Sunday, July 24, 2011

Popular and Unpopular Culture

I was browsing around the interwebs and found a fascinating piece on post-minimalism and this brief clip of the composer John Adams talking about popular culture:

There is a scathing rebuttal to this, also on YouTube, but I'll do my own. Now I don't have anything against John Adams' music, nor am I a big fan--I'm pretty much neutral. So I'm just responding to what he is saying here.
  • "Popular music and popular culture in general has enormous prestige" This is just silly. Popular culture, by definition, has popularity which means revenues. Popular music has lots of money. Classical music does not. But classical music does have prestige--much resented by people who don't much like it, but do like popular and jazz musics.
  • "If Barack Obama ... had said [he] liked Beethoven, the poll numbers would have dropped through the floor" There is this tradition in American politics of portraying yourself as a 'man of the people' so this might be a kind of half-truth. But mostly irrelevant, I think. If we turn it around, we see that an awful lot of people detest, for example, Sarah Palin partly because she does not make a pretense of appreciating high culture. You can't actually have it both ways, can you?
  • "We have this suspicion about culture, that there's something vaguely subversive and morally lax about art." That suspicion may indeed be floating around, but if so, it is largely because every 'progressive' out there is saying that serious art must be subversive! That's the whole point of putting a crucifix in a glass of urine, is it not? So this suspicion would seem to be well-earned, but only if we are talking about 'progressive' art.
  • "So that's why we really glorify pop culture." Say again? This follows directly on the previous quote as if there were some logical connection. We glorify pop culture (we don't, we just spend a lot of money on it because it's popular) because high art is subversive? Um, isn't pop culture actually more subversive? Had a look at a Lady Gaga video lately?
  • "We were a country founded by religious zealots and venture capitalists." The history is just wrong and he is going to try and prove something that is not going to follow.
  • "that lingering anti-intellectualism" Let me just sort out the hidden assumptions here: religious zealots and venture capitalists are anti-intellectual. Really? Tell that to the guys writing those intricate computer models that run Wall Street these days. But the most remarkable buried assumption here is that classical music is intellectual. Is it? Well sure, a piece by Beethoven is longer than a piece by Katy Perry but a listener doesn't need to understand the structure to enjoy it any more than he or she needs to understand how digital sound editing and synthesized drum tracks work to enjoy the Katy Perry. Maybe Beethoven just needs better videos?
Then he meanders on complaining about how people want to be initiated but don't have access to all that wonderful classical music. Well [expletive deleted], has he never looked at YouTube? Everything is out there. You can listen to anything you want any time you want. If people don't want to listen to classical music there is obviously some other reason and it has nothing to do with the ones he mentioned:
  1. pop music has all the prestige
  2. classical music is perceived to be subversive
  3. we glorify pop culture
  4. we're anti-intellectual
Wrong, wrong, wrong, irrelevant. Does he really believe any of this tripe? Or is he just going through the motions of saying the things a composer is expected to say? Bowing in the right direction?

Here's what I think. Before the downfall of the aristocracy, their taste and money supported the art they liked. We got a lot of good art out of that: all that great Renaissance painting and music, for example. The glorious French Baroque. Even most of the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Towards the end of Haydn's life, he started to make money from public concerts and Beethoven was making money from sales of his music, but they still were for the most part, supported by upper-class patrons. Through the 19th century this slowly changed so that now government takes over the function of the aristocracy and supports various institutions that commission composers. For a look at the kinds of commissions a successful composer receives, have a look at this page on John Adams. How government chooses depends sometimes on political considerations, but often it is based on the opinions of cultural leaders in the media and academia. That is really who John Adams is talking to in the clip. The possibility of composers making a living from sales of their music is remote these days because of the rise of popular music. I've written about this before, but the enormous sums of money that can be made in popular music don't go back too many decades. Classical records pre-Elvis actually could out-sell popular ones. But not now.

But all this talk about popular and unpopular culture misses the point. I keep coming back to the sage words of Duke Ellington who said there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. There are a few good pieces of music in a vast landscape of dull, boring, annoying crap. But it has little to do with the labels. There are good and bad classical pieces, good and bad popular music, good and bad bluegrass, good and bad jazz and on and on. Isn't that obvious?

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