Saturday, February 18, 2012

NPR and Musical Taste

NPR's music blog, Deceptive Cadence, has a piece up titled "Why Do People Hate Rap and Opera?" Tempted as I am to take that straight line and run with it, instead, let's look at what they're saying. This item came about after a previous piece called "Where Are Your Musical Blind Spots?" Ah, now I see what's what. Let's, as serious musicologists (and Socrates) might say, 'interrogate' the assumptions behind this. The musical 'blind spots' piece begins with this paragraph:
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 — 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...
"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.

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.


Jon Silpayamanant said...

"perceptions help determine musical choices and vice versa"

Nothing wrong with that claim. It's not saying, after all, that perceptions are the only thing that determines musical choices and vice versa.

Studies on the connection between perception and preference have been around for many decades and are relatively robust as are studies on salience of repeated contact and preference as well as proximity effects and preference.

We're not robots than can absolutely cut ourselves off from our social and biological situations no matter how much philosophers (like Aristotle) like to intellectualize in a vacuum (no that Aristotle didn't dabble in some empiricism here and there, of course).

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Jon,

One of the things wrong with that claim is that it is so abstract that it is difficult to even know what the claim is. It is akin to that catchphrase "perception is reality" which is contradictory at best. If you flesh it out, as you did, in terms of repeated contact, then it starts to have more content.

Actually, it was Plato who was the idealist and Aristotle who was more empirical.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

I only mentioned Aristotle as you brought him up, and as I said, he dabbled with empirical methods, but wasn't that far removed from Plato or any of the other Post-Socratics. Compare the Greeks' styles and methods of thought to two of their contemporaries in China, Mencius and Zhuangzi; or to a couple of their contemporaries in India, Aksapada Gautama and Chanakya.

"Perception is reality" is really a much more specific and [relatively speaking] unambiguous claim. No hedge phrases like "helps determine" to make it fuzzy. Obviously, it could be considered a figurative usage.

But since Bryson was touted as being a sociologist, I just assumed she would be familiar with the socio-psychological work I mentioned, and just skimming the abstract of the article linked and the first paragraph of her paper as well as her reference list (setting aside Bourdieu citations and the obviously political ones), it seems like she has at least a basic knowledge of the literature and phenomena studied.

Though it's obvious from the references she's a bit light on the philosophical side of things--how could she not reference Lena Jayussi's Categorization and the moral order is beyond me since her paper (and the NPR piece you linked that referenced it) are just a rehash of Jayussi's magnum opus.

I guess it's refreshing to see the common trope tweaked a little but there's hardly anything controversial in [either of] the article[s].

Bryan Townsend said...

Jon, thanks for your further explanation. I hardly looked at the original article by Bryson because what I was focused on was the NPR article--it was their assumptions that I was critiquing, not Bryson's. The interesting thing about the Bryson article is that she finds results contradictory to Bourdieu's about high culture and social exclusion. Now this makes a lot of sense, because it seems clear to me that high art and high social class (i.e. wealth) are no longer connected. The new wealthy, people like Bill Gates, do not support classical music (are more likely to build a museum to Jimi Hendrix). Classical music is no longer an indicator of social class.

James said...

You say taste is something acquired from exposure and knowledge. NPR's article says people's tastes are influenced in three different ways: the sociological boundaries, an understanding of what's being said, and knowledge of the genre.

No matter the academic pedigree of this boundary theory, in practice different genres do attract different audiences. Picture the average classical audience versus the average Taylor Swift, Lil' Kim, or Phish audience. Each artist draws a distinct crowd with its own language, dress, and way of acting (or smoking in the last case). Whether the music or the boundary comes first (and whether this tribal mentality is formed consciously or unconsciously) is a fascinating question, and it seems a bit flippant to dismiss it as false taste.

In the other two respects, it seems like you and NPR actually do agree. So why such a quick, harsh, and complete dismissal of what they say?

Bryan Townsend said...

James, thanks for your comment! Good question. In the portion I quoted, which seemed to be fulfilling the role of stating their basic assumptions, the three things they mentioned were "self-esteem, personal branding and creating social divisions based on things like class and education." This is what I was disagreeing with. Three out of three!

On the other hand, maybe this is completely wishful thinking on my part and nearly all people nearly all the time prefer some music to other music for sociological reasons, not musical reasons. Maybe I just hope it is otherwise...

James said...

I definitely understand the spirit of your comment, and your blog in general. I've been reading it for a couple months now, and we actually have very similar tastes in classical music and the desire to share the greats with the masses.

While I'm a classically trained performer by day, by night I work in the hospitality industry, which has gotten me thinking about how we present what we do and the music we play. I had the thought recently that by putting the emphasis on the music instead of the listener (and even the performer), we might be alienating potential audiences. By saying this music is objectively great, we can unintentionally imply that if it doesn't move you, dear listener, (here's that communication part!), then something is wrong with you.

I'm trying not to fly off in a thousand different directions on this complex issue in a simple comment, so I'll stop there. But thank you for writing this blog and for engaging with those of us who do comment!

Bryan Townsend said...

James, these are some very important questions. I think that I resist the sociological explanations not merely because they seem incorrect, but because I think they tend to reinforce whatever unfortunate social boundaries are present. I come from extremely humble beginnings, both materially and musically. I was born into a very poor family in rural Canada and my mother was a country fiddler. That was my entry into music in general. But I soon discovered classical music and it was the bridge that took me from my humble beginnings to the greater world. So I see music, high quality music, as being a bridge, something that spans social divisions, that joins together all of us who love music.

It is not so much that I am trying to share great music with the masses (I certainly don't think of it in those terms), but that I am trying to open doors, to point out things about music that make it come alive. I think that a lot of people who come to this blog are actually pretty involved with music already.

James, thanks for the comments and for reading the blog.