Democratic pop

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. 

Is that what I got because I said good things about popular culture? There’s an ingrained belief among some reasonably large number of arts people that popular culture is, basically, defined by commercial success. That commercial success is the one and only goal (or at least the predominant goal), and that for real artistic value, we have to leave popular culture, and embrace the arts. 

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.

For instance:

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. 

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  1. says

    “If popular culture is essentially commercial junk, then of course we need the arts.” That’s what you’re saying your temporary conversational adversary was voicing, right? Because you’re about the last person I’d think would use popular culture vs. “the arts” as a legitimate rather than anachronistic distinction.

    I’ve been enjoying all your recent blogging–what a great symposium. The point about government funding for “the arts” is a good one. I’ve been ambivalent about it ever since my early-20s Ayn Rand, libertarian phase. Of course if the government pays for it, the government will try to control it. When I was in elementary school, one of my teachers shocked me by saying she had been opposed to federal education funding. How could that not be a good thing, I thought, especially back in the 1960s where in a liberal family it seemed like all social problems just needed federal funding poured on them like a magic elixir. Because, she said, if the federal government starts funding education, people in Washington will start telling us how and what to teach. How right she turned out to be!

    A wonderful thing about current circumstances is that the technology to produce well-made audio and video has become so affordable that, unlike many of the examples you mentioned above, you don’t need access to a professional studio to pull it off.

    You do, though, still need to find a way to make a living, and it’s not the end of the world if you don’t make most of your living from making art. Sometimes it’s good for the art, because it can be what you want it to be. “Who cares if you listen?” applies to all genres.

    As anyone who has raised or worked with teenagers knows, there are about a million rock bands who make money only for equipment stores and CD duplicating companies for every one who makes a profit. So the idea that popular culture = commercial success is funny indeed. Except for really, really, really mega-popular popular culture.

  2. ray says

    “Democratic” pop? Are you serious? TALENT is not democratic – its elitist, and what’s wrong with that? The NFL is elitist, as it should be – an untalented amateur certainly couldn’t play in it. Pop is democratic because talent, training, musical technique and imagination don’t matter? Why are you putting that on a pedestal? Pop culture mostly IS disposable junk (look at most of the movies that come out). Some kid mixing “beats” is not on the same level as someone writing a string quartet or a symphony – sorry, that’s just the way it is!

  3. ray says

    Well, after hearing parts of nixon in china (and what I heard sounded like a bad broadway musical, not an “opera”) I don’t think mr adams is the one to ask. He doesn’t write classical music in the first place. Classical musicians have a lot to learn from pop musicans? Like what? The idea that music is just a disposable commercial product on the level of toilet paper? That greatness in art means nothing? Sorry, that’s not something I care to “learn.”

  4. richard says

    For us who’ve worked as sidemen, pop music isn’t all that democratic. And for us who are hornplayers, we’re almost invisible. It’s the frontmen (women) ie. singers, who call the shots. I recall playing a gig where I soloed, and played a drop dead hard bop one. Afterwords, it was made known to me in no uncertaian terms, that I was not to do that again.

  5. richard says

    Maybe ray does like music of the 20th/21st centuries.but if not,It’s folks like him who are killing “classical” as a living, breathing artform.

  6. ray says

    I used to write 12 tone music (schoenberg was my model back then) – I’m quite familiar with 20th century from roger sessions to boulez to ligeti to carter, wuorinen etc (I write tonal music now so my musical focus has shifted) – actually, when I was writing atonally, popular music interested me, but when tonality began to appeal to me in compositional terms, that interest promptly faded away. “Smart artistic pop music?” Ok, I listened to something called “lotus flower” by “radiohead” – and what did I hear? The usual percussive beat (toned down this time), a synthesizer playing a couple of chords over and over, with some guy “singing” a tuneless “melody” in a whining half-falsetto-voice (all accompanied by images of some guy in a black hat gyrating around. Then I heard something by “bjork” and it was basically the same thing (except the tuneless melody was sung by a woman). “Coldplay” – same deal. THIS is supposed to impress me? Schubert’s ave maria, a REAL song, leaves this amateurish nonsense in the dust. Of course much “recent new music” is equally amateurish and incompetent – which is a problem when the OLD music is still being played. The new music falls short! This has been the problem for new music since the beginning years of the 20th century – and composers like schoenberg and bartok were better musicians than glass, torke, part, gorecki, etc. Sorry, when it comes to quality, inventiveness and imagination, the old music wins. Just compare “gotterdamerung” with “nixon in china.”

  7. ray says

    No, richard, the composers who’ve produced a mountain of bad music (and now, with the advent of minimalism and “alt classical” are producing even WORSE music) are the ones doing the “killing” – if they were composing something WORTH HEARING, maybe the classical audience would respond to it. As it is, whenever the “old” music is heard, it ends up sounding “newer (fresher and more imaginative)” than the tired stale crap so many “composers” try to pass off as “new music” now. The new music always falls short. Maybe composers need to “step up their game” and write something that compares with the old in terms of quality, technical craftsmanship, creativity, and imagination. Minimalism, OUT! Quoting bits and fragments of other people’s music, OUT! Trying to write some miserable half classical half pop mongrel music, OUT! Fake paper “complexity,” OUT! Do better, composers!