Voice of a generation

So now a followup to my post two days ago, in which I said that arts marketing won’t reach a younger audience unless it treats the arts as popular culture as equals.

Here’s a further exploration of that. Not a how-to, but more about the point of view we need.

Cobain blogA couple of weeks ago, the pop music critic of the Washington Post, Chris Richards, had a nice piece about Kurt Cobain. Not only was Cobain the voice of his generation, Richards said. He was also a seminal guitar player, so distinctive and so central to the music that came after him, that to this day, people learn to play what he played, on the records he made with Nirvana, and then carry that into bands they themselves start.

(In a classical music context, maybe it’s important to note that “voice of his generation” doesn’t mean that he was its greatest singing voice. It means he was its emblem, its symbol, its musical embodiment,)

But why talk about this in a classical music blog?

Well, first, I fear that many people involved with classical music don’t know that there’s an extensive, serious, often scholarly, and sometimes deeply penetrating literature about pop music. I’ve certainly known people like that — cultured intellectuals, widely read in literature and the arts, writers, maybe, of deep and brilliant books on high-culture topics, who have no idea that there’s a culture parallel to theirs, just as rich and thoughtful, but dealing with what’s misleadingly called popular culture.

I say “misleadingly,” because when you read (for example) an exegesis of the roots of rock & roll by someone like Greil Marcus, the fact that some of the music he talks about was popular doesn’t mean that it’s easy to describe or understand.

The literal meaning of the words “popular culture” aren’t a problem. No one would deny that there’s a kind (or many overlapping kinds) of culture that, broadly speaking, are popular. It’s the connotation of the words that causes trouble, the implication, that still dances all around the words, that anything they label must be simple. Shallow. And of course commercial.

Richards’ piece isn’t any kind of profound statement, and I’m sure he hardly wanted it to be. But seen from a classical music enclave, it’s a sweet reminder that there really is another culture, in which pop music (in all its many forms) serves as a musical lingua franca, producing artists, songs, profound cultural turning points, and then simpler things like guitar techniques, all of which vast numbers of people learn from, share, get inspired by, and often (though it’s no small thing) just play with.

So that’s one lesson we might learn from Chris Richards’ piece. But another lesson, more important, lies in the way he calls Kurt Cobain the voice of his generation. Without much emphasis, as if it were something everybody takes for granted.

Which of course (broadly speaking yet again) it is. Though the words need some caveats. Kurt Cobain might be the voice of your generation if you were a disaffected, white, most likely college-educated kid who began to grow up in the early 1990s. If you were black, or older, or younger, or were white and came from the south and identified with country music, your pop music lodestar would be someone else.

But you’d almost surely have one.

I should also say that the “voice of a generation” tag is a Cobain cliché, no matter how true, And that to understand it you need to read something more than Richards, something maybe like what the rock critic Dave Marsh wrote a year after Cobain killed himself in 1994 and which was just republished in an email from the now-digital publication Dave founded and runs with my old friend Lee Ballinger, Rock & Rap Confidential.

There you’d be offered Kurt Cobain as the living (and then dead by his own hand) embodiment of a cultural crisis of authenticity. People in his generation thought things were corrupt, but couldn’t change, and so held out for themselves an impossible standard of personal purity. (That’s a simple way of summarizing what Dave says.)

But stick now with the simplest understanding of “voice of a generation” (that clichéd but still accurate phrase), which is that it stands for something real, something pop stars really can become, even if, like Cobain, they feel like phonies doing it (or maybe, at the opposite extreme, they turn it into a nasty ego trip). And even if people of varying ages , from varying demographics, have varying ideas of who the generational voices are.

Which brings me to the core of this, for anyone trying to make new friends for classical music. What’s our view of people who have Kurt Cobain in their hearts, as their generational voice? Do we write them off, as potential classical music listeners, because, so to speak, they’re taken, already going steady with somebody else? Or because we think they’ll never understand classical music?

Or do some of us — let’s search our hearts, and be honest about this — perhaps believe that if people who love Kurt Cobain would only learn to love Liszt and Schumann, that Kurt Cobain would vanish from their souls? That they went through a phase, and that now we can lead them to a better place?

Or do we think a growing love for classical music can coexist with Kurt Cobain? I think that’s the best thought, and also the most (or maybe the only) productive one, if we want to treat our potential audience with the respect all human beings deserve. How can we reach out to them, if in our own hearts we reject something that they care so much about?

And once we’re clear on that, another question might arise. I said (paraphrasing Dave Marsh) that, to Cobain’s generation, Cobain embodied a cultural crisis of authenticity. People thought things were corrupt, but couldn’t change, and so held out for themselves an impossible standard of personal purity.

That’s real, concrete, profound. Alongside it, how would we describe what classical music offers? Yes, it sounds beautiful, but what meaning does it have? If we want people in Cobain’s generation to love it, what can we say it gives them, alongside what they got from Kurt Cobain?

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  1. says

    There’s a lot in this article. Simple response:

    Longer response: Young classical musicians, as you know, already know they have to support themselves & that the world will not be culturally or economically hospitable to them &, further, that they have to make a better effort themselves, qua entrepreneurs, to be more palatable for the changing world. BUT will that suffice? Many, many fear not…

    Thus, do we bring in Jay-Z and Adele onstage to concert halls “alongside” Lang-Lang? Does Miley get an Oskar next time Gelb does Ball? Kanye wants to direct too! And than what? OR, rather, do we simply show our commitment & love for classical, and push for wider educational & cultural policy for greater exposure, a la old school? BOTH fail for the same reason: What we consider to be Classical Music simply does not resonate with today’s generations en masse. There IS a divide. And most musicians and industry people suspect further that its on the defensive, desperately trying to play catch up these days.

    So, ultimately, is the deeper problem that classical doesn’t appreciate the masses, as you argue, – or the reverse? perhaps the feelings are mutual? Thinking long term, is it a flawed or greying marketing strategy of classical, and thus its disconnect from the culture at large which it needs to survive –OR, something much deeper, say, the cultural complexes themselves, (nihilistic loss of direction and purpose, hyper-marketing, powerlessness and anxiety, advertisement, neoliberalism, etc.) which classical ways cannot adequately cope with, much less escape? You say the first though surely don’t deny the latter. Yet people will continue to fear: won’t opening the gates, simply selling out to wider audiences, INDISCRIMINATELY, only hasten the End of Classical Music?

    Who should we appeal to? Who not to? And, of course, the inevitable, WHY???

    And thanks for your continued commitment to thinking through these issues!

    • Don McKee (also LeginBuddha) says

      Honestly, is the problem really much more complex than one of supply and demand? Not enough people enjoy Classical music. I have been been railing forever about the ubiquitous hubris which virtually radiates from out of the opera culture. Even though I have been on the receiving end of this disdain more times than I care to say, I don’t think it weighs as much as I once thought in the larger problems facing classical music.

      Opera, especially, is having a problem attempting to peddle a product for which increasingly few want to pay. What do manufacturers do when sales fall off? They change, they improve the product and they do market research as to what customer’s want and need. Look at pop, it is in constant transition to the extent that fans relate particular styles of music to phases of their lives which are measured more often in months than in years. The variety and overlapping in pop, country and jazz defines their nature. On the other hand, too many classical folks actually see change as impertinence, as being unfaithful to its traditions and its criteria. I know that classical music’s problems are more complex and more numerous than I have talked about here, but pretending that classical is somehow “above” the crass considerations of supply and demand and the market place, will only further establish its non-adaptability in today’s music culture. The cultural and technological changes coming over the next couple of decades will be breathtakingly exponential. How will a static and conservative classical music genre fit in, let alone flourish?

    • says

      Who we will appeal to might best be described as “the Curious”… and it’s easy to imagine that there are already a million Americans and that we CAN “build” several more simply by making classical 1) easier to access 2) more compelling 3) even slightly participatory 4) less old, white, European, authoritarian, etc.
      It’s not rocket science, if CutTime can figure this out. In fact, it’s psychology meets humanism; what is still called humanities: integrate spoken word and dance sometimes with this largely instrumental form. The changes we’re discussing here are medium- to long-term. But we might be surprised if ticket sales start to turns around even sooner. There’s no reason NOT to start… esp. with so many talented musicians looking for work. These are two vacuums already starting to meet up. I just went to my first GroupMuse (.com) in Boston. House chamber music parties are a great start!

      The Curious are in every demographic… and even The Jaded (aka The Sarcastics) occasionally allow themselves to become a Believer.. when they step away from their friends for a minute. Creating free or low-cost, relaxed introductory experiences that answer burning questions like “Why is it called Classical?” will create the curiosity, trust, buzz, confidence, connection, and inclusion some of us so ardently seek.. Actual ticket sales will inevitably increase by putting the bridge NEAR the masses and encouraging cross traffic.

      Classical music is supposed to sharpen our imaginations. The time is NOW to put our imaginations to work.

    • says

      Thanks back to you, L’Abate. As we trash (not “trash”; silly typo I made) out these issues, one thing worth remembering is that classical music doesn’t need a mass audience. It just needs one large enough to sustain itself. And one that reaches the many smart, educated, musically and intellectually curious people the world is full of, who eagerly explore other music but don’t feel drawn to classical. Or at least not to classical music events. Our failure in this generation to attract even artists in other fields shows that we have a real problem.

      Also I think it’s important, when we talk about pop music, not to keep focusing on pop musicians with mass success. There’s so much pop music, artistic, interesting, even commercially successful, that’s nowhere near the pop charts. Kurt Cobain, as has so often been said, was a curious exception to the normal pop rules, because he did develop a mass following when he didn’t intend any such thing, and was working in a kind of music that wouldn’t have been expected to have mass success. This was a contradiction he couldn’t sustain, as again has been said thousands of times. That he developed a huge following when no one would have expected that from a band like Nirvana showed that we were at a historical turning point, and thus made him, in the overused phrase, the voice of his etc.

      In my view, we should be interested in pop music that appeals in varied artistic and intellectual ways, and appeals particularly to people who could easily be in the classical audience, if only classical music were smarter and more contemporary. This means not caring a bit what Miley Cyrus does. That’s not our affair. But (to take another well-worn but accurate example) if we could speak to Sigur Ros fans, we’d have accomplished something.

  2. Ariel says

    One can only believe your latest is written
    as a put on .The suggestion to read the
    two inane articles cements the premise of
    this being a put on . “The voice of
    a generation” …Richards may not ,but you know better .You should know that every generation thinks the previous one corrupt
    inept , stupid etc. until they settle down like
    the previous generation to the banalities of
    everyday life …realizing whatever 2nd rate dreams they had (for many ) of being rock stars are dreams long gone . You note
    they held an” impossible standard of personal purity” … spare us the nonsense ,it
    is on par with the nonsense written by Marsh .. Why is one so concerned with a part of a generation that doesn’t give a
    rats behind about “classical ” music , they ignore it while you seem determined to
    converting them in embracing the “classical’
    world .Is it that you feel while praising them they seem to have something lacking in their life .?
    What is this “reach out nonsense ” ? nothing is withheld from the” Cobain generation” they can at any time buy a ticket to a”classical” concert . The Mustaine article
    only shows the hubris of the player in
    entertaining the thought that what he does
    has any resemblance to the music he attempts with the symphony orchestra . That the San Diego Symphony hired him
    was deplorable and shows they lack artistic integrity.