Ivory Towers of Glass II

Continuing along with this post, I’d like to touch on another sweeping generalization about pop music. And, much like last time (and in general on this blog), by “pop music” I mean the overly-broad designation referring to commercially successful styles and their satellites, however remote, ranging from Stephen Foster to Tom Jones to Radiohead to White Zombie to Gwen Stefani and everything in between. The last post touched upon misconceptions over pop music’s substance and content, relating to Mr. Arepo’s post on the topic on Think Classical. Here, I’d like to engage with his other post, that of pop music’s economic and social context.

Mr. Arepo lays it all out in the title of this post (“Pop Music: the Most Insidious Form of Capitalist Brainwashing“), going on to rename pop music as “commodity music.” I certainly agree to a point – commodity musics abound in Western society, though such trends aren’t isolated to rhythm sections and lead guitars alone – yes, André Rieu and Kenny G, I’m looking at you. While I don’t completely buy into the “brainwashing” aspect of the argument, I believe that money is the ultimate goal instead of art in most cases. Much like there’s ultimately no overarching liberal or conservative media, but rather a money-making media more concerned for its financial interests than anything else. Selling itself is what what matters, not necessarily what is being sold. And in many cases, consumers are happy to buy in. As much as we don’t want to, we must accept that many folks just don’t want art, they just want “something nice/fun.” I’ve learned that truth by playing a few too many wallpaper gigs in a variety of styles over the years. And, personally, I don’t fear the word “entertainment” itself. But that’s another topic for another day. (Further reading: My dear friend Pat Harris does this argument justice in his 06.05.14 blog post.)

So, I agree to a point. However, one can’t throw pop music at large under the bus of financial greed. Yes, there’s a capitalist context concerned with financial gain. But the mixing of money and music – and art in general – is not a new phenomenon. Musicians have been trying to make a living off of selling their music for hundreds of years, be it through publishing or subscription concerts. Yes, we now have capitalism and its ugly sibling advertising. But what about the centuries-long tradition of religious patronage? The are myriad examples from the Catholic Church (Palestrina, de Lassus, Gabrieli), Protestants (J.S. Bach, Buxtehude, Sweelinck), and more. And how about aristocratic patronage? Louis XIV employed Lully, and Haydn enjoyed a lush post at the Esterházy court for decades. Yes, Mozart and Beethoven fought against aristocratic patronage via a variety of means, but rich friends and public concertizing helped subsidize along the way. Should such performances, be it for the public or for private subscription concerts, be considered too different than a rock band playing a club in the city – or, for that matter, a house party? Even Wagner – a shared love of Mr. Arepo and myself – owed money throughout Europe and in part relied on King Ludwig II for financial stability. Musicians, including yours truly, have long relied on teaching as supplemental income, and the university has created a modern-day patronage system, albeit one whose bubble is starting to burst and will likely implode in the near future.

All of the aforementioned contexts are simply to say that if today’s pop music is nothing more than a tool of the corporate machine, then should Haydn’s output be rejected en masse as aristocratic brainwashing? Are Perotin and Bach simply religious pawns? Gesualdo, widely and rightly considered a radical composer, was himself an Italian noble, and yet he exemplified the  “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” lifestyle as much as Marilyn Manson, although perhaps not as much as Varg Vikernes and a few other elite scumbags.

Mr. Arepo hangs much of this post’s hat on quotes by Theodor Adorno and Noam Chomsky – two intellectual heavyweights who provide much insight on a host of topics. They are good quotes and thoughts in and of themselves. However, the curated and annotated quotes are undermined by red herrings: some sensational pictures of Marilyn Manson, Katy Perry, and a Suicide Girl-esque model in kitschy Nazi regalia. I won’t go into my full-throated defense of Marilyn Manson here (though I could). Yes, he’s at times silly, but overall there’s arguably more meat than on Gaga’s dress. And I’m no fan of Ms. Perry, even if I live in the next neighborhood over from a landmark. As for the “hotsy-totsy Nazi,” I thought he’d at least include Michelle “Bombshell” McGee – and her supposed white power tattoos – if going that route, but my guess is that he opted for the random swastika-clad totty for effect. If so, how is that so different from Lady Gaga’s meat dress? Aside from actual white power music, there’s a legitimate discussion to be had regarding the inclusion of the swastika in punk rock artwork and fashion, but I doubt that Mr. Arepo had that in mind, though I could be wrong. (Speaking for myself, I consider using the swastika for shock value by punks to be an empty and pointless gesture. Sorry, Sid.)

The real dilemma here – and it’s indeed a dire one – is that of the corporate machine versus the grassroots. Wall St. vs. Main St., canon vs. the avant-garde. It’s not the musical style but rather the commercial context. Bob Shingleton polices this trend in classical music wonderfully at Overgrown Path. Orchestra halls, opera houses, radio programs, and universities worldwide obsess over classical music’s Top 40 at the expense of artistically equal but much lesser known figures. But, rightly or wrongly, executives keep programming the same few dozen composers and their works season after season, hoping (and often failing to maintain) financial stability. As someone who teaches music appreciation to non-musicians, one of my fondest memories was seeing such positive reaction to a performance of Harry Partch’s “U.S. Highball” from The Wayward. How is this much different than radio, television, and record executives misappropriating and exploiting various styles of popular music until said style burns out and the next is grabbed off of the conveyor belt? For example, the grunge sub-genre began as rock’s grassroots reaction to 80s mainstream excess until grunge itself was (mis)appropriated and run into the ground in the early 90s via Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and more, and distressed flannel and denim entered high fashion. (For a musician’s perspective, hear Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell discuss this in a recent interview with Marc Maron on WTF.) Wash, rinse, and repeat for every mainstream style of the past several decades.

But the misappropriation of a style is just that: a misappropriation. Do we then throw out the baby with the bathwater? Again, I turn to Mr. Arepo’s nuanced and beautifully-written posts on the Third Reich’s misappropriation of Wagner that led to the fairy tales and conspiracy theories that Wagner was himself the Führer. Therein lies the rub for me with these posts: to go from such thoughtful writing to a wholesale dismissal of valid music based on some preconceived notions and some well-placed, self-fulfilling quotations. Speaking for myself, a musician who is in the trenches with various styles of music, I’m fortunate enough to have a number of very talented friends and colleagues who create some truly moving art in myriad styles: rock, electronic, Americana, experimental, jazz, contemporary classical, and more. And yet, because of the corporatist leviathan that is the music business, many of them are relatively little-known and under-heard, yet they admirably continue to press on regardless. It’s such a crime because many of them are as talented – if not more so – than many of the “name” musicians you’ve heard of in _____ style(s). You can of course argue that I’m just playing favorites with my friends, but I really don’t believe that I am. (With the proper time, I’d like to perhaps start a “spotlight series” on this blog so that interested readers may judge for themselves.) If all of these little- or semi-known practitioners quit today simply because of bad apples and bad behavior at the financial top of their respective style or genre, how would the music continue to grow, or continue at all?

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