Aka a new book riff, or half of one — the first half of the chapter in the book that fights the idea that classical music is better than other kinds of music. And especially that it’s better than pop.
(I can imagine the outrage! Maybe we’ll have another visit from AC Douglas, showing us why he needs to do some work on anger management.)
Not that everyone isn’t free to think, on a personal basis, that classical music is the best music, which in the end means the best music for them. But to argue that it’s the best music that exists, as if such a thing could be proved — that’s where the trouble lies.
And it’s not just that attempts to make this argument are in inherently highly suspect, for all kinds of reasons (as I explain in the riff — if you make the right assumptions, you can prove that any kind of music is superior). It’s also that the people who most prominently make the argument know so little about other kinds of music that their attempts fall dead, with quite a loud splat. Which then raises all kinds of fascinating questions. Here we have intelligent and cultured people neglecting to inform themselves about subjects they in some cases write entire books about. What kind of deep distress leads them to do such a thing?
But that will be in my next riff. One question for now would be why this debate is important. Why does it matter, if some people think classical music is the best music there is — and, along with that, make a great point of how bad pop music is?
Especially since, out in the world at large, not many people believe in this myth. Almost everyone is an omnivore (to use the favored sociological term) - which means that we like culture of all kinds, high and low. (These terms are obsolete, I think, and I’m using them only for convenience.)
But inside the classical music world, the myth isn’t dead. There we encounter — often enough, right in this blog, in the comments — many people who think, often angrily, that classical music really is superior. Which often then leads them to angry denunciations, not just of pop music, but of all popular culture.
Which then puts classical music in a very bad position. Are we now to go out in the world, and find a new audience by telling people that the music they currently listen to is crap? That’s plainly not going to work. Are we going to tell people that their lives are incomplete, their emotional development is stunted, their thinking is shallow, all because they listen to pop music instead of classical?
That won’t work, either. And the worst thing is that none of this is true. Pop music is entirely respectable, musically, artistically, and culturally, and the people on the classical music side who denounce it typically don’t know the first thing about it.
Which then puts classical music in a dramatically ignorant place. And, if you want to look at it this way, it undermines all arguments not just for its superiority, but for its value on any terms. Because it now seems apparent that too much indulgence in classical music undermines – at least for some people – a wide and tolerant view of the larger world. And also undermines any substantial knowledge about it.
There are two books published in recent years, about the value of the classical music – Lawrence Kramer’s Why Classical Music Still Matters and Julian Johnson’s Who Needs Classical Music? As you’ll see when you get the second part of this riff, both these books suffer from the problems I’ve just outlined. As does a classic of the genre, Roger Scruton’s The Aesthetics of Music. Which shows, I think, how deep-seated many of these problems are, and why I need to spend some time refuting the myth.
(I know that this is a complex discussion, and that many other writers — besides the three I’ve just mentioned — have entered into it. I’ve picked these three as representative, and made a point of including Johnson and Kramer because they’ve written the only substantial current books that defend the value of classical music, and for that reason loom reasonably large in current debates. In any case, in the end what interests me more than the debate itself is the stance of the people who want to believe classical music is superior — what seems to motivate them, since, as you’ll see from my next riff, many of them aren’t just intent on proving their point, but are also quite angry about it.)
One other quick note:
I’ve realized that, if I want to write this current chapter properly, it would help if I’d already written the chapter on pop music, which was supposed to come later. So I’ll revise the outline of the book, to put the pop music chapter directly after chapter three, which shows how classical music has grown distant from our larger culture.