How About a Little Poptimism for Tchaikovsky?

By Michael MarkhamApril 21, 2016

How About a Little Poptimism for Tchaikovsky?
DEVOTEES OF THE SYMPHONY and the quartet who have not been paying attention to music criticism beyond the “classical” might have missed that for the last two years or so in music criticism we have been in one of the funnest kinds of navel-gazing cycles: the backlash to a backlash. The double backlash is a kind of El Niño of warm critical waters that occurs when the crest of reasonable moral advocacy is shared by two competing waves at once. This results in various disturbances, often taking the form of roundtable discussions, conference sessions, and responses to the responses to the letter to the editor.

The rains started up again over the summer following a session at Seattle’s Experience Music Project Museum hosted “Pop Conference” in which 10 leading critics held a roundtable on “poptimism,” a movement that has dominated music criticism for over a decade now. That symposium was a response to a flurry of anti-poptimistic essays, the most widely read of which (Saul Austerlitz’s “The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism”) appeared in The New York Times Magazine back in April 2014, a generation ago in the time frame of online critical squabbles.

Defined succinctly by one opponent in the aftermath of the summer Symposium, poptimism “contends that all pop music deserves a thoughtful listen and a fair shake, that guilty pleasures are really just pleasures, that the music of an Ariana Grande can and should be taken as seriously as that of a U2.”

That defines poptimism as a reasonable contention, and as a reasonable contention no one has a problem with it. If one finds something interesting, and one writes about it well, it should hardly matter that it was found in Fetty Wap rather than in Nick Cave. It was, as it usually is, when the contention became a movement, and then the movement became a paradigm, that the backlash began. For Austerlitz, poptimism has so dominated mainstream critical discourse that there is little room left for anything else. He outlined two problems with it, one of critical integrity (as he defines it, of course), and one of hegemony.

Neither is easy to refute and yet both are easy to overstate. The integrity problem comes down to whether one believes that “value” in music comes from its ability to challenge and uplift or to reflect and testify. Austerlitz and the antagonists of poptimism fall squarely in the “challenge and uplift” school:

In the guise of open-mindedness and inclusivity, poptimism gives critics — and by extension, fans — carte blanche to be less adventurous. If we are all talking about Miley Cyrus, then we do not need to wrestle with knottier music that might require some effort to appreciate. […] Poptimism diminishes the glory of music by declaring, repeatedly and insistently, that this is all it can do.

This marks somewhere around 2,500 years, at least since Plato’s Laws, that someone or other has been fretting over the glory of music being diluted or corrupted by its own popularity with the rabble. And at least two centuries of people demanding that good music should be hard work, not just to make but also to listen to. For Austerlitz, that listening, if it is worth doing, is akin to “wrestling,” “adventuring,” “striving.” It is, if done right, hard and therefore good for you. If you put in the work to “appreciate” the “knotty” then you come out the other end better, stronger, smarter than if you pursue only what is immediately and easily understood as “pretty” or “fun.” And Austerlitz is not alone. Chris Richards, in the Washington Post, puts the same idea in terms more easily dismissed as simple snobbery, while also raising the more worrisome idea of consensus (read: “market-based”) relevancy tests that threaten dearly held ideals of the romantic outsider artist. “It grants immunity to a lot of dim music. Worst of all, it asks everyone to agree on the winners and then cheer louder.”

Worse than the anti-intellectualism perceived by opponents of poptimism is the growing sense of its ubiquity and hegemony. Austerlitz again:

Contemporary music criticism is a minefield rife with nasty, ad hominem attacks, and the most popular target, in recent years, has been those professing inadequate fealty to pop. […] Poptimism now not only demands devotion to pop idols; it has instigated an increasingly shrill shouting match with those who might not be equally enamored of pop music. Disliking Taylor Swift or Beyoncé is not just to proffer a musical opinion, but to reveal potential proof of bias.

That critique is mirrored by others who decry the dominance of the poptimistic school as a market-driven monopoly on the intellectual space of criticism that meets any dissent with accusations of “rockism,” a euphemism for an ugly mixture of privileged bigotries: “oldism,” “classism,” “sexism,” “racism,” and probably others.

The Relevance Test

That last point may seem a stretch to those just joining the debate, but it is a big part of the moral hilltop held by poptimists today. It reminds us, ironically perhaps, that poptimism itself emerged as a backlash against a hegemonic order of criticism. The complaints of forced conformity hurled at poptimists today are nearly identical to the ones they themselves were lobbing at the music journalism establishment 10 years ago. According to the poptimists, the preceding “rockist” dominance excluded an awful lot of music, and thus an awful lot of people, in its obsessive praise of “white guy rock” from Led Zeppelin to Nirvana. Left out of serious music writing in the ’70-’90s was disco, funk, hip hop, soft R&B, and romantic balladeers (“chick” music to rockists, the only women who counted being the few who “rock”), a list of what most people were listening to. Austerlitz admits that a strong turn toward “pop” was a necessary corrective step to “undo the original sin of rock ’n’ roll: white male performers’ co-opting of established styles and undeservedly receiving credit as musical innovators.” It was an antidote to what he, himself, calls “‘Rolling Stone disease,’ whereby Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen were treated as geniuses and the likes of Marvin Gaye and Madonna as mere pop singers.”

The result, according to Kelefa Sanneh, in what is widely regarded as one of the first (2004) important manifestos of poptimism, is bad, or at least myopic, journalism. Rockism took little account of the real cultural impact of music in favor of an imagined ideal audience and a museum of “serious” works “increasingly far removed from the way most people actually listen to music.”

And it's not just the cultural life of the audience that was overlooked by rockism, but also the rich creative process that produced music outside of the “singer/songwriter” tradition. The poptimists recognize the challenges and triumphs of collaboration and creativity (or at least polish) emerging from within the strange mechanisms of “big business” music production. Here’s Sanneh:

To glorify only performers who write their own songs and play their own guitars is to ignore the marketplace that helps create the music we hear in the first place, with its checkbook-chasing superproducers, its audience-obsessed executives and its cred-hungry performers. To obsess over old-fashioned stand-alone geniuses is to forget that lots of the most memorable music is created despite multimillion-dollar deals and spur-of-the-moment collaborations and murky commercial forces. In fact, a lot of great music is created because of those things.

While it sounds like madness to glorify the one true villain (corporations, of course), Sanneh recognizes a genuine truism in aesthetics that is neither new nor particularly right or wrong: that a special gold checkmark is bestowed on those who manage to be creative while working within strict boundaries and market systems without losing their flair or their drive to be innovative. It is a welcome push back against another truism, also neither new nor particularly right or wrong, which is that a special gold checkmark goes only to those artists who survive wholly beyond the system, the outsiders, the loners, the auteurs, and the madmen.

In short, rockism, was imposing values rather than reporting or analyzing them. And the values it imposed were those of a small coterie of writers who were all of a similar background and who had similar aspirations. It was writing about “what should be” instead of “what is” and to do that is itself censoring and exclusionary.

RAPM 2.0

And so, it was inevitable that the argument would turn from the aesthetic to the ethical, as well it should if we believe (returning to Plato again) that music is an important philosophical art form capable of influencing people for better or worse. But the opponents of poptimism claim that this admirable ethical position has now been used as a blanket to stifle any scrutiny of the popular, forcing everyone to adopt the same dogmatic yay-saying. There is even, at times, odd cultural-revolutionary moments of public self-flagellation. We are told by Jody Rosen at Salon that:

…many of my colleagues, like me, have embraced the anti-rockist critique with particular fervor as a kind of penance, atoning for past rockist misdeeds — for the party line we’d swallowed whole in our formative years and maybe even parroted under our bylines.

And over at Pitchfork, Nitsuh Abebe declares the accomplishments of poptimism less as a doctrine than a behavior now so automatically ingrained that it leaves him with the habit of censoring his own thoughts: “They’d also accomplished what they needed to: conducting a massive awareness and sensitivity campaign that left many people keenly aware of when they were about to say something silly, regressive, or predictable.”

Change “silly” and “predictable” to “formalist” and “bourgeois” and such public self-denunciations or smothering of one’s own feelings can seem disquieting — like something out of RAPM, the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians, who decided and enforced musical thinking in the USSR in the early 1930s through shallow, strident doctrines of class consciousness enforced at the point of bayonet. Critiques of the new poptimist order hint strongly that the lack of dissent, and even a lack of tolerance for dissent, is nothing less than a threat to critical thought. For those free and loose enough with Godwin’s law, it might be easy to find a parallel between the anti-Romantic stance of poptimists and the populist jargon of the old socialist realist guard who decried (or outlawed) the difficult in music (“intellectualism, formalism, fetishization of creation”) as the crumbling fortress of the former protected elites (“an uncomfortable shield for those who are against the building of a new life”) and demanded in its place the catchy and simple songs of immediate and optimistic appeal to the working class.

One need only change a few names to retool an old RAPM proclamation into a poptimistic screed: “During the playing of Beethoven Neil Young , the workers normal people were utterly bored, and patiently waited for the music to end. But contemporary Soviet compositions Beyoncé aroused contagious emotion among the audience. Proletarian masses Millennials, for whom machine oil vine feeds are mother’s milk, have a right to demand music consonant with our epoch, not the music of the bourgeois salon used record store which belongs to the era of the horse and buggy rotary phone.”

Not that one needs to play such games to stumble into freshman-year manifesto language. There is a predictable tendency for political analogies about music to ossify into axioms when wielded by less deft writers. It is on display a little below the level of Slate and Salon in the more freewheeling critical milieu of Tumblr. There you find the hint of political analogy turned into the promise of a formula:

A society constructed in the image of punk rock might […] essentially [become] nothing more than a new source of authority replacing the defeated father, whereas a society constructed in the image of pop and disco might very well be liberating in ways unimaginable within the former paradigm.

And so those mounting the backlash to poptimism see themselves fighting against a stifling of free opinion, an assault even against the freedom to be challenged by art at all since the “challenging” wing is now branded by the opposition as the “old” (hint: “right”) wing and no hip online music critic wants to be there. Each new single by Rihanna or The Bieber is greeted with “a hasty and formidable wave of acclaim, and to speak out against it at a later date is to out yourself as a hater, a contrarian, a click-baiter or a troll.”

Rebel to revolutionary to leader to despot

This leads, of course, to the next ironic twist. The poptimists, their critics point out, in seeking to rectify old critical prejudices are now erring on the side of tyranny themselves, producing aggressive defiant headlines that proclaim albums “critic-proof” as if dissenting opinion equaled heresy and the ability to be viewed critically were itself a form of class attack, or simply declaring that, “There probably isn’t any place for people who dislike this album.” With a resigned comedic hyperbole, Rosen found it reasonable enough to type, “Most pop critics today would just as soon be accused of pedophilia as rockism.”

Yet, the “rockist” victims of this pop-newspeak dogma cannot claim much of a moral high ground, since the poptimists can claim to have pushed against a similarly moralizing pressure to conform. As Sanneh put it in 2004, “Rockism is imperial: it claims the entire musical world as its own. Rock ’n’ roll is the unmarked section in the record store, a vague pop-music category that swallows all the others. If you write about music, you’re presumed to be a rock critic.”

It’s easy to find great criticism on the poptimist side just as it was easy to find empty repetitive cheerleading two decades ago on the rockist side. Liking pop music is hardly an existential threat to free thinking. And the ethical claim to stand against the market hordes can seem a bit hypocritical, particularly given Carl Wilson’s trenchant critique, emphasizing that what is really at stake is not control of thinking but control of a shrinking market for writing about music. There is no shortage of forums for “old-fashioned” rockism to express itself freely. The problem is that “freely” increasingly means “for free.” As the intellectual space of the internet becomes increasingly disciplined by money and readers carefully funneled toward first-tier corporate-backed venues, it is more difficult for one’s ideas to get enough views to have any impact. That, of course, is not new. It is exactly the position decried by the early poptimists. Back then the limited first-tier venues, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, etc. were on newsstands rather than mobile click-bait farms. Those first-tier venues stay alive by following their audience. If the new first-tier venues increasingly cater to the poptimistic side, that reveals a market shift, and probably a generational one, in the music that speaks to the experiences of most people.

