Saying No to Yes



Philip Kennicott
Courtesy of The Washington Post

When I was a teenager, I didn’t have much use for popular culture and especially popular music. It didn’t speak to me and it didn’t offer any particularly useful clues to negotiating adolescence. I didn’t turn to music for rebellion (I got my rebellion elsewhere) because popular music didn’t seem particularly counter cultural. How can rebellion survive being mass marketed for a mass audience? If I needed to indulge teenage angst, there was always Brahms, which, in the early 1980s, in a suburb of identical houses and streets named after the trees and towns of England, was a strange, immersing sound that offered a more complete escape than anything I could find on the radio.

In college, my friends tried to correct what had become a glaring gap in my education. They would recommend things, I would give them a listen, and, in most cases, set them aside. One young man in sandals, who planned to put his wealthy Connecticut past behind him and live as an organic garlic farmer (after he finished his expensive education), suggested something call Yes. It was atrocious—I remember, in particular, a kind of countertenor squealing with orgiastic pleasure. But a few things crept into my consciousness over the years. Gil Scott-Heron warning the world that the Revolution Will Not Be Televised seemed to have hit on a particularly ironic truth. Bob Dylan played endlessly from somebody’s stereo and I can still remember most of it. Elvis Costello came with an intellectual edge that was appealing. I also loved the voice of Johnny Cash and once told a friend that Cash would make a great Boris, which got a blank stare in return.

Over the years, I collected eight compact discs of popular music, which I now store in a special section among the ten thousand other CDs that form caverns of plastic in my basement. A record company once sent, by mistake, two discs by the Beach Boys; I have a Joni Mitchell album I have yet to listen to; ex-boyfriends left music by the Pet Shop Boys and The Beautiful South; and on my own, for sentimental reasons, I invested in some Billy Holiday and Leadbelly.

By the time I reached New York, in my twenties, ignorance of popular music had become almost a linguistic handicap. I couldn’t speak the language around me. At parties, I couldn’t start a conversation by commenting on the background music. At clubs, I was at a loss when the opening of a particular song elicited a frenzy of excitement, or groans. I learned that astrology was a very good way of making small talk when you had no music in common with your contemporaries. Who can argue with astrology? Oh, you’re a Leo? Yes, Leo’s are like that. And I’d natter on about Saturn in the house of Venus with a new moon rising, which means, of course, that love is in the air. I never once got laid for liking opera.

As a writer, the handicap was more serious. There was a growing ideology, in the arts world, that boundaries between types of music and types of art were a bad thing. Tear down walls, was the prevailing bromide for saving high culture. A critic who could pepper his discussion of opera with references to popular culture was seen as particularly attuned to the zeitgeist (there is, of course, no such things as the zeitgeist, but cultural journalism would fail without it). It was painful to watch writers who weren’t good at straddling worlds try to straddle them all the same.

Newspapers were filled with ghastly writing about how Beethoven rocks and Mozart was the bad boy of music in his day. This kind of writing is still out there, mostly in smaller newspapers in places where it’s obligatory for writers about high culture to write about it apologetically.

American classical music reflected much the same insecurity about its roots. Composers were turning away from writing new music to write various pastiches of early-20th century sounds. There was an effort, ill-advised mostly, to resurrect the “great” American symphonists, Hanson, Thompson, Creston. This vast regression in taste arrived, conveniently enough, in time to ride out the Reagan/Bush years. There was renewed interest in Hollywood film music, as well, and this began to make inroads into the concert hall. And it became very unfashionable to insist that Broadway Musicals and Stephen Sondheim are not really suited to the opera house, have little in common with opera, and will not save opera from some perceived inadequacy with younger listeners.

It was fashionable to import pop sounds into classical contexts, juxtaposing styles on programs that were inevitably called “adventurous.” Younger composers went further, integrating pop sounds into classical pieces, which trendy critics hailed not so much for the success of the music, but for its post-modern daring. Eclecticism was celebrated. This became the new orthodoxy. A positive eclecticism suggested that one could pick and choose one’s music freely, from all kinds of sources, without fear of being considered vulgar for liking one sound, or a snob for liking another. But positive eclecticism, which may yet prevail, was accompanied by a more pernicious, obligatory, eclecticism. High culture couldn’t be enjoyed exclusively. It had to be compensated for, diluted by and balanced with a public declaration of affection for pop culture. Or so it seemed, if you were a writer who focused primarily on high culture.

Snobbery, in America, has very little to do with class anymore. Every pastime has its own, indigenous snobbery. There are food snobs, book snobs, opera snobs, and home-decorating snobs. But there are also NASCAR snobs, hockey snobs, lawn-mower snobs and snowboard snobs. In a fractious society, identity is manufactured, negotiated, and sustained by living in tiny fiefdoms of one’s own making. A mature citizen takes it as no slight if he or she is dismissed as subhuman for wearing the wrong shoes. The dismissal isn’t personal; it’s an effort to clear some cultural space, to limit the white noise of the world, to exist apart from the mass by criteria of one’s own construction.

I do, however, feel a little sorry for pop music snobs. They have grounded their snobbery on the shifting sands of a vast, heartless, commercial enterprise. The pop music business caters to the young, not to 25-year-olds. By 30, the music that defined your youth has gone dormant, waiting an indeterminate time to be rediscovered in an ironic context, by a new generation. If your music snobbery is based on embracing the new before it has become widely popular, the race is ever more difficult. At some point, you must retreat to the shameful privacy of your iPod, into which you furtively download the oldies.

Classical music remains, however, as it ever was. Meaningless, marginal, irrelevant, and all but dead as a creative art form. If pop music is a stern but fickle mistress, classical music is a faithful one. Homely, but reliable. Now that I’m in my thirties, it doesn’t seem nearly so much a handicap (as it once was) that I don’t speak the lingua franca of pop music. Although classical sounds are still fused into pop contexts, the cultural exchange doesn’t flourish in the opposite direction. The novelty appeal has worn off. Critics, some of them at least, aren’t afraid of re-establishing distinctions.

A cultural effort that began as an attempt to make high culture accessible was unmasked as a colonial enterprise—establish hegemony over high culture, mine its resources, give nothing back—and it is finally being resisted (with some success). High culture had to give up any pretensions of cultural centrality; that loss will seem increasingly less insignificant if, in the end, it maintains its integrity. Unfortunately, the stewards of our cultural institutions, who are always a decade or so behind the zeitgeist (which doesn’t exist), have mostly surrendered the authority it will take to preserve high culture. Others will have to do it for them, outside the context of the professional performing arts world.

The enemy of free and unfettered listening, in the end, wasn’t elitism. The enemy was and is commercialism—a commercialism that demanded obeisance to the ephemeral, and corrupted the integrity of existing traditional forms. It has seriously wounded culture at all levels, vitiating the distinctiveness of different types of music. It has attacked country and western as viciously as it attacked opera. Perhaps the best thing that can happen to the music business, in all its guises, is something like what Napster first promised: the end of the mass commodification of music. This was, after all, an historical aberration of sorts. If music could be detached from profiteering and consumerism, it would be forced back onto its first principles: live performance, ritual, and small-scale communion. A new “popular” music—if that’s the right word for a music that would be exchanged only in concerts, clubs, and on street corners—would be a popular music worth looking into. So long as there was no obligation to do so.