How to Affect Popular Culture

How to Affect Popular Culture

I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the weekend pondering Rob Deemer’s extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking essay this past Friday about the war of words between Alex Ross and New York Times Magazine editor Wm. Ferguson.

To briefly reiterate, Ferguson has been creating sonic montages (called “The Music They Made”) out of recordings of musicians who have died during the year. He’s done this for the past five years and has yet to include a classical musician; he also eschews Broadway theatre music, film music and, with very few exceptions, jazz. (Ferguson has included Rashied Ali and Dave Brubeck.) Ross described the features as an annual insult to people who love classical music and called for a protest, specifically citing Ferguson’s lack of acknowledgement for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elliott Carter in his 2012 edition. Deemer astutely pointed out that “a blatant reliance on one’s own tastes and biases in such a public and influential setting is indeed troubling.”

Wall of Fame

Photos of singers and conductors who have performed at the Metropolitan Opera grace the walls of its basement lobby. Even the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, is on view. But the only composer I spotted on that wall was Pierre Boulez (pictured here four away from the top right) who was undoubtedly included because he has conducted there and not for his own music which has yet to be performed at the Met.

Sins of omission have long been a pet peeve of mine. And in my experience, classical music minded people have been equally guilty of them. I’ve seen many books listing the “greatest” composers of all time. It’s probably no surprise that only composers of “classical music” are featured in such publications, but rarely are there any Americans included, or any one that’s alive for that matter. The few that I remember having had a token American or two did not feature Carter, but maybe that will change now that he’s no longer with us. Sadly, classical music enthusiasts tend to like their composers dead. That said, the wholesale dismissal of music makers tainted by an association to classical music in round-ups that purport to be open to all genres is more gnawing, precisely because of the hypocrisy. For many years I used to write irate letters to publications that I felt unfairly excluded so-called contemporary classical music; now I usually just don’t pay attention to such publications.

But thanks to Rob I did listen to Ferguson’s 2012 collage and I also read his subsequent excuse for the exclusion of Carter (whose obituary, Ferguson may not realize, actually landed on page A1 of the publication he works for). While I quickly got past my disappointment over a lost opportunity to experience Carter’s music smacked up against Etta James or Adam Yauch of The Beastie Boys [1], I still can’t get past Ferguson’s explanation for not attempting to do so:

The unspoken (and rather obvious, if you ask me) criterion to inclusion is that these are artists who have affected popular culture. They are, in the broadest sense of the word, mainstream. The songs in the mix are part of the popular soundscape. Elliott Carter — no doubt to our impoverishment — is not. […] I don’t mean to be coy. I fully empathize with Ross and devotees of classical music. I, too, grew up a fan of a music that was marginalized and ignored by the mainstream. Such was the life of punk acolyte in suburban Pittsburgh in 1982.

The 800-pound gorilla in the room is how popular culture is determined and disseminated. People become celebrities from being paid attention to by media outlets that reach a wide audience. Not so long ago, composers ranging from Igor Stravinsky to Thelonious Monk graced the cover of Time magazine. John Cage even appeared on nationally broadcast television programs. Yet it seems like a pipe dream for anyone other than a million-dollar-grossing pop star to get similar attention now. Why? Are market forces truly the only criteria determining cultural significance at this point?

While that would be a sad commentary on our consumer driven society, the reality is perhaps even more nefarious. I’ve long believed that popularity can be and is manufactured. Folks and organizations who can afford to plaster their messages on billboards and in television commercials get their message across more effectively than those who can’t. But the personal tastes of folks in positions within the media have an even greater ability to shape popular taste according to their own personal biases. (Those billboards and infomercials, after all, rarely transcend people’s impressions of them as vanity projects.) Wm. Ferguson included in his 2012 round-up a musician named Bob Babbitt, a formidable bassist who appeared as a sideman for many Motown sessions, but who did not really have a hugely successful career on his own. It would be difficult to justify Bob Babbitt’s inclusion on such a list for any other reason than that he was someone that Wm. Ferguson liked, or perhaps an arcane name that Ferguson included to show his thorough knowledge of rhythm and blues. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to Wm. Ferguson for informing me about Bob Babbitt since he was a new name to me. But I remain extremely ungrateful that classical music, or any other genre of music for that matter, can be deemed culturally irrelevant by him or anyone else.

