Sure, the internet has made musical generalists out of us all, with everything from Indonesian degung, Renaissance madrigals and Lil' Kim right at our fingertips, but let's face it, even serious music geeks have blind spots. What's yours? That's the question we're asking this week.As my readers know, I have put up posts on gamelan music, Renaissance music and while I have yet to get to Lil' Kim, lots of stuff on pop artists, but I approach all music with the same idea: there is good music and bad music and just uninspired music and the interesting thing is to figure out which is which and why. The folks at NPR assume that all music is good music and if you can't see the good in some particular music, then that is a 'blind spot'. You're just wrong! Critical judgments are forbidden a priori. Now let's look at the opening of that second piece, about hating rap and opera:
"For some people taste is complicated"? Sheesh, this is all straight from French cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu. I don't know about you, but I'm not terribly interested in trading my own unexamined assumptions for his. I would much rather have a look at the assumptions and critique them a bit. OK, instead of the assumption the NPR folks are making, that taste is an instrument of self-esteem, personal branding (yeah, that's what I think about every morning while I'm looking at myself in the mirror shaving) and creating social divisions, why don't we ask ourselves what taste really is. Contrived, artificial taste, might be as they say. You know, in high school you wear this and don't wear that to be accepted. But is this why we prefer Bach over Telemann? Hey, don't do it to be accepted by me! The only thing that really interests me is why you prefer one over the other. Taste, in the more traditional and, I think, true sense, has to do with the desirability of the object in question. As Aristotle implies in the Metaphysics, we desire good things because they are good; they are not good because we desire them. If you are listening to Lil' Kim because your friends like her music, and not because you like her music, then this is not genuine taste, but fake taste. You are not allowing yourself to respond to Lil' Kim, but only to your friends opinion. You are allowing your taste to be oppressed by theirs. Cast off your chains, I say! Have taste of your own.For some people, taste — why we dislike one thing and prefer another — is complicated. It's connected to self-esteem, personal branding and creating social divisions based on things like class and education. In a 1996 article for the American Sociology Review, Bethany Bryson attempted to show that people use their musical tastes to erect what she calls "symbolic boundaries" between themselves and others.There's little doubt that both rap and opera have traveled with significant prejudicial (if stereotypical) baggage: Opera is for rich, white, elderly snobs; rap is made by poor, young, black thugs. Some people reject both groups, while others relish degrees of perceived inclusion. Bryson would say perceptions help determine musical choices and vice versa.On a less academic level, I asked a couple of my NPR Music colleagues to weigh in...
Taste is something acquired, not from your friends or 'society', but from exposure and knowledge. It can improve over time as your knowledge and exposure grows. The first time I heard some particularly challenging music, such as the Hammerklavier piano sonata by Beethoven, it made no sense to me. My taste in this area has grown over time and is better then than now. Taste, like most other things, can be better or worse.
Now go back and re-read that second quote from NPR. Isn't that the biggest pile of horsepucky you have seen all week? What could possibly be meant by "perceptions help determine musical choices and vice versa"? No, really. Especially the 'vice versa'. The crap we are expected to swallow just gets bigger and bigger.
Honestly, if these are the ideas about music being purveyed by our intellectual elite, then it is no wonder that classical music is in decline.