Anybody who reads this blog regularly, especially during the A-Z months, knows that I'm not a big fan of truly "popular" music - as in the stuff that dominates the radio, MTVs, and the 'Net. Having said that, I don't hold it in nearly the disrepute that the guy(s?) who runs this website does. His lengthy screed on the evils of pop music is filled with such bile, arrogance, and elitism that it borders on parody, at times. I found it, of all places, in this thread on the writer's forum on which I lurk.
Over the course of 36 single-spaced pages (I had to copy it into Word to make it legible - that's 1 inch margins all around and Garamond 12-point, if you're scoring at home), a few themes emerge: 1) complexity is good, simplicity is bad; 2) pop music - which appears to include everything that is part of the mass produced culture, including variants of rock - is much more simple than classical music; and 3) you'd have to be a slack-jawed amoeba of a human being to actually enjoy pop music. Along the way, he throws in quotes from various other pop haters and cultivates the image of an angry old man sitting on his front porch, pants hoisted up to his armpit, screaming about "those damn kids."
In fact, it reminds me of the "critic" from Zappa's "The Evil Prince":
I'll say its disgusting, atrocious, and dullLet's begin, shall we?
I'll say it makes boils inside of your skull
I'll say its the worst -of-the-worst of the year,
No wind down the plain, and its hard on your ear
I'll say its the work of an infantile mind
I'll say that its tasteless, and that you will find
A better excuse to spend money or time
At a Tupper-Ware Party, wee-oo
So, do be a smarty!
Hold on to that dollar
A little while longer
For spending it here,
Why, it couldnt be wronger!
The first whopper I found was the claim that:
Pop and rock is easy listening, easy watching, easy thinking.Now, I don't disagree that a great deal of pop music - hell, any music - doesn't tax the ears. But there's plenty of classical music that's as interesting as hearing paint dry and has, in fact, become the background music of a lot of lives. I wouldn't paint Stravinsky's work with the same broad brush, however, which makes me wonder if the author has ever actually heard the edgier progressive rock, electronic, or techno stuff. Or metal. Fuck, Megadeath is "easy listening?" If he thinks "Larks Tongues in Aspic" is easy listening, he's got impossibly high standards.
Next up is an assault on the rhythm of rock:
The vast majority of the music is in 4/4 time. Thus, other time signatures, the common 3/4 and others such as 12/8, 5/4, 7/8, 6/8, 7/8, 7/16 etc. are not part of the vocabulary. Metre changes within a piece are not allowed, this is set at the beginning and never varies.Again, he paints with too broad a brush - there's plenty of prog, art-rock/pop, fusion, etc. that deals with funky meters and time changes. Hell, Gabriel's first "hit," "Solsbury Hill" is in 7/4. There are countless others. But it also misses the point that vast swaths of the classical repertoire is in 4/4 or 3/4, often without sacrificing rhythmic complexity.
The musical language is conservative and old fashioned. Despite its apparent and claimed modernity, pop and rock uses the musical tools and the musical language of the nineteenth century or even earlier . . ..Fair enough, as far as it goes. Again, the same is largely true of modern "classical" music that has any kind of audience. The really weird stuff, the ground-breaking stuff, does not draw them in at most concert halls across the country.
It also sets the writer up for a supreme hypocrisy. After slamming pop/rock for its "old fashioned" roots, he later turns around and slams its attempts to break out of that mold, too. For example:
The Beatles are, in fact, an interesting case since it can be convincingly argued that what was distinctive about this group were the contributions of George Martin, a classically trained musician who nevertheless had to operate within the constrictions of the pop format. The work of the individual Beatles, without Martin, has been undistinguished. Even so, even with Martin, the band’s output was original only in so far as it used clichés from popular music other than pop and rock, such as music hall, nursery rhyme, and brass band music.So not only is the genre stagnant and conservative, but when someone tries something different, it's probably not the rock/pop guy's idea, anyway. Besides, they steal from other forms (as if Dvorak, Stravinsky, Copland, et. al. didn't?). It goes even further, when we get to the sound of pop/rock:
Amplification is frequently considered an advantage in the pop and rock world because it enables distortion of sound patterns. However, the problem with electrified, amplified instruments is that subtlety of tone and detailed control of the sound one produces suffers to a considerable degree.So, again, when pop/rock tries to break out of the ghetto into which the writer has confined it, it gets slapped down for the effort. Yes, amplification does cause one to lose some "subtlety of tone," but it also allows for a host of interesting sounds and textures that you can't get from acoustic instruments. It's perfectly OK not to enjoy those kinds of sounds (maybe - see below), but its at least a bit disingenuous to condemn the effort to be original.