Anyone who creates in such genres proves its importance by continuing to pursue the creation of compelling work, finding ways to disseminate it by any means necessary, and ignoring the proclamations of any self-appointed arbiters of taste and significance. If Park Jae-sang (better known as PSY) can reach what is purportedly the largest audience of anyone in 2012 with absolutely no help from the mainstream media (although they’ve glommed onto him now), the only thing in danger of being culturally irrelevant is the mainstream media.

(NOTE: While Ferguson bragged about his seamless transition from Ravi Shankar to Earl Scruggs, a similar memorial audio collage on NPR actually follows Andy Williams singing “Moon River” with the vast cluster chord that opens Elliott Carter’s 2001 Cello Concerto; you might never listen to either the same way again after you hear it!)

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14 thoughts on “How to Affect Popular Culture

  1. David Chen

    Following the climate of our political landscape, “classical music” writers including Alex Ross, reflect a growing conservative and reactionary perspective on culture that bends primarily to institutions of the ruling class, such as symphony orchestra and opera, regardless of how irrelevant the music being produced in these stagnated milieus might be. By failing to focus his attention on signs of innovative and creative workings outside the box, a consciousness practiced by our similarly restrictive colleges and universities, Ross guarantees that he will overlook musical creators who have the potential to transcend a specific genre into the realm of public culture.

    1. Brendan Faegre

      David, have you read much of Ross’s work? Does he “fail to focus his attention on signs of innovative and creative workings outside the box” in his formidable writings about the brilliance of Bjork and Radiohead? The end of his book ‘The Rest is Noise’ specifically examines a number of cases where creators in the realm of public culture have interesting and meaningful ties to the Western classical tradition. Your critique is true of some music critics, but certainly not Alex Ross.

      1. David Chen

        In the case of Bjork and Radio Head, Ross unsurprisingly jumped on the bandwagon of pop artists who were already enormously famous and wealthy irrespective of what aesthetic value their music may or may not have. Has Ross ever championed a new figure within the realm of current “classical music” who was previously at least relatively unknown? The answer is “No” because he, like colleagues at publications equivalent to the New Yorker such as The New York Times and Washington Post, functions primarily as a publicist for engrained institutions, be they commercial, public or educational, as opposed to exerting any time and effort searching for creative individuals who are incapable of going along to get along, so to speak. Even if Ross or his colleagues came across such an individual(s) and recognized their merit, I doubt they would have the gumption to support an original conception of music, as opposed to well-tread and accepted modes of expression that are politically expedient.

    2. Matthew

      “classical music” writers including Alex Ross, reflect a growing conservative and reactionary perspective on culture that bends primarily to institutions of the ruling class

      DAMN WE’VE BEEN FOUND OUT. Quick, have the Bilderberg Group send over a hovercraft so we can make our escape!

      1. David

        No problemo, provided that you compose and perform a brisk “Inverted Totalitarianism Waltz” for the in-flight entertainment!

    3. Mark N. Grant

      “institutions of the ruling class….how irrelevant the music being produced in these stagnated milieus might be.”

      Leo Tolstoy was a count, albeit it a guilt-ridden one. Let’s ban “War and Peace” and substitute “Reality Hunger” by David Shields and its exaltation of mash-ups and remixes. (As long as Mr. Shields’s genealogy doesn’t show any aristocratic ancestry…)

      Let’s evacuate all old masters paintings from the halls of the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum. After all, the Renaissance artists were entirely subsidized by the church, the nobility, and the royalty. Fie on that. Better that some Apple Paintbrush work be ensconced in the hallowed halls of the museum world. Pronto.