Rock fans right now are in denial that rock’s becoming a vintage, heritage music, just like jazz, blues, soul, funk and other period forms.

Oof. What this means for rock critics is that there are fewer and fewer places to get paid writing about rock. And it won’t be long before that dwindling real estate will be taken over by Ken Burns in the form of slow pans across black-and-white photos of Janis Joplin aimed at the 50-75 demo on PBS. Rock critics are the polar bears that no one wants to save.

But it also reveals a naïve relationship between poptimistic critics and the industries (online publishing and recording) that make use of them. This cozy relationship is built into poptimism, which finds in the corporate nature of pop music a story worthy of being told itself. It is hard not to feel something of a dupe in this. If pop music is about selling units, and if we are now told that’s okay, that “the marketplace” is itself a topic of intense poetic drama and cultural historical meaning, then music criticism need be about nothing more than selling clicks, or maybe garnering a few hundred thousand extra Drake streams (which should net him an extra $13.95 or so). And if relevance rather than intellectual challenge is the new criteria of value, then that should be enough. Transformers Dark Side of Jurassic World for everyone all the time! Who needs more than that? Jerks, that’s who!

We’re all Patrick Bateman now

That bleak Michael Bay–esque dystopia is the obvious counter from rockists, a moral argument as strong as any on the pop side, that for all its good intentions, the real result is that criticism has become a toothless wing of marketing. And there is nothing less ethical or counter to the purpose of critical thought than marketing:

Click culture creates a closed system in which popular acts get more coverage, thus becoming more popular, thus getting more coverage. But criticism is supposed to challenge readers on occasion, not only provide seals of approval.

Now, when a pop star reaches a certain strata of fame — and we’re talking Beyoncé, Drake, Taylor Swift, Arcade Fire levels here — something magical happens. They no longer seem to get bad reviews. Stars become superstars, critics become cheerleaders and the discussion froths into a consensus of uncritical excitement.

The fetish for technical polish and collaborative/business minutiae among poptimistic criticism leads some of it to read suspiciously like the ironic monologues of Bret Easton Ellis’s vapid serial killer in American Psycho, who long before “poptimism” was official policy, blessed us all with crackling analysis of Huey Lewis and the News:

The album hits its peak with the back-to-back one-two punch of “Workin’ for a Livin’” and “Do You Believe in Love,” which is the best song on the album and is essentially about the singer asking a girl he’s met while “looking for someone to meet” if she “believes in love.” The fact that the song never resolves the question (we never find out what the girl says) gives it an added complexity that wasn’t apparent on the group’s debut […] Huey’s voice sounds more searching, less raspy, yet plaintive, especially on “The Only One,” which is a touching song about what happens to our mentors and where they end up …

There is no part of me that doesn’t love the sophistry of a good Patrick Bateman–style essay on the subtext of Whitney Houston or the blackness of Men at Work. But it is also hard at this point not to find the pattern wearying. According to its critics, the paradigm shift from rockism to poptimism having been achieved years ago, we have entered a pattern of normal science in which every new experiment is merely a replication of the last. The only innovation to be had is in finding a new, more clever way to explain why Taylor Swift’s 1989 is “better than you think it is” even though one is hard pressed to find anyone who has made any claim other than that it is “so much better than you think it is.” It doesn’t help that the critical underdogs are no longer underdogs. Taylor and Drake rule not just the market, which pop has dominated since 1983 or so, but also criticism, which had been in music, as in film, the “other way” to be successful. “Cred” had been the last commodity on which the experimental could sustain themselves. But now cred is spread so thin it can’t nourish anyone. The result is a ubiquity bordering on oppressive. You can’t hide from Taylor Swift. Not even in the The Village Voice. At least cineastes can escape Marvel for a few minutes in Cahiers du Cinéma. Even if they don’t read French, they can look at the pretty black-and-white pictures and remember that another kind of cinema exists somewhere.

