Classical Writers and Pop Music

There’s a big idea that I wanted to bring up, but didn’t in yesterday’s review of The ArchAndroid; the idea of complexity in pop music. I’m not one to believe in musical “progress” per se, but the artist that I respect and value most are those that experimented and tried to create a new sound of music for their time.
One of the things that I find fascinating, especially now that I am in college, is the way that classical academics and composers relate to pop music. I get quite a range of views among my professors: my choral director and history professor grew up listening to classical music, and thus has never had any personal exploration of pop music (I actually think that her’s is the last generation that can get away with that). My organ professor lectures me about not using the terms “pop” and “classical.” I always nod politely, responding in my head that if you don’t see “pop” as a derogatory term, there’s no stigma associated with using it. My academic adviser listens much like I do; applying the same kind of thinking and reflection to music regardless of the tradition. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he is the youngest professor on the faculty.
Classical academics occasionally become “pop music tipsy;” they get exposed to an amazing piece of pop music, and become confused about how to respond to it. What they write, or how they talk about the music, is characterized by a few symptoms: they vastly overstate the importance of the artist under discussion; they don’t understand and disrespect the tradition that came before “their” artist; hyperbole about the death of other traditions; solemn predictions that this is the way pop music will be in the future. They’re almost always wrong.
The worst part is that they’re kind of right, too. These mushy declarations come from a profound cognitive dissonance. Many of these writers and composers have been trained and taught that pop music is empty and unsophisticated. When confronted with pop music that is sophisticated, is experimental, is vital, their reaction is to claim that pop music has changed. What they should understand is that they have changed.
What does this have to do with Janelle Monáe? When the “Bad Romance” video first hit, Alex Ross of The New Yorker wrote a little thing about the cell ringtone that opens the video. It’s a quotation from a Bach fugue that uses all 12 tones in the Western octave. He grew very excited about this and used it to speculate about the future of pop music, a more chromatic future.
I think the ArchAndroid makes a good case for that future. The album sounds strongly influenced by Stevie Wonder, and his music has always been more harmonically complex (probably as a function of jazz) than others in his style. I don’t think that chromaticism is a virtue in itself, but I’m certain that you’re more likely to find it in the music of Janelle Monáe than Lady GaGa.

One response to “Classical Writers and Pop Music”

  1. Hi there.
    First of all, “classical academics” who get tipsy when listening to an amazing piece of “pop” is as closed minded as someone who thinks tonality is an eternal law. I remember Leonard Bernstein explaining his students harmony using Beatles.
    Why do I say this… well, after reading some of Schöenberg’s philosophy about tonality, consonance and dissonance, conception of beauty and some other things, it’s useless to talk about “right” or “wrong”. I’ll quote him, from his book “Theory of Harmony”.
    “Once we are cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty, and once we have recognized that only the necessity to produce compels him to bring forth what will perhaps afterwards be designated as beauty, then we will also understand that comprehensibility and clarity are not conditions that the artist … is obliged to impose on his work, but conditions that the observer wishes to find fulfilled.”
    This is only a small paragraph of an entire idea which opens up anyone’s mind.
    For us to stablish what is sophisticated, what is simple, we must engage ourselves in thinking what do we think it’s euphonious; remember, what do WE, as a single human being without thinking about scholars and theories. Not being influenced by critics who have their point of view and a different world of feeling, things that are the very foundations of our music perception.
    Apart from this, the fact that the current “music bussiness” is fabricating hollow and shallow “tin can mass-produced music” just for the sake of money, and bombarding this with the geometrically uprise of technology and globalization; marketing and the like, it’s very difficult to realize what we really think, what we were guided to think, what we think we think it’s euphonious, etc. That’s why the way, or perhaps the wide way, is to search and always ask questions; and to ask questions and then search.
    I’ll end with another Schöenberg’s quote:
    “Let him know [the pupil] that every living thing has within it that which changes, develops, and destroys it. Life and death are both equally present in the embryo. What lies between is time. Nothing intrinsic, that is; merely a dimension, which is, however, necessarily consummated.”
    Cheers mate!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *