Sunday, September 20, 2009

Evaluating Popular Music

Recently, I was privy to an interesting discussion. All the participants were well-educated "classical" musicians, who were talking about some of the more accessible contemporary pieces (such as Lieberson's Neruda Songs). For whatever reason, the conversation strayed to pop music. One participant began his comments with "I don't listen to pop music, but I think..."

Wow. To be honest, I tuned out then and there. Perhaps our modern new media has made "analysis" like this acceptable, but if someone said "I'm a Presbyterian, but here are my thoughts on the Catholic Church" or "I'm an avowed Marxist, and this is what's wrong with the free market economy", would we really listen to them? Of course, they might be better educated in the subject than we, and we might be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, but wouldn't we naturally recognize the inherent bias in their position? What if someone said "I've studied and published on contemporary novels, and I don't read anything on the 'New York Times' best seller list, but this is what I think"? They work in the field, sure. But popular fiction isn't their specialty. I suppose what I'm getting at is: what makes someone, trained in a particular sub-specialty of a particular discipline, feel that they have the right to *intelligently* comment on something that falls beyond their scope? We wouldn't take kindly to a jazz wunderkind commenting blithely on Don Giovanni, and we wouldn't listen to a Renaissance student's pontifications on Stockhausen. Why not? Surely they're trained in their field, they can listen to and perform and analyze music within that field, right?

Yes. But, they simply don't know enough about trends, styles, historical and contemporary context, and dozens of other pieces of information that separate true scholars and intelligent consumers from people who make an at best tangential engagement with the material. They simply wouldn't know enough to make insightful, intelligent comments. It seems obvious, no? But my beleaguered interlocutor made his comments in all seriousness, and many people in the room listened to them with a similar earnestness.

I asked myself why for days. Applying Occam's razor, I wondered if it was simply an inability to think critically. However, these listeners were graduate students, so they were old hands at critically evaluating information... yet, they still seriously absorbed his comments. This means they were all totally ok with his admitted lack of knowledge about the subject, and that they still felt he had something to offer. No one in this same crowd would have read a review that started "Well, I didn't even go to the concert, but this is what I thought," or a book that began "I have never listened to Schubert, but here is my analysis and interpretation." Why, then, did they even begin to entertain this gentleman's comments?

The answer I arrived at was far more sinister: This guy's only talking about pop music after all. Who cares if he doesn't listen to it? We're all intelligent musicians, who are far above that genre, and it's so simple! Of course, it's perfectly natural for him to express his opinion about it, since he probably knows more about pop music than anyone who plays it or writes it or listens to it. It is more or less this set of assumptions that underlies an academy that would never DREAM of harboring a conversation like this about other topics, but can allow it with regards to popular art forms.* These assumptions are about the music's worth and value, but they are also assumptions about who is equipped to deal with the music. Apparently, any yahoo who's ever taken a theory or history class or who plays a "serious" instrument or who listens to "classical" music is well-versed enough to make judgements about an art form they don't even listen to.

Friends, let me tell you a story. It's a story of a young man, struggling to become part of this same academy, and who wouldn't hesitate a second to pass judgement on pop music, even things that he'd never listened to. Then, a wise man pointed out to me that, yes, pop music was simple. So what? Get over yourself! You can't evaluate it like you would "classical" music, because it's not created for the same reasons. Oh, so "Crank that" by Soulja Boy Tell 'em is simple, repetitive, and has a beat?** It's dance music. And it's GREAT dance music. It's terrible art music, sure. But it's not supposed to be. That person was me, and I will be the first to acknowledge that I was quite an arrogant, ignorant young punk. But, I've since reformed. I love Fall Out Boy, and completely ignore friends who make fun of me for it, knowing that they've never listened to a whole album. I try not to judge any band (much less style) without listening to a lot of it more than once. And I always try to take into account the reasons the music was created while I'm making a value judgement, realizing that I can not like the piece, but that it can still be a good one, and one that amply fulfills the criteria for which it was created.***

That said, I can't abide someone who just starts making value judgements about something they know nothing about. Or an academy that (tacitly or explicitly) ok's that kind of behavior.

Update, 10pm: Thanks to the folks at NPR's music site, I discovered the best possible example to illustrate my point:

She also does this to "Help" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." No one can possibly deny that she's one of the most talented voices of the 20th century. But, that doesn't mean that she can "do" pop music. Yes, I know these are interpretations, and are created for a different purpose etc., but the ethos is still the one I was railing against. Enjoy!

* I don't mean to imply that this is THE way the academy is, and that things haven't changed markedly over the last 20-30 years. However, we still live in a day and age where a full professor can scathingly say "you should have the skills" to study Dark Side of the Moon.

** I'm not trying to be ironic or hip, and I'm certainly not picking on the song. I picked it because the video has a scene where a representative of "the Man" sees his kids do the dance, and then searches out the video himself. It's somewhat symbolic.

*** From Tasha Robinson, via Phil from Dial M... :

1 comment:

  1. I, too, am a graduate student in musicology and therefore have taken place in many seminars where the less-informed staunchly state a case. Nevertheless, a seminar setting is meant to foster the expression of independent thought—even if that thought may be incorrect. It is far too dangerous to our field for people to not vocalize their pontifications in such a "friendly" atmosphere and subsequently continue to assume that they are right. This disillusionment could potentially lead to an embarrassment for our respectable institutions in the form of an ill-advised comment being made to an outside person of true stature. I am reminded of an individual that was once a member of the same musicology department as me—this person, who shall go nameless, continually offered opinions that failed to meet even the most basic requirements of scholastic thought. I am thankful however, that these comments were made in front of me and our other graduate musicology collogue so that my colleague and I could attempt to place the unnamed person on the path toward truth. I cringe at the thought of a representative of my program making these comments to someone on the search committee or hiring committee of another institution. In returning to your original point, fault should not be bestowed on the student who made the value judgment, but on the students who did not correct him.