Friday, August 26, 2011

Rethinking My Position

Ok, here’s the deal; I was wrong. I hate to admit it, I really do, but I must be honest with myself. After watching Tuesday’s semifinal round of “America’s Got Talent,” the grandest display of amateur talent the world has ever seen, I fear I must mourn the loss of the starry-eyed idealism that I expressed in last year’s post concerning this hit TV series. For those you who may not remember (or who never read), last year's post chocked back excitement for the rise in classical music’s cultural capital—a phenomenon that I truly felt we were witnessing. In summary of the previous entry, I expressed the opinion that the competition’s continued dominance by classically trained (and more importantly competent) musicians was a sign that Americans were starting to make the long and arduous return to artistic refinement. After watching the latest round of the current season, I am left questioning the haste of my celebration. At this moment, my sentiments on the subject read more like a cantankerous old coot who scolds the neighborhood kids for “playing that god-awful racket too darn loud.” In the first draft of this post, I even went so far as to say, “I am now forced to recognize that the American masses are so blinded by the pizzazz that the talent-less hacks of today’s Top 40 continually pass off as ‘music,’ that we as a society, are truly incapable of differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ That is to say, when something is presented to us under the guise of talent and refinement, we accept it without question.” However, in review of my words, I acknowledge that I may have been too harsh. After all, we as trained musicologists must remember that we listen deeper and more acutely than most other folks. If this were not the case, the little need there is for us would be greatly diminished. Nonetheless, I stand by my aggravation and disappointment.

My fit of exaggerated discontent was caused by the performance (and all performances prior) of Lyes Agnes, a self-proclaimed, though utterly untrained opera singer. Ms. Agnes is a favorite of both the judges and the audience, as she has strikingly beautiful personal style and a heart-warming story. Throughout the show, her talents have been praised for her ability to perform classical works—though her song on Tuesday night was a rock song with “classical” vocal stylings—with technique and poise. However, I am always left wondering if the judges and I saw the same performance. Again, recognizing my belligerent attitude, her spotty pitch, over singing, inappropriate use of ornamentation, incorrect breathing and poor posture, leave me feeling utterly unimpressed.

I do not mean to single out Ms. Agnes, or to suggest that her decidedly “unclassical” approaches are the reasons that classical music will not witness an elevation in cultural capital anytime soon. She has, though, opened my eyes (and I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing). Music, as suggested by my heroes of the Marxist School of Cultural theory, has simply been commercialized and commoditized to the point that an understanding and appreciation of true art has slipped from our collective consciousness.

With that said, there are several very good musicians still in the game, not the least of which are Daniel Joseph Baker and the band Poplyfe. The difference however, is that the aforementioned groups are not watered-down versions of classical musicians; they are powerful and talented popular music acts. And, for some reason, this sort of labeling makes a world of difference in how I perceive them.


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  2. Update: I just saw this week's results show and Lyes Agnes went through at the expense of Daniel Joseph Baker. I feel that this reinforces my gloomy new outlook.

  3. And part of me has to wonder how much the "Black women can't sing opera" trope has operated as a subtext throughout her marketing. Such a subtext would make the faux-heroic triumph of her career seem not just a personal but a cultural accomplishment. One of the comments on a youtube video seemed telling: "now thats a performer. you can tell that she is really getting into it. The expressions she makes gives me the impression that she is dedicating this beautiful, outstanding performance to her fionce. so moving! :*)"

    I think Tyler's post can be summed up in one sentence: however impressive this is for people without musical training, it just doesn't hold water with trained musicians.

    This post begs another question: how much time do you spend watching this, Tyler?

  4. John, as always, I truly appreciate your insights. Also, I think you are dead on with your summation of my thoughts. And, I think this is the ultimate battle between "pop" and "art." Fun to consider.

    You bring up a great point with the race element; I am a bit embarrassed that I, with my training as an ethnomusicologist and as a historical musicologist, did not consider this. Though folks like Jessye Norman have made significant progress in this area, there is still a sickening degree of separation along race lines within the opera community as well as the larger classical music world. I wonder how much race affects her reception as compared to other, purely musical elements.

    Finally, to answer your question, I watch both the performance and the results shows every week. I have been watching the show for three years and I plan to continue watching for many more years.