This line of thought is sparked by my running across a few articles lately on the demise of middlebrow culture. Before fashionable intellectuals assured us that Hollywood movies and popular music were just as meaningful as Shakespeare and Beethoven, there was a market that mixed together high and low: the middlebrow where large numbers of people could encounter and enjoy small helpings of high culture. Andrés Segovia could appear on the Ed Sullivan Show alongside comedians and popular musicians. Leonard Bernstein could conduct Young People's Concerts on nationwide mainstream television, popular magazines like Life could run photo essays on Renoir next to ones on celebrities' love lives. What these early critics failed to envision was that their corrosive attack on high, but especially middlebrow, culture might be so successful that it could cause both of them to disappear from the cultural mainstream.
And that’s what happened. High culture and the middlebrow died one after the other. Both were victims of relativism—the quasi-religious faith of post-sixties eggheads, who abandoned any notions of objective excellence as culturally determined, or as mere artifacts of exploitation, or as mechanisms of social control, or as all of the above. When the idea of objective merit—one thing is better than another, and here’s why—went away, the aspiration to seek it went away, too.But since high, middle and low art are real things, they still exist. And now we have the somewhat comical situation where pieces of obviously lowbrow culture are presented, reverently, as if they are the best we can do! This week saw the release of a new song. Not just any new song, no, this one is sung by Adele, one of the big stars of today. She won six Grammys in 2012, including album of the year. She is at the very forefront of popular music today. A big pop culture franchise is the James Bond movie series, which has run continuously from 1962 to today. So this week, the release of Adele singing the theme song to the new Bond movie, Skyfall, is a cultural event of some note. It should be illustrating the richness of popular culture, but I think it illustrates rather the poverty of it. Let's have a listen:
Here is what is being said about this:
Multiple Grammy award winner Adele's much-awaited theme song for the latest Bond flick 'Skyfall' has made its debut. While critics are saying it has all the makings of a James Bond classic, the song has already topped iTunes chart.
Every classic James Bond theme has a few key elements: inscrutable lyrics that are mysterious, yet intriguing, acres of swelling strings, hints of composer John Barry's iconic "James Bond Theme" and, of course, the kind of powerhouse pipes that make you sit up and take notice during the credit sequence.
By now you've probably heard Adele's addition to the canon, the lush "Skyfall." The dangerous, sexy orchestral pop number ticks off all the boxes on the Bond must-have list...Here is a 'review' so confused and unreadable I can't even find anything to quote.
One thing is clear, this is supposed to be a top-drawer, no-expense-spared, high quality production--a 'classic' of the current culture. Well, so it is. Adele is a very good singer for a pop singer and the song, with its clever weaving in of melodic and harmonic elements from the original James Bond theme, is well-written for a pop song and the production, with its 70-piece orchestra is well-done for a pop song. But applying a little broader aesthetic criteria, it doesn't come out so well. First of all, those lyrics are an embarrassing collage of cryptic and clichéd. In itself that disqualifies the song for further listening. There is no 'there' there. Secondly, sure, Adele is a good singer, but pop singing is just a small sub-set of singing. There are far, far better singers than this everywhere in the classical world. Take Angela Gheorghiu singing Puccini, for example:
Or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Schumann:
Now about that production: it is about as generic a ballad as you could imagine. Rhythmically stuck in a rigid backbeat. The orchestra throbbing in a generic way. There were some nice, unanticipated twists in the melody that took advantage of Adele's voice, but while this song might be perfect as a James Bond theme song, as a free-standing piece of music, there's not much to it.
My point with all this is that after fifty years of assiduously trying to beat down middle and highbrow culture, this, the theme song to a James Bond movie, is what you have left as a standard. We are supposed to believe that this is some kind of aesthetic achievement when what it sounds like is a commercial product created by committee. You can destroy high culture in the marketplace and poo-poo it in the academy, but it is still there and as soon as you set an example of the real thing--real musical artistry--alongside the processed musical product of today, it should be obvious to most ears just what has been lost.