When — at the Southwestern University symposium I’ve blogged about — I said what I outlined in my last post, I got some pushback. One academic on stage with me said, rather pointedly, I thought (and she had every right to speak pointedly, if she wanted to), that it wasn’t a good idea to equate artistic worth with popularity.
I think this is wrong, as people who read this blog know. I think it’s also self-serving. If popular culture is essentially commercial junk, then of course we need the arts.
As the Southwestern discussion proceeded, spreading now from me and the other official “conversants” (as we were called) to the audience, other concerns emerged. Would funding hurt the arts, by limiting art to safe things that funders can accept? And shouldn’t art be democratic, not defined and fostered only by a small group of people?
Sitting in the audience, in the midst of all this, I had a bainstorm. Popular culture…artistic freedom…democracy…they all come together in pop music. So I rose from my seat and offered the romantic thought that pop music functions, in many ways, like a true artistic democracy.
This is a romantic view, and I’m sure I exaggerated how true it is. Certainly there’s a big pop music industry, that looks for gigantic, profitable hits, and tries to keep everything safely under control.
But in my experience — which I got as a pop music critic and then as music editor of Entertainment Weekly — the pop music business (or, more broadly, the “culture industry,” as Theodor Adorno so famously called it) doesn’t do a very good job of controlling its products. There’s too much erupting from below, too many changes in our society, too much music erupting from these changes.
And so pop music turns into a free for all, helped, of course, by the Internet, by the spread of inexpensive recording and music editing software, and also by a DIY spirit that’s started to pervade our culture. You can do what you want, however unlikely your project might seem — and nobody stops you. Even if what you’re doing is wildly unpopular, you’ll find your niche, because in a huge market, even the fringes are huge.
If you’re Josephine Foster, a folksinger, and you decide that you want to release an album of German lieder, by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Hugo Wolf, in German, accompanying yourself on your guitar (and overlaying the whole thing with electronic noise)…well, that doesn’t sound very commercial. But you do it.
If you’re Bjork, and you want to record pop songs that sound like new classical music, full of strange sounds and dissonant harmony, well, that, too, doesn’t sound very commercial. But you do it. And, as we know, you sell millions of records.
If you’re Lou Reed, and you decide, back in the ’70s, that you want to release a double LP with nothing on it but grinding metallic noise, you do it.
If you’re Neil Young, and you want to release an album that’s a searing assault on the war in Iraq, you do it.
If you’re Jill Sobule, a singer-songwriter, and your record company drops you, and you want your fans to fund your next album, before it’s recorded…well, you just do it.
If you’re a young guy in the South Bronx, maybe the most rundown urban neighborhood in America, and you start making rhymes over beats your best friend somehow concocts by playing, over and over, the same few moments of favorite LPs…well, this might be the craziest way of making music anyone you know ever thought of, requiring wild virtuosity from both you and your friend, and reaching no market outside your neighborhood. But you keep on doing it. You do get support early on from some artists in downtown Manhattan, but the payoff you never expected comes when hiphop — which of course is what you’ve invented — turns into a billion-dollar industry. And gives a cultural voice to people who never had one before, letting them tell the world what life in their communities really is like.