Saturday, October 6, 2012

Reviving a Standard of Taste

A lot of what I try to do on this blog is to undo the last fifty years of cultural history. Sure, it's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it! What am I talking about? Fifty years ago, there were generally acknowledged standards of taste. There was highbrow culture, middlebrow culture and lowbrow culture and the differences between them were clear. But then a culture war, in the name of relativism, started to erode all these differences. Do you ever think how supremely lazy the resort to relativism is? It is so obvious that cultural artifacts come in differing kinds of quality that you have to be truly indolent to successfully deny it!

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. 


RG said...

I am grateful you have undertaken the task. I am glad you commented on this Skyfall "news story". I clicked on the song a couple of days ago, but could not listen to the whole 3 minutes, more because of the dumb lyrics and faulty composition than disrespect for her "pipes" (I did get through 28 minutes of Stockhause the other day). Your explanations of the differences bewteen Adele and Gheorghiu (sic & sic) are fascinating, but but you can do something deeper. OK, no contest, the training and polish of Gheorghiu's singing in your clip makes a point. And, true, the Wiki on Adele's career and accomplishments reveals nothing of interest. While Gheoghiu's is full of artistic angst (hilarious idea that her prima donna pouts are "political" protests). But it is odd that Gheorghiu says "Pop music is for the body, but opera is for the soul", even though a Google Images search reveals about 1000 times more cleavage than one for Adele does. I urge you to keep probing the cesspool of the culture we live in.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, RG, for your comment and for the encouragement. I have to admit that I was just focused on the music and did not look into the biographies of either Adele or Gheorghiu, as is my usual practice. I think that saying pop music is for the body and classical for the soul does point to an actual difference: pop music has more of a somatic rhythmic appeal (though this song, not so much).

Rickard Dahl said...

Personally I enjoy the Skyfall theme (especially the opening chord, I think it is a minor 9th chord with the 7th ommited but it could be something else). It's certainly alot better than the previous ones. I happen to be a James Bond fan and I like some of the main themes, they serve the purpose well and are certainly more interesting than pop music in general. The ones I enjoy:



You Only Live Twice:

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (this one is actually the only one without singing which makes things more interesting):

Live and Let Die:

For Your Eyes Only:

License to Kill:


And here's the worst one (it doesn't suit at all for a Bond movie and it's plain annoying):

Also, here's an amazing Bond music piece that isn't a main theme (by John Barry, who composed music to 12 of the Bond movies, sadly he passed away over two years ago):

To be honest I probably wouldn't like the pieces (the main themes) so much if they wouldn't be made for James Bond movies (maybe except the main theme to On Her Majesty's Secret Service). But on the other hand the movie music (even if it's pop-like) typically is much more interesting than pop music in general. I don't listen to pop music in general. Except for classical music, I love video game, TV and film music as that kind of music tends to share many similarities with classical music. What do you think in general about video game, TV and film music (maybe you have a post about it already, if so I haven't found it)?

Bryan Townsend said...

That's quite a list, Rickard! I'm only familiar with the earlier ones. I just stopped going to movies, with only a few exceptions, a number of years ago. But James Bond themes and songs do have a quality that sets them somewhat apart from the run of the mill pop themes and songs. As you say, "they serve the purpose well and are certainly more interesting than pop music in general."

I have read about and heard some of the music for Skyrim and that seems very ambitious indeed. But I really haven't explored video game music! I did mention it briefly here:

Rickard Dahl said...

I think I can compile a playlist with some video game music if you want to listen. Note though that it will be video game music that I'm more or less familiar with and mostly from games I've played. Tell me if you're interested.

Rickard Dahl said...

Also, I've been thinking: Is it possible that film-, TV- and video game music is a modern day middlebrow culture? Still, while many may listen to the music in for example movies with excitement the amount of listeners that listen to lets call it soundtrack music outside of its' context are not that many (still nothing compared with the amount of listeners of popular music). Also, the audience seems to be younger in general than for classical music which can certainly be an advantage for orchestras trying to bring in new listeners.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Rickard,

Sorry I haven't responded to your last couple of comments on"soundtrack music". I think that you may have something here. It may be that this is a new kind of middlebrow music--often the only thing resembling classical music that a lot of young people encounter. I am hampered by the fact that I don't play video games and don't know the repertoire (though I did watch a clip about recording the music for Skyrim). Why don't you put together something that would introduce people to this repertoire? I for one would be interested.

Rickard Dahl said...

Sure, any thoughts about the length of the playlist? 1 hour, 2 hours, less or more?

Rickard Dahl said...

Nevermind, it's already over 1h15mins and there's still lots I want to include. Ofc, everyone can listen to as much as they want of it, not necessarily everything, so maybe better make it too long than too short.

Bryan Townsend said...

Are you going to post the playlist on your blog?

Rickard Dahl said...

I don't have a blog.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, maybe we should put it up here on my blog?

Rickard Dahl said...

Sure, here's the playlist:

It's not very varied when it comes to music from many different games as it's mostly from games I'm familiar with (as I've mentioned earlier). Either way feel free to listen to all of it or parts of it and comment.

Rickard Dahl said...

Have you listened to the playlist yet?