Support for pop culture

Silly title for a blog post. Since, after all, the whole world swims in popular culture. It’s only in the arts that people seem to have trouble with it. 

So, following on my post about art (and art-making) spreading into popular culture, and in fact into our whole society, here are endorsements of more or less that concept, from prominents arts people. 

Michael Kaiser, who of course runs the Kennedy Center (and is maybe the most prominent arts administrator in the US) said in his blog that the arts can’t compete with popular culture, because popular culture is more fresh, daring, and inventive.

(Which of course got some pushback from outraged arts people. More on that in my next post.)

And David Sefton, newly appointed director of the Adelaide Festival in Australia, wants to break the barriers between popular culture and the arts.  

For Sefton, I should add, this is nothing new, since he started his professional life as a pop music critic. But the Adelaide Festival picked him, so of course this is a direction they want to go. 

Which makes me wonder — along with the Tony Woodcock blog post I blogged about earlier, which asked if the arts still seem legitimate — whether we’re reaching some kind of tipping point, where the arts start to realize what their place is today. Coexisting with popular culture, not claiming to be better.

But then maybe this is old news. Certainly it is to anyone under 30. Or maybe anyone under 40. Maybe the outraged comments I get in my blog, from time to time, when I say these things, don’t represent any large bloc of people. Though I still see arts advocates even explicitly slagging popular culture (fund the arts! we’re better!), or else ignoring it, and claiming that only the arts can allow us to find out and express truths about who we are. 

So maybe these battles still need to be fought. Any thoughts on this? 

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    I think the pushback, at least in Michael Kaiser’s case, had to do with what many see as a lack of programming this new risk-taking music more so than the lack of its existence. Having someone in his position say that there’s a lack of boundary pushing in the art world while his own organization seems to avoid programming almost any music under 50 years old is a bit of a slap in the face. It’s like lamenting the absence of talent while there’s an army of starving artists banging on the door.

    Yes! It’s a really strange picture that Kaiser presents — doing conventional programming (understatement) while he goes around the country telling everyone else to be adventurous.

    But still he’s right about the arts and popular culture, or at least about the large arts institutions. He’s right, even if he himself exemplifies the problem.

  2. Joshua Randall says

    The only qualitative difference I have ever noticed between pop culture and high culture, (whatever) is this:

    In art music (or literary fiction, etc) an effort is required of the listener to engage with the piece.

    In popular works, the composer holds the listener’s hand, in a manner of speaking, and ushers him through the piece with minimal effort (on the part of the listener).

    I wonder if anyone agrees with that.

    Composing both ways requires tremendous skill, I think.

  3. says

    After playing in New Wave rock bands, MOR bands, jazz groups, producing techno and having had classical music performed and broadcast, I know that classical music has a different ethos. And I personally do not like that ethos or attitude.

    When you are involved in non-classical music, the audience’s response is analysed – which pieces went down well?, how did the audience respond? did we communicate with the audience? did the introductions go over well? – these are essential questions. In non-classical music the musicians really want to communicate with the audience.

    The classical music world seems to think being popular is insincere at best, at worst tacky. Classical composers always consider themselves right, they will never consider the possibility that all these complex textures that look so fascinating on paper, may come over as a complete, unfocused mess in the concert hall.

    The other thing I notice is that classical music lacks the sheer joy of rock music and other genres. The joy in the beat, melodies, rhythms, words, sounds of the instruments such as a distorted guitar riff, or an ethnic instrument in New Age music. Joy in such things is missing in contemporary classical music.

    So many people take extremes, they will compare a trivial girl/boy band pop song (constructed by a production team) with a late Beethoven piano sonata. Instead, why not compare the contemporary classical compositions with Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds, or John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields? Joy is infectious, conviction is infectious and communicating with the audience pays rewards. If contemporary classical composers are as good as they claim to be they should be able to compose sincere, relevant music that the audience enjoys! Chamber groups will play the Classical and Romantic repertoire in a concert and include the statutory contemporary work. What they should say is ‘here is our programme, compose a work that fits in with these other works we are playing’!