This next argument I find particularly odd:
It is commonly claimed that pop and rock music prizes 'tone' and colour rather than virtuosity and mastery of an instrument, and this is contrasted with classical music where, it is claimed, the emphasis is on virtuosity and technique (the implication is that classical music is sterile and 'academic'). This argument is clearly an excuse for the lack of skill of pop and rock musicians.Offhand, I can only think of one subset of the pop/rock 'verse - punk - that actually values instrumental ineptitude. Other subgenres may not require great technical dexterity (or value self expression over that dexterity), but I think it's a stretch to say the players don't care about their technique. As for the "lack of skill" argument, it gets boldly restated:
Where is the pop or rock musician, for example, who is capable of playing any classical concerto?Well, without thinking about it too hard, I can come up with a few that could hold their own. Steve Hackett could certainly handle a classical guitar concerto, given his nylon string work. Keith Emerson has (or had, before the carpal tunnel took over) the chops to play most piano concertos. Should I even mention that both of these guys have written works for their instruments and orchestras? I suppose you could call Keneally's The Universe Will Provide a guitar concerto, but it involves amplification (even an electric piano - horror of horrors!) and probably doesn't count.
Turn that around, for a minute, tho' - how many concerto-level pieces have composers written for electric guitar, bass, Minimoog, etc.? It's hard to judge the skill level of players of those instruments if the gods of the classical world don't write stuff for them. Besides, could Yo Yo Ma play the Stick part to "Elephant Talk?" I doubt it. What does it prove? Just that's he's not a Stick player. It doesn't reflect on his overall musical talent.
One point the anonymous writer makes that would be valid if he didn't push it too far and dip it in a heavy syrup of condescension is:
The idea of deep and concentrated listening to music is becoming increasingly foreign to the mass of the population - indeed the typical pop or rock music consumer primarily uses music as a background or as a rhythmic accompaniment against which to “dance”, if poll evidence is to be believed.Love the scare quotes on "dance," BTW (one suspects that anything beyond rigid ballroom dancing styles suffer the same fate as pop music in this guy's mind). Like I said, that's true as far as it goes. He fails to mention, of course, that it's much easier to produce that kind of "background" today than it was 150 years ago, when classical music ruled the earth. Back then, the only way to hear music was to make it yourself or go someplace to hear it. Either way, active listening was pretty much required. The flaw in using music as background, in any event, lies with the listener him/herself, rather than the product.
As I said, even that sustainable idea he pushes too far, anyway:
In contrast to pop, it is clear that to appreciate classical music properly you must give it your full attention, and you need some knowledge of musical form and structure. In common with most popular culture, the appreciation of pop and rock requires no tutelage or special sensibility, not even close attention because of the simplicity of its structure and materials.In other words, you must be an above average human being to get anything out of classical music, where as the baser pop/rock stuff can be appreciated by the plebeians among us. By that logic, why should the masses even try it? But he's not elitist, no no no.
Finally, he goes completely off the rails, as he takes on cultural relativism:
A much simpler version of this argument is simply to assert that the individual in question enjoys popular music - as if I were arguing that enjoyment of pop music is not possible and as if the simple fact of liking something automatically means that it is worthwhile, meaningful, entirely benign, and positive.While I tend to fall into that camp of people who think that all art - music, film, literature, whatever - is inherently personal and affects each person differently in a way that we label "like" and "dislike," I can see his argument. Until he goes all Godwin on us:
Let’s take some examples and see where this type of argument leads. Proposition: It is right to kill all handicapped children at birth. Answer: Well, that is just a matter of opinion. Proposition: Hitler did some bad things. Answer: That is just a matter of opinion, and it is quite right that people are allowed to have widely differing opinions about this. It’s just a matter of taste. Proposition: The government of the Central Republic of Monsilvania has greatly damaged the economy of the country. Answer: Well you would say that but it is really just a matter of opinion and political preference. All statistics are lies anyway. I don’t think the government has done anything wrong.Wow. Usually when the Nazis come into the discussion it's because the other guy is on thin ice. You're not supposed to go there while arguing with yourself!
Regardless, I have too much real world evidence of differing musical tastes to buy into the idea that one type of music has more value than another based on some objective measure.
This will seem contradictory, but, for what it's worth, I don't necessarily take issue with the fact that loads of pop/rock music is, to use a technical term, crap. At least to my ears. As Sturgeon observed, 95% of everything is crap. 95% of pop music is crap. 95% of progressive rock is crap. 95% of what I write on this blog is crap. 95% of classical music is crap. Identifying the non-crap is the difficult and very personal part.
Finally, also, for what it's worth, the site's main goal - cutting down on the amount of piped in music in public places - is laudable. The constant din that sometimes accompanies public life is seriously distracting. Besides, if a space needs musical accompaniment, why not hire some real live musicians to provide it?