Sunday, October 25, 2009

NPR and Criticism

Not long ago, I read an article criticizing NPR's "Top Songs of the Year (So Far) list for being too "white." The author contends that "it's not that NPR doesn't like black music. It merely maintains a strict preference for black music that few actual living African-Americans listen to." Maybe so, maybe not. In my opinion, anyone who genuinely wants to keep a pulse on "black" music (more or less defined by the article in terms of what it's not: white, indie, guitar-driven, college educated, alive, young, local, and hip/fresh/non-retro) doesn't use NPR. Listening to NPR for current trends in rap/ hip-hop makes less sense than buying The New Yorker strictly for the cartoons. And I can see some merits in the author's point that "In matters of musical taste, everyone has a God-given right to provincialism and conservatism, even those NPR listeners who consider themselves cosmopolitan and liberal," although I think forcing yourself to consume music you do not like simply to be "cosmopolitan and liberal" is asinine. 

And I was doing well even through the comparison of the NPR "Best Music..." list with the fact that " 2009, the No. 1 song on the Billboard charts has been by a black or female artist—or by groups featuring both blacks and whites or men and women—a total of 41 out of 42 weeks." What got my dander up was the article's snippy "Who are the progressives again—the public radio crowd or the Top 40 great unwashed?" So, "progressive" equals "listening to music that prominently features black or female artists?" And the "great unwashed," because of their support of this music (isn't that what the chart statistics are proving, support?), are more progressive? Breaking "progressive" into such simplistic (and borderline racist) terms does no one any good. More over, it trivializes the complexities of production and consumption of race in music into antagonistic binaries. I'm not going to defend NPR and what they chose to conceive of "black" music, but in their exposure of non- mainstream "black" artists, they inform their listeners about the entire spectrum of "black" music, a spectrum that takes far more into account that Top 40 hits.

However, I will criticize NPR for its endorsement of Bernstein's recording of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. And, for its sales pitch: "In the remarkable finale, Shostakovich achieves one of the greatest coups of his symphonic career: a "victorious" closer that drives home the expected message and at the same time makes an entirely different point — the real one." This whole trope of Shostakovich study was begun with the fraudulent memoir "Testimony," and was continued through a slew of noxious, pseudo-musicological "interpretations" that I won't even mention by name on my blog. This trope persists, in program and liner notes and pre-concert lectures (last weekend I saw a legitimate conductor spew some of this same nonsense before Shostakovich's 10th Symphony), and most frustratingly, in legitimate scholarly publications by scholars who did not critically analyze their sources. It's a serious historiographic problem, and one that I will return to soon.

"..An entirely different point- the real one." Please. Aside of being elitist and overly dramatic, and ignoring for sake of time the hermeneutic implications of such statements, sticking to such an interpretation with Bernstein's recording, BERNSTEIN'S!, the fastest one I have ever heard **, is mindless. The tempo at the end is so fast, so stereotypically reliant on traditional symphonic gestures of closure that the possibility for other interpretations doesn't even exist... and that does a huge disservice to Shostakovich and intelligent consumers of art music.

** Compare Bernstein's (8:53) with Rostropovich's (12:04)

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