      Oh, and that guy Haydn whom the wealthy ruling class Esterhazys enabled to compose most of his 104 symphonies and other works. Waste him, and waste anybody who writes a symphony in 2013 with doctrinaire contempt. Waste Wagner’s entire Ring, since almost all of it was paid for by the King of Bavaria. Instead, do the right thing and celebrate that immeasurably more culturally significant flavor-of-the-month at Poisson Rouge who lives in Bushwick and plays microtones on his amplified nose-ring– clearly “out of the box,” he.

      “Institutions of the ruling class.” My, my, my, my. Dear me!

      Oh, and p.s.: let’s also award Mr. Ferguson an honorary Polar Prize or Grawemeyer for his greater wisdom in discerning the true locus of art in our time.

  2. Alvaro Gallegos

    “the personal tastes of folks in positions within the media have an even greater ability to shape popular taste according to their own personal biases”.

    This is very very true, that’s why we are invaded by all this “hipster/indie” trend. And that’s why music that needs more attentive and active listening is left behind.

    All we can do is keep on struggling.

    By the way, a fantastic exercise is to hear that transition you mention on NPR, from “Moorn River” to Carter’s Cello Concerto to the Blue Rondo a la Turk.

  3. David Froom

    Great article! A few things came immediately to mind: I once heard Gunther Schuller say that a radical but perhaps best idea for the entire NEA budget would be to buy well-produced commercial time on prime-time network television, selling whatever it is that they had decided to support that year. Perhaps related to that, I remember reading about an experiment by French National Radio, when they put a movement from a Mozart concerto into the top-40 playlist. Sales of that concerto immediately spiked dramatically.

    Finally, I spent a year living in England in the mid 80s. Radio was restricted to four stations (BBC 1-4, featuring talk, rock, easy listening, and classical). People I met who had no special connection to classical music through training seemed more than casually informed about classical music. I asked about that, and someone explained to me that as teenagers, listening to radio, if a rock song came on that they didn’t like, they would switch to classical (not talk or easy listening), and often would stick it out to hear what it was. Since BBC 4 has a lot of new music, especially by British composers, they were aware not only of who their local living composers were, but also had a sense of what they sounded like. Thus, it made sense that when Alexander Goehr became head of the Music School at Cambridge, someone would scrawl graffiti saying “Goehr Muss Sterben!,” knowing that people would get the reference to his opera “Arden Muss Sterben.”

    So Frank is absolutely right. If the gatekeepers are willing to think more broadly about what might be worth putting on display, evidence shows that things thought of by us as marginalized could well achieve cultural significance.

  4. Wang Jie

    The linked article below helps clarify Alex’s position. At the cost of personal egos and other embitious agendas, the effect of such “critics at war” is that more public eyes and ears are drawn to our almost private art form. Good! Some readers might say. On the other hand, what drives classical music’s need to popularize is another day’s discussion, one I believe many readers look forward to having.

  5. Ana Cervantes

    ¡¡BRAVO, Frank!! Great article. I also see what you describe, on a weekly if not daily basis, when I bump into what many educated people still perceive as Mexican concert music. In effect, it stops with Chávez; with luck people may have heard of Revueltas. Of the astonishing variety and richness of compositional voices now alive and vibrantly producing, nothing. Like you, I “remain extremely ungrateful that classical music, or any other genre of music for that matter, can be deemed culturally irrelevant by him or anyone else.”

    As an interpreter who’s played –and, recently, commissioned– quite a lot of new music, from composers of México and other Iberoamerican countries as well as from the US, I see no easy answers, largely because I believe this is a society-wide issue. Indeed, part of it comes from the idea in the US that money IS the arbiter of success (cf. various of Chris Hedges’ writings). Much has been written about this, as we all know. I blogged about it myself, as an outgrowth of my experience with crowd-funding ( ). Just last week I read a wonderful posting by theatre person Polly Carl — — in which practicaly everything she says applies with equal validity to music. In the end, I believe, we have to keep doing what we do; and always be sowing seeds, always educating, always raising consciousness. Happy New Year!

  6. Robin

    You say that “classical music enthusiasts tend to like their composers dead.” Right now, however, popular music has the advantage of a short history; living artists naturally will appear on any “greatest” list. This will not be true come the 300th anniversary of Heartbreak Hotel.


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