    Contemporary classical music could get so much further if the composers wrote melodies over a beat, after all that is what just about all over genres of music are. This is not limiting, classical composers have their own wonderful take on such things, think of rubato in 19th century music.

  4. ray says

    Greg, there’s no such thing as “artistic” pop music – I’ve heard “songs” by your precious idols radiohead and bjork. It makes me think you’re trying to put one over on your readers. The same droning “beat,” one or two chords played over and over, tuneless “melodies” whined in half-falsetto voices by people who can’t sing – and you call that “artistic?” AUTISTIC is more like it – there’s more art in a boccherini guitar quintet than anything “radiohead” will ever produce. And as I said elsewhere, schubert’s ave maria, a REAL song, puts “artistic” pop drivel to shame.

    Hi, Ray. Thanks for all your comments.

    Glad you’re listening to some serious pop music, even if you don’t like it. At least you’re trying!

    When serious classical music people like myself (and, I have to say, many others) like Radiohead and Bjork, what do you think we’re hearing? Is it possible you’re missing some of what we hear? One difficulty in going from one musical genre to a very different one is to know what standards to apply. So you might not be applying appropriate standards. This doesn’t mean you’d like the music any better, if you used other standards to judge it. But at least you’d be talking the same language as the people you’re disagreeing with.

    For instance, the quality of a singing voice, which you mentioned in another comment. From a classical point of view, a lot of rock singers (and, for that matter, gospel singers) sound just awful. Bob Dylan would be a joke, from a classical point of view. In classical music, we value purity of tone, which someone like Dylan obviously doesn’t have.

    But in his kind of music (and in all rock, really), what’s valued is something else. An individual tone quality, for instance. So rock people might find classical singing very limited, because it uses such a small assortment of tone colors.

    So when you listen to Radiohead or Bjork, well, fine, you hate the singing. You have every right to, if that’s how you feel. But what you might want to avoid is simply saying that you hate it because it doesn’t sound like classical singing, or like the kind of melodic pop that uses at least semi-classical vocal sounds and techniques. It would help if you could show that you also can judge the singing in Bjork and Radiohead records by its own standards, even if you don’t like those standards. Is it good rock singing, at least?

    What you want to avoid is sounding like Berlioz, when he heard Chinese music at an international exposition. He just laughed at it, and said that the Chinese didn’t know how to sing or play in tune. In retrospect, this just shows his limitations, and/or the limitations of his culture.

  5. says

    I sincerely hope no one takes anything you say seriously, Ray, since you seem to think its appropriate to belittle musicians by suggesting they have neurological genetic disorders. It compromises you point and makes me wonder why anyone should listen to Boccherini guitar quintets if that’s the mindset you bring to them when you consider them valuable art.

  6. ray says

    I didn’t think the singing in radiohead and bjork was good period. The music itself seemed meandering and meaningless – I was NOT impressed. Like I said, I grew up hearing popular music all the time, BUT I never saw it as being on the same level as classical – I knew better. And radiohead isn’t even as good as that music was! Sorry, classical is better. And pop musicians don’t see classical singing as limited – they’re JEALOUS because they know classical singing is better. They know classical singing takes training, skill and discipline, unlike theirs.

  7. ray says

    Doug, that was a play on words – don’t you have a sense of humor? Soooo deadly serious trying to defend something unworthy of the effort. And you’ve never heard a boccherini quintet? Well, they’re enjoyable to hear – they display a high level of technical skill and they actually have MELODIES in them (unlike radiohead) – maybe you should listen to one.

  8. ray says

    Stewart, classical music doesn’t have anything against popularity – after all, beethoven is certainly popular enough. Classical radio stations play the music that’s the most popular with their listeners. Joy in classical music? Well, I’m an organist and composer and I certainly get joy from playingvand writing it. Every classical musician I know feels the same way – they perform classical music because they LOVE it, and they ENJOY what they do. And even among 20th century composers, sibelius and rachmaninoff are popular (“progressive” critics used to put them down, but sibelius at least is now acknowledged as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century).