classical doesn’t matter very much, serving only, I think, to underscore the message that the sound is giving us. Yes, the sandwich really must be serious; they’re using classical music. But not: this is an elite product, not for the masses; you’re special if you buy it. (Cf. a decades-old commercial for Grey Poupon, using, if my memory hasn’t fled, the Sixth Brandenburg.)
Lately I’ve seen other examples in commercial music. A commercial for an XP computer, with Vivaldi, the music telling us how much fun the computer is to use. A Coke commercial, in which two Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons wrangle a third one, which is a Coke bottle. Music? A Rossini overture, telling us that we’re seeing something funny. This is surely modeled on old cartoons (like “Kitty Foiled,” a Tom and Jerry classic I ran across lately on TV), which often used Rossini for chase scenes and the like.
And then Countdown with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, where the theme music briefly — with very canny cutting — excerpts the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, apparently to set a tone that’s sober, but also edge-of-the seat dramatic.
And then finally — and for my purposes the announcement couldn’t be more timely — the Hyundai commercial we’re going to see on the Super Bowl, in which Yo Yo Ma will play Bach. From the Reuters story about this:
Classical music fans aren’t the most obvious target for a National Football League telecast or an ad campaign with an online video editing component. But advertising agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which produced the Hyundai spot, said it expects the ad to resonate with many of those watching the game. Last year’s game between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots drew a record 97.5 million viewers.
“I think the people that will respond to the Yo-Yo Ma piece when watching the Super Bowl won’t necessarily be classical music fans,” Goodby, Silverstein & Partners creative director Jim Elliot said. “Within the context of all the other advertising, which can be so chaotic that it almost becomes white noise, a quiet, gorgeous solo cello moment can be very arresting.”
“A quiet, gorgeous cello moment” — classical music (once again) used for its sound and feeling, not because it’s elite.
But this is only the beginning. Ever since my wife and I learned that 12% of all downloads on iTunes are classical, it was clear that people, especially younger people, are reacting to classical music in a new way. They’re happy to listen to it, just as they’re happy to listen to music of many other kinds. (That 12% figure badly needs updating, by the way. And confirmation! We had one source, a good one, someone in an excellent position to know the percentage. But is it still true?)
And how did this happen? I’ll propose two theories. First, our culture is shifting. Normally I say that to show that classical music is getting left on the beach as the cultural tide moves elsewhere (a mixed metaphor, I know). But in fact the cultural change is remarkably unbiased. It won’t give classical music the privileged position it insisted that it had to have, a generation ago.
But it also won’t reject classical music. Classical music simply takes its place among other cultural options, with special qualities of its own (“a quiet, gorgeous cello moment”), but with no cultural baggage otherwise. We need to go beyond “quiet, gorgeous,” since classical music has a lot more to offer (and my next post will touch on that), but let’s be thankful for what we’ve got.
Second theory: the many mainstream experiments with new kinds of classical concerts have had an impact. Ultimately they’re part of the same cultural change, a move toward accepting classical music on its own terms, without overtones of privilege and money, and without composers presented as marble busts. But I’m impressed, thinking back, on how many of these new presentations there have been. Classical concerts with video. Classical concerts in which musicians talk to the audience. Classical concerts with helpful comments on the music projected at the side of the stage. Classical concerts in informal dress. Classical concerts where the conductor and orchestra greet the audience in front of the concert hall. Not to mention presentations outside the mainstream, like classical music played in clubs, or played alongside indie rock.
I’ve rolled my eyes at many of these presentations, and deplored the way classical music institutions try them out, and then don’t follow through. But if I said that people who roll their eyes at Bach in commercials should think again, then so should I. I think that these more informal ways of giving concerts — all of them together — have had an effect. They’ve signalled a change. I don’t think we’ll see a new audience breaking down the doors of concert halls to go to standard classical concerts any time soon. In fact, I doubt we’ll ever see it.
But that a new wind is blowing, I have no doubt.
(Again, I’ll be grateful to anyone who identifies the fast food commercial. Why didn’t I take some notes the many times I watched it?)