Tuesday, September 20, 2011


There was just an article in The Australian (hey, I read them all!) about crossover artists. I like talking about this sort of article, not to be a snob, but for two reasons: first, to get an insight as to how many people listen to music and second, to sort out what the actual aesthetic issues are.

The problem with most journalism is that it is confused. So often reading a story I feel as if I am fighting with the writer to try and squeeze out the basic facts of what happened no matter how jumbled the presentation. As for real intellectual clarity, that's not on the table. This article is actually less confused than most and even contains a couple of nuggets of actual criticism such as this one:
Exquisite melodies are reduced to a syrupy concentrate with no character except for being rhythmic and loud.
Yes, that describes a lot of crossover quite well! In the article the writer's basic point is that excluding semi-classical or crossover recordings from classical charts is mere snobbism. Perhaps that is true, but I recall looking at a supposed classical top ten chart not long ago and only finding one item that could clearly be called classical. Surely that is not a desirable situation? But from my point of view this is all slightly beside the point. I think to make sense of the musical universe it is necessary to dig deeper into what we mean by classical and pop. The writer of the article linked above, Matthew Westwood, comments that:
Music charts - pop or classical - are only a ranking of sales figures; they've never been a measure of musical excellence.
Which is very true. What actually matters is musical excellence. The sad truth is that much crossover is an attempt to fudge the excellence bit with costumes, lighting, glitz and shallow music. I talk a bit about how this is tending to creep into purely classical concerts in this post:

Matthew ends the story with this comment:
And let's end the sneering about crossover music: Bach, Beethoven and Verdi have nothing to fear from Il Divo and the rest.
Quite right! For one thing, all three composers are quite dead and collecting no more royalty checks. But the never-ending battle is not between Il Divo and Verdi, but between quality and the lack of it; between good music and bad music. Here is "Regresa a mi" performed by Il Divo:

The original is by Toni Braxton:

I'm a little confused... I really don't hear any major, genre-busting differences here. The vocal style and production is different and Il Divo use strings, but the basic things that characterize the song--the chord progression and the color of the guitar part, both hinting at flamenco--are the same in both arrangements. What's crossover about this? What does crossover even mean? Matthew Westwood says:
...crossover is where famous artists, through a combination of vanity and their record companies' indulgence, are allowed to take their private hobbies into public: Michael Bolton singing opera arias on My Secret Passion, for example, or Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras doing West Side Story. And what about Sting's enthusiasm for John Dowland and Renaissance lute music?
 Is Toni Braxton's music a "private hobby" of Il Divo? Nope, it is just a good song they could do well. And last time I looked West Side Story, while having qualities of a Broadway musical, is a piece by a real classical composer. Sting's enthusiasm for John Dowland is perfectly understandable and when you do a recording entirely devoted to him accompanied by nothing but Renaissance lute, I hardly think that qualifies as 'crossover'. The only thing atypical in that recording is that Sting's vocal production is very different from that of a classical singer. But then, I strongly suspect that the singers who sang Dowland in the 16th and 17th centuries had a very different kind of vocal production from that of a modern classical singer, trained mostly to sing 19th century opera. Here is Sting singing Dowland:

After all these musings I feel very much like a character in one of the early Platonic dialogues after Socrates has tied him in knots. Now I have no idea what 'crossover' actually means, unless it refers to a female artist wearing a miniskirt like Bond or Yuja Wang, or unless it refers to using one kind of vocal production in another kind of musical genre. But in that case, a countertenor doing Elvis Presley tunes would qualify.

No, at the end of the day the only thing really worth concerning yourself with as a listener is musical excellence. Quality.

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