Small wonder

OK, Molly, I did it, I went over and checked out, the latest is-this-really-serious pop-is-bad-classical-is-good manifesto website. Whether or not it’s a joke (A.C. Douglas—O tempora! O mores!thinks it is), it’s an intellectual mess. Announce a campaign against “the idiocy of cultural relativism” and you’d better duck—that’s pretty much the philosophical equivalent of a hanging curve out over the plate. And sure enough, the stated criteria for music (as opposed to “Pop ‘Musics’ or non-music”—if scare quotes had mass, this site would collapse into a black hole) immediately run into trouble.

To count as Art Music, a work must meet ALL* the following criteria:

* For argument’s sake, a work not satisfying one of these conditions may also be considered Art Music if a majority of other works by the same composer do.

Oh, come on—I thought you were going to draw a line in the sand, not vaguely gesture at some dunes in the distance. It’s not art music, except when it is, as judged relative to the rest of the composer’s repertoire? Even better:

It must stand on, or peer over, the shoulders of giants, i.e. acknowledge, build on or work from 1000 years of fundamentally accumulative history from the so-called Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern (see right) eras (or their equivalents in non-Western cultures)

Leaving aside the hilariously clueless cultural imperialism (some of my best friends are equivalents in non-Western cultures!), if you’re going to allow equivalents from non-Western cultures, why not equivalents within Western culture? Slippery slope! Does this person really think that jazz, rock, hip-hop doesn’t have a fundamentally accumulative history? So what if it’s not 1000 years long? In 1000 years, it will be. Of course, then our arbiter would fall back on that whole must-be-notated thing. Wait, big band charts are notated. But then there’s this universal safety valve:

It must aspire to provide the listener with emotional and intellectual enjoyment and satisfaction, by communicating through musical complexity, sophistication and coherence exceptional and/or transcendent reflections on the human condition

Have any two people in history ever exactly agreed as to what that might practically mean? Isn’t that criterion pretty much an open invitation to fuzzy relativism?

Ah, but our arbiter no doubt knows music when he/she hears it. So I’m guessing that my love of Brian Wilson (despite that music being transcendent, complex, sophisticated, and—the funniest phrase of the day—”susceptible to detailed theoretical analysis“, as if musicologists haven’t repeatedly demonstrated the possibility of theoretically analyzing anything vaguely musical to within an inch of its life), my aesthetic opinion that Pet Sounds is a masterpiece of Western music, brands me as having been brainwashed by corporate media. For our arbiter, it turns out, has read Adorno. agrees (broadly) with Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory of mass culture (set out in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, enlarged later by Marcuse in One Dimensional Man), that the products of the entertainment and information industries — not necessarily mass-produced in the Marxist sense — promote a materialistic, superficial way of life that militates against political change.

Am I really in unconscious thrall to the values of neoliberal market society? That’s OK—so is our arbiter. “Virtually all music that isn’t popular is elitist by definition,” we’re told, “in the sense that it’s a minority interest.” How exactly are you figuring that minority status there? Oh, yeah—the market. “[M] encourages exclusive support of smaller [record] companies and individuals,” because “[t]he labels of the multinational media groups, on the other hand, exist to make profits for shareholders.” So I’m supposed to stop listening to my recording of Maurizio Pollini playing the Boulez Second Sonata because it was recorded for DG, which is owned by Universal, which also markets recordings by Ludacris? I would categorize that as letting the corporate structure of society determine what I can and can’t listen to. (Of course, our arbiter classifies Boulez’s scare-quoted “total serialism” as evil “Postmodernism” while considering non-scare-quoted serialism as progressively “Modern,” which is rather like considering pork chops meat but bacon a vegetable.) Our arbiter misses the point that promoting the inverse of market values still promotes market structure, since how else are you to know when you’re genuinely moved or merely corporately conditioned? Our arbiter has crafted the criteria such that my love of Puccini is considered an acknowledgement of Puccini’s aspirations towards transcendence, but my love of the Sex Pistols is relegated to corporate toolhood—a distinction that can be made only via an assumption that the market is a more powerful determinant than my own aesthetic judgement. Welcome to the capitalist hegemony! Enjoy your stay.

So we’re left with an anti-relativism argument that traffics in relativism, an anti-corporate argument framed in corporate terms, and an Adorno/Horkheimer name-drop without enough self-realization to notice that the exclusionary schema it’s propping up is a mirror-image recapitulation of what Adorno and Horkheimer were warning against. (What’s that, Theodor and Max? “When the outsider is excluded from the concern, he can only too easily be accused of incompetence”? That’s what I thought you said.) I’ve said it before: the persistence of classical music (sorry, “‘Art’ music”) in spite of a society that repeatedly proclaims it dead is the interesting story, not the typography of the spurious proclamation. Can you please stop trying to define music as one thing or another? Trust me—it’s bigger and more generous than any of us can imagine.


  1. Whether or not it's a joke (A.C. Douglas—O tempora! O mores!—thinks it is)….

    Well, not exactly a joke, but written with parodic intent (i.e., as a parody of extremist positions on the matter). If I'm wrong about that, then the site's content is merely silly.



  2. Maybe the whole pop-is-the-volks'-music-because-classical-music-is-dying thread could be minimized if someone just shot Greg Sandow.

    Get a bass player for the job; that way he can say either jazz or classical made him do it.


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