Thursday, August 24, 2017

A Whig Theory of Music History

A really odd consequence of the complaint that the older generation never understands the younger one, well-exemplified in the dueling comments to my post on Eurocentric music, is that the culture can never be in decline. Every generation has newer and better music than the one before. Kanye West is as important as Beethoven because his music is of the now. This theory of the inevitability of progress is known in historiographical circles as "Whig history."

I happen to think that music history, like all history, has its ups and downs. The glories of late 18th and early 19th century Vienna were followed by the dreary pomposity of the mid 19th century. The astonishing delights of the high Baroque were followed by the peculiar oddities of C. P. E. Bach and J. C. Bach before Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven got going. Music history ebbs and flows and it is odd to think that ebbing is no longer possible. But that is the hidden claim every time someone says, hey, you can't criticize the music of Kanye West because he speaks to the youth of today. All disputes about popular music are clouded by a lot of sociological problems and the lack of much in the way of procedural clarity, but surely there are better and worse in this field as in every other.

Even if we just look at popular music, we see that moments of great creativity, such as we see in the last half of the 1960s with many brilliant albums by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and a host of others, can be followed by a creative lull within which perhaps are stirring the new shoots of an entirely different musical style: disco, punk and so on. I have tuned in and out of popular music ever since 1970 with the release of Abbey Road, so my knowledge is spotty at best. I tuned back in for a while in the early 1980s and found some interesting and stimulating music being made by the Talking Heads, David Bowie, the English Beat and others. But then I got bored again!

I think the two basic issues with the historiography of popular music are the sociology of it and the foreshortening that comes from the lack of any historical distance on it. Actually, I don't think "foreshortening" is quite the right word, but I'm not sure there is one. What I mean is that all the events, persons and styles of popular music of our time seem to loom very large simply because they occupy nearly all of the public musical space. Someone like Kanye West seems a huge creative artist because he is part of our time and constantly issuing new recordings and performances. The same holds for a lot of others like Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. They all loom rather large. But let's make a comparison: Beyoncé is releasing a 600-page coffee-table book (for $300) about the creation of her album Lemonade. Surely this is an indicator of the historical importance of the music? But the real comparison here is the book that Madonna released in 1992, at the height of her fame and influence: Sex.

At the time it was a big deal, but now it is just a quaint relic of the era. I choose this as an example instead of a particular piece of music because it highlights the point without igniting a musical debate which can soon become rather technical.

As for the sociology, this comes into play in a number of ways. First of all, we all have passionate love affairs with certain kinds of music. In the popular arena, the music that was coming out when we were in our late teens always seems to be with us. Most people do not go on a musical journey of discovery throughout their lives. Classical music lovers are a bit different, though. Some are like this, but others are constantly searching for new varieties of music. But in the pop field this is less common. The other sociological factor is that pop music is usually not primarily about the abstract aesthetic elements, but about the "message" which is part and parcel with the sociological context. Fair enough, but it complicates the aesthetic evaluation of the music.

Anyway, just some musing on the historiographical problems of talking about pop music. If you want to read a really interesting and revealing essay on musical historiography, you will find one by Richard Taruskin standing as the introduction to his mammoth Oxford History of Western Music. He titles it "The History of What?" and it is well worth your time.

Time for some music. This is "L’alouette calandrelle" from Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux. The pianist is Messiaen's wife Yvonne Loriod:

Incidentally, you can see how large Kanye West looms in comparison with this clip when you consider that one of his songs typically has tens of millions of views on YouTube. The clip above, when I viewed it had, wait for it, one hundred and thirty six!


Marc Puckett said...

On Spotify, Kanye has 20.3 million monthly listeners, Messiaen, 174,153. Hans Pfitzner, my current terra incognita, has 26,811.

Thanks very much for the Eurocentric? post which occasioned so many interesting comments! Am going to re-read all of it in sequence today.

Bryan Townsend said...

Up to forty comments now and the whole discussion was very interesting.

Anonymous said...

Move over Mr. West! Gangnam Style is about to pass 3 billion views! Now no one will confuse that song with high art, but one would have to have an ear of stone to find the tune anything other than catchy and hilarious.

Bryan Townsend said...

The world of music has many houses!