Corny Music

One of my big goals for the summer is to tackle a large pile of leisure reading books I’ve accumulated over the school year. One such book is The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, investigative journalism about the American, capitalist food industry—both the “organic” and the synthetic—that is seriously making me consider vegetarianism.

From the very introduction of the book, “Our National Eating Disorder,” I noticed a connection between one of the central findings of his research and an argument for why classical music (“art music,” “intelligent music,” whatever you’d like to call it) is necessary:

There exists a fundamental tension between the logic of nature and the logic of human industry, at least as it is presently organized. Our ingenuity in feeding ourselves is prodigious, but at various points our technologies come into conflict with nature’s way of doing things, as when we seek to maximize efficiency by planting crops or raising animals in vast monocultures. This is something nature never does, always and for good reasons practicing diversity instead. A great many of the health and environmental problems created by our food system owe to our attempts to oversimplify nature’s complexities.

The capitalist system wants to make money by finding one product (or in the case of music, one aesthetic) that sells and mass-producing it in monocultures. One of the great things Pollan does is describe just how many of the products available at the supermarket, the seemingly teeming diversity, can essentially just be broken down into corn. I had no idea just how many food products depend on cheap corn, or just how much petroleum goes into the transport and manufacturing of that cheap corn. Why are we having corn stuffed down our throats? Because of a series of laws designed to keep farm production high and prices low, “impoverishing farmers (both here and in the countries to which we export it), degrading the land, polluting the water, and bleeding the federal treasury, which now spends up to $5 billion a year subsidizing cheap corn.” (From the chapter, “The Farm,” p. 54.)

Pollan had a biologist at Berkeley run a test to determine just how much corn was in a typical McDonald’s meal and the percentages came out like this: soda (100%), milk shake (78%), salad dressing (65%), chicken nuggets (56%), cheeseburger (52%), and French fries (23%).

Just because it’s cheap and easy to find doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you, healthy, or even natural; in fact, the reality of the situation might be the exact opposite. Let’s take a couple of indie/alternative rock bands and break them down into their constituents. Or compare major pop artists. Or major rappers. Break them down into their percentages and see what they’re really made of (the instrumentation, the chord progressions, the melodic phrasing, the rhythmic variation, the virtuosity, etc.) and examine just how diverse our “diversity” really is.

Corn.

Recently, St. John Flynn of Houston Public Radio, KUHF’s “ The Front Row,” has been helping me out with my broadcast series of The Shepherd School of Music Symphony Orchestra on the Rice University radio station, KTRU. After thanking him profusely for going out of his way to teach me, he said that any opportunity to get more classical music on the airwaves is worth the time, because people need to have options—a healthy range of music to choose from—so the more classical the better. Programming classical music is important because diversity is natural. More than that, programming new music is important because it gives even more diversity.

Do you agree or disagree with my metaphor? Do you think it makes sense to draw connections between the ways that the system has failed the health of America’s food and America’s music?

One thought on “Corny Music

  1. Armando

    The analogy to corn certainly seems appropriate. I’ve always been amazed at the amount of hair splitting pop music criticism engages in when describing the work of musicians that doesn’t seem all that disparate to me, yet when confronted simply with the concept of “classical” music, often the very same people who split hairs about pop complain that it all “sounds the same.”

    Now, you are oversimplifying a little bit, however. This lack of diversity occurs regardless of genres (just think of the usual stereotypes concerning new/modern music, about it all sounding like “bloops and farts” or being “just noise”) and has more to do with humans’ inherent fear of the unfamiliar (the introduction to Nicholas Slonimsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective” is required reading on this subject) than anything else. Throw capitalism into the equation, and forget about it: lowest common denominator for all!

    Reply

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