Elitism and Eclecticism
The New York Times recently published a problematic yet provocative opinion piece by Shamus Khan called “The New Elitists” about the changing tastes of the upper classes. The musical and artistic inclinations of the rich, Khan argues, are no longer characterized by exclusivity, but instead by eclecticism:
Instead of liking things like opera because that’s what people of your class are supposed to like, the omnivore likes what he likes because it is an expression of a distinct self… By contrast, those who have exclusive tastes today—middle-class and poorer Americans—are subject to disdain.
The idea that elites congratulate themselves on their eclectic tastes, while not recognizing that they are class-determined, is thought-provoking and significant. The reality, however, is certainly at least a little more complicated; for one thing, you certainly don’t need to be painfully wealthy to have eclectic tastes. It’s also extremely rare to find someone who is universally eclectic, as Bethany Bryson shows in her article “Anything But Heavy Metal.” Bryson’s research asserts that, while musical eclecticism does generally increase with education and affluence, certain genres still tend to be excluded:
People use cultural taste to reinforce symbolic boundaries between themselves and categories of people they dislike… Tolerant musical taste is found to have a specific pattern of exclusiveness: Those genres whose fans have the least education-gospel, country, rap, and heavy metal-are also those most likely to be rejected by the musically tolerant.
The specific genre boundaries may have shifted a bit in the 15 years since Bryson’s study first came out, but the principle still holds. There’s another aspect that’s absent from Bryson and Khan’s assertions, however: call it “anything but opera” or “anything but jazz” or “anything but atonal music.” In other words, stereotypically “high class” or “elite” genres also tend to be excluded. (This is vividly and hilariously captured in Dave Soldier and Nina Mankin’s “Most Unwanted Song,” which combines operatic, atonal cowboy raps with children’s chorus, accordion, and bagpipes.)
I bring all this up because in the new music world we often equate eclecticism with accessibility. If we combine “difficult” music with influences from popular music and other genres, the theory goes, we will attract new and more diverse audiences, and shed the stigma of elitism that surrounds new music. But I can just as easily imagine a scenario where the opposite is true: if you demand familiarity with many genres instead of just one, you may actually alienate more listeners than you attract. Clearly, the interaction between eclecticism and elitism is much more complicated and fraught than many people realize.
I struggle with this because throughout my life I’ve internalized the idea that musical eclecticism is important, and something that makes my generation of composers distinct from previous generations. If you were a student composer in the 60s or 70s and you weren’t writing in a style that utilized serialism, chances are things were very difficult for you. The next generation rightly reacted violently against this tyranny and embraced minimalism and popular music as influences. Many composers in this group, some of whom I count among my teachers, rejected serialism and other extreme branches of the avant-garde entirely, believing them to be completely bereft, soulless dead ends. By contrast, many composers of my generation fail to see the contradiction between the popular and the avant-garde. To us, the previous generation had simply exchanged one kind of prescriptivism for another. Not having grown up under any particular kind of aesthetic oppression, anything and everything could be a valid source of inspiration.
Of course, this kind of eclecticism isn’t limited to music. In “Literature as a Mirror,” Kyle Gann uses literary fiction’s obsession with “perfect sentences” as a metaphor for new music’s fetishization for ornate notation. Throughout, Gann mentions David Foster Wallace as an example of a writer who could be utterly compelling or boring, despite writing consistently accomplished prose. Wallace is a particularly revealing example to pick out, I think, since he was clearly engaged in the same kind of self-conscious eclecticism that composers often engage in. I am not sure all of Wallace’s writing has aged well, but I remember finding it exhilarating when I first encountered it. The combination of an outsized vocabulary, convoluted sentence structure, and copious footnotes with colloquialisms, contractions, slang, and undisguised sentimentality—it is clearly an attempt to rejuvenate language in a particular way. But if you are not interested in or not aware of this project, I can see how it would be uninteresting. Perhaps self-conscious musical eclecticism is similar, and as a “project” only speaks clearly to other composers.