And so now poptimism, which began as a backlash against a tired, morally untested, and increasingly irrelevant critical hegemony is now under fire for being the same thing. It is a typical enough cycle of victory and decline of new ideas: from rebel to revolutionary to leader to reactionary to despot. It is time, apparently, in the cycle of revolution and retrenchment to Robespierre poptimism, or at least to try.

The double-backlash phase is apparent from the headlines immediately following last year’s conference session (“Do you want Poptimism? Or do you want the truth?”), as is the continued defense from the other side (“No Apologies: A Critique of the Rockist v. Poptimist Paradigm”).

And as expected we even have a hint of a backlash to the backlash to the backlash, the inevitable and vertiginous triple backlash that tries to claim the whole thing is a distraction from what’s really wrong (“Enough with poptimism. Music critics have bigger problems”). This Triple-Lindy is usually followed by either a Hegelian synthesizing of opposed forces in favor of a larger, even more sinister enemy (“The thing is, it’s journalism itself, not poptimism, which is the blinkered popularity contest”) or everyone just getting tired of the whole thing for a few years until the next warm-water cycle kicks in.

19th-Century Rockism

I admit to a certain jealousy about all of this. It has been a while since the wide genre of music we still insist on calling “classical” seemed central enough for anyone to fight about. For most casual listeners, the beauty of the “classical” is that it is above such squabbling (an island of serenity making your dentist’s office stress free and babies smarter since 1720!). Monumental, unchanging, safe, and utterly without risk of ethical misstep. This is nonsense of course — the Masterpiece Theatre image of the “classical,” and the worst fate for any art. If something isn’t worth fighting about, it probably doesn’t say much of value. And so it can seem “classical” music once again lags behind/beneath the patterns of pop in getting to the heart of what’s at stake.

But the stasis myth is one of the dumbest of all the weird myths about “classical” music. What interests me about all this, and what might interest devotees of the symphony and the quartet, is how utterly not new any of this is when one pulls the camera back a bit — how the pattern of backlash to the backlash to the backlash mimics patterns we have seen in “art” music for over two centuries. The world of online critics did not suddenly invent the idea of relevance as value marker in 2003. I’m almost proud to remind that the same fight was being had within the world of academic musicology, sadly under the radar of most readers, a decade before Kelefa Sanneh’s call to poptimistic arms in the Times. It was a heady time to be in graduate school, when academic music historians were confronting the patterns and tendencies that had governed the field for a century. They too had a sloganistic label, the “new musicology” that implied a challenge to a lot of big and prevailing ideas.

One of those ideas was the privileging of “innovation.” It had been a truism for generations: Who matters? The pioneers. The challengers. The outsiders. The prophets. The ones who wrote music so new or difficult that their own historical moment couldn’t deal with them. “Unappreciated until after his death” was the tagline to the hagiography of all the greats, an epitaph that bestowed instant canonic status.

No less central a figure than Beethoven remains the Promethean founder-myth of this archetype in classical music. The primary feature of his mythic profile (the “angry isolated revolutionary”) is an unwillingness to compromise with his listeners, publishers, or performers; to demand playing and listening beyond what they were willing or capable of giving; and so to forcibly break new ground and in the process to drag and lift up the world along with him. We cherish the notion, for instance, that he was misunderstood, too radical for regular court employment, unhealthily obsessed with intellectual rigor, ready to throw down at the slightest provocation. The original rocker.

Wagner, looking back on Beethoven (and hoping to claim his maverick legacy), saw him as akin to Columbus, the explorer/conqueror who forced intellectual progress on a dull tired Europe through sheer force of vision and daring:

Did Columbus teach us to take ship across the ocean, and thus to bind in one each continent of Earth; did his world-historical discovery convert the narrow-seeing national-man into a universal and all-seeing man: so, by the hero who explored the broad and seeming shoreless sea of absolute music unto its very bounds, are won the new and never dreamt-of coasts which this sea no longer now divorces from the old and primal continent of man. […] And this hero is none other than — Beethoven.

It’s a hefty demand, that the purpose of composing music was not to entertain, but rather “world historical discovery” and not to reflect the values of an audience but to change them, “convert[ing] the narrow-seeing […] into a universal and all-seeing man.” That mission of challenge and uplift shows up in many of the most beloved (and often not quite true) stories about the great composers. Most amount to wishful hagiography, but all arise from the desire to have our greats live up to the rockist’s idiosyncratic outsider vision. Beethoven refusing to step aside for an aristocrat on the road. Mozart refusing the Emperor’s judgment that his music contains “too many notes.” Schumann retreating into an inner world of madness (the reboot of Beethoven retreating into an inner world of deafness). Stravinsky’s riots. Schoenberg’s riots. All the riots.

Ask most concert goers to tell a cool story about Beethoven “being a Beethoven” and many will select the time a violinist friend of his, Ignaz Schuppanzigh (no slouch, either, the “Beethoven of string quartet leaders”), complained that his part was impossible to play. Beethoven’s reply, as found on countless blogs about inspiration in art, is supposed to have been something along the lines of “Do you suppose that I am thinking of your wretched violin when the spirit comes over me?”

It is at best hearsay and most reputable scholars will carefully deploy it with “supposedly said” or “was said to have quipped,” but the truth or falseness of the story matters less than how perfectly it resonates with our image of great artists. In the “old musicology,” that very quotation provided (shady) evidence of one of the foundational principles of what we might call proto-rockism, the supremacy of the single creative artist and the autonomy of the “great work” above the din of the culture surrounding it. As put by Carl Dahlhaus, one of the last roaring lions of the proto-rockist camp: “The new insight that Beethoven thrust upon the aesthetic consciousness of his age was that a musical text, like a literary or philosophical text […] exists as an ‘art work of ideas’ transcending its various interpretations.”

Transcending everything in fact. Social context, market forces, audience taste, collaborative tampering, performer’s interpretation, time, place, class, gender. All the things that mark a work as “relevant” to its particular moment, or any particular moment, must be “transcended” in order to make it a classic.

According to this ideology, the greatness of Beethoven, and thus any great succeeding him, came from his floating above all that into a realm beyond context, a realm of timelessness to which we could only aspire. His music, a difficult climb for the average listener, was the ladder to Valhalla. To use Dahlhaus’s words, he “thrust” things upon us, for our own good presumably, things we couldn’t want or ask for because we were unaware of how important they were or how much they might change us for the better.

Too much specific relevance to a specific moment precluded universality and immortality. Such was the path to becoming buried so deep in a footnote only the fussiest of historians ought recognize your name, a Lance Bass or Lance Ito rather than a Lancelot.

The First Rockist Manifesto

There is hardly a better example of thrusting toward immortality than Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. One of his “late period” works, it is, perhaps, the first unofficial anthem of rockism. Beethoven’s last decade provided the transcendence Dahlhaus describes, a series of works that seem to deliberately strain to escape the taste and functions of their time and aspire to challenge not just his generation, but future ones as well: the 9th Symphony, the Missa Solemnis. The last six quartets and the final five piano sonatas, have become the proving ground for rockist idealism. They are “knotty” in the way Saul Austerlitz wants his music. And they are exclusionary in the way they dare/defy most listeners to keep up with them even two hundred years later. They stretch, in every possible way, the possible.

But this questing for immortality had its own ties to his moment. In crafting Beethoven as the prototype of the transcendent maverick a lot of overlooking was done, not exactly on purpose, but at least on cue. Overlooked were Beethoven’s own rich ties to a cultural market “of the moment” in his Vienna and his careful cultivation of an image tailored to his time and listeners. Beethoven had the particular luck to live in the early moments of Romanticism, the Napoleonic moment that was the first in which “being difficult” (both technically and personally) could be seen as a positive selling point to a wide and growing audience of connoisseurs looking to show off their appreciation of sublime depth rather than charming naturalism. Beethoven, for his part, seems to have been keenly aware of how his image as an outsider formed part of his “brand.”

There is an irony here, pointed out by Tia DeNora in an engaging study on the historical market value of the idea of “genius.” Beethoven found himself living in a particular cultural moment when the market of concertgoers first decided they wanted their composers to be visionary and idiosyncratic. By proclaiming himself to be such, cultivating a public image of the difficult unstable “non-commercial” artist, and by loading his music with moments bound to test the ears, he was catering to a change in popular taste and market forces.

His career corresponded, as well, with another important shift in the tastes of concert audiences in the early 1800s. For the first time, audiences were adopting the idea of a “canon.” They were beginning, in other words, to select works to live forever. As obvious and fundamental as it seems to us, the idea that some works are “masterpieces” that should be preserved and revisited through the centuries was not yet commonplace in music. There was no such idea during the lifetime of J. S. Bach or Antonio Vivaldi, a reality reflected in how much more music they wrote compared to later composers like Schumann or Mahler. Even during Mozart’s lifetime, the most often requested piece of music from him was “something new.”

As musicologist Mark Evan Bonds informed us in his now classic study of Romantic composerly anxiety, After Beethoven: The Imperative of Originality in the Symphony, when Mozart premiered his famous Prague Symphony, the other works on the program were all new, all written for the occasion, and all by him. He had only himself to compete with and an audience that only wanted to hear his latest tracks. By contrast when Robert Schumann ventured forth with his first symphony, it was on the second half of a program that led off with Beethoven’s 7th. No pressure, kid. I’m sure yours will be pretty, too. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross has provided some striking figures. Surveying the programs of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, one of the few ensembles whose existence spans both eras, the gradual conquest of the world by expired composers reads like a military communiqué from the walking dead: at the end of the 18th century, the dead took up only 26 percent of the concert season. By 1870 they controlled 86 percent. As Ross puts it, by the late 1800s, “Vienna was, indeed, besotted with music, but it was besotted with old music.” It is of course not difficult today, if you would like, to get through a season of avid classical concert going with a perfect 100 percent dead-to-live ratio.

The effect on Beethoven’s music was profound. He was one of the first to self-consciously wrestle with the knowledge that his every scribble would live on forever, subject to the scrutiny of ears not even yet born, ears that will have been challenged by sounds he himself would never hear, more thrusting and pulling and uplifting than even he could manage. Some damn fool might even expect his music to be as important as Columbus. He set out to future-proof his final works — to produce music that could withstand generations and not be overwhelmed by the coming onslaught of experiments by his followers.

And so we get proto-prog-rock-Beethoven as in the Grosse Fuge. If you have never heard it, you will be excused for thinking someone has accidentally mislabeled a piece by Shostakovich or Bartók. After its short innocuous introduction, its angular rhythms and seemingly careless piles of dissonance are enough to try even seasoned listeners of later Romantic music. It is hard not to hear in it a deliberate exercise in future-proofing. Originally intended as the final movement of his String Quartet in Bb Major (Op. 130), he removed it at the request of both his friends and his publishers. They saw the bewildering tangle of counterpoint as a symptom of his deafness, of a composer losing track. We can see now that it is really a symptom of legacy-anxiety — of someone aiming for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back when Cleveland still had an extra “a” in it.

Brace yourselves; if you believe the rockist/Dahlhaus creed, you will come through Grosse Fuge different (better?) than you went in. Detached forever from its quartet and thus from its “normal” place in a larger piece, it stands alone as a unique monumental marathon unlikely to be encountered unless one goes looking for it. It stands by itself as a model of “seriousness” even “religiosity” in the experience of classical music. Sitting through it is almost a ritual now, a rite of passage. It is not alone. It functions in classical music the same way Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz functions, as a kind class-status crucible separating those who merely “like” jazz from those who define their personal connoisseurship by it — a quasi-official boundary beyond which most refuse to enter and the custodians of serious taste judge the rest of us. Thus, it also remains marginal to the listening experience even of most self-proclaimed “Beethoven fans.” Such test pieces are essential to the rockist stance. Whether it is Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart or Dream Theater, that special box of albums reserved for feeling out new friends What do you think of this? No? Hmmm. Guess we’re not the same after all. But such initiations are not new. Displaying the proper understanding of the secret texts of the serious canon is a requirement of most musical subcultures. Beethoven set us up for this 150 years before John Lennon slyly let a few fellow travelers know he listens to Stockhausen on the Sgt. Pepper cover.

The New Musicology

From Beethoven to Stockhausen, elements of the rockism/poptimism debate intermingle seamlessly with the way we view most of the Romantic and Modern canon. Whenever we invoke uplift versus relevance, we are retooling Romantic aesthetics. By the late 1900s, the lines were drawn clearly enough that the standard view of music history divided Beethovens from Tchaikovskys as clearly as Carl Wilson would eventually divide Elliot Smiths from Celine Dions. And if one wanted to make a case for someone to cross over, say for Rossini, often imagined as the poptimistic Monkees to Beethoven’s thrusting Beatles, to be “as important,” the way to do it was not to attack the premise of complexity-as-value but to prove that Rossini’s music was “more difficult” or “more innovative” than people believe. You had to prove, in other words, that he was challenging us all along, we just weren’t concentrating hard enough.

Wilson challenged that notion in his recently reissued and still thought-provoking 2007 book Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, in which he forces himself to live with and think through what is appealing and moving about the music he most dislikes. That study, however, is less an act of musical advocacy than a cultural history of how markets reflect an underlying economy of “taste” — an entrée to Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction for music fans not interested in taking the PhD. If it advocates on behalf of anything, it is the idea that we are missing the story if we parse our criticism based on “wished for” rather than actual cultural impact. In other words we might be better off as historians acknowledging what happened rather than wringing our hands about what should have happened. Of course one can make a compelling case that Elliot Smith should have defined the Celine Dion era, but that’s not what happened. Wilson is a poptimist in the sense that the wistful subtext running through his book is the quotable line from The Wire, “You want it to be one way. But it’s the other way.” Is it the job of music critics to understand and continue to enforce the greatness of the Grosse Fuge, a work whose impact was limited by design and whose cultural influence has been marginal at best, or to understand Rossini, whose music made up the soundtrack of millions of people across multiple generations? And if we choose Rossini, can we make the case without simply insisting on how much Beethoven is hiding in his catchy hooks?

Over a decade before Let’s Talk About Love, the “new musicology” wrestled with these issues. It sought to overturn, among other ideas, the primacy of “challenging uplift” over “cultural relevance” as a marker of value. As early as 1991, Susan McClary, one of two or three names in musicology one might argue as “famous,” encouraged the discipline to become more sensitive to topics of contemporary relevance, issues of gender, class, and race, and how they are most profoundly reflected in music. To do so, they would have to refocus their energies on the music that has been most testimonial rather than that which has been the most complicated — the music that reflected or impacted the greatest number of people. Thus, Madonna, object of popular fascination, would also be the proper object of academic study, if that study was to matter. While music historians had been busy obsessing over the complexities of the most challenging (thus the most transcendent and detached) works, we were missing the real history of music, which is a history of people, of values, and of mass movements that reflect what is most pressing in society — “turn those disciplines away from habits of worshipful connoisseurship and toward cultural understanding [through] […] [a] refusal to honor the claims of autonomy usually made on behalf of classical music.”

Four years later, she issued a more historically encompassing diagnosis in which she claimed that musicology had over-favored the innovative challengers above the conventional popularizers.

We interpret reliance on convention as betraying a lack of imagination or a blind acceptance of social formula. In either case, the individualistically inclined artist or critic shuns them with disdain and seeks value in those moves that escape the coercion of convention — that aspire, rather, to the condition of the “purely musical.”

This very idea, that formula and convention, the engine of pop (and in the minds of rockists, its original sin), is underappreciated, is among the most important of poptimistic criteria. Flash ahead from 1994 to 2014 and a Tumblr-poptimist can essay without much pushback that formula is the very source of pop’s energy and, more importantly, the key to its being able to communicate in a way that makes it matter, “playing with its conventions is something that has perhaps more cultural impact than doing something new.”

McClary had seen, all those years ago, the same bias at work across classical musicology, a disdain for formula that causes us to miss out on just how rife with intense worldly and poetic meaning such conventions are. It is conventions, according to McClary, that carry the most powerful meaning in musical works,

that so permeate human transactions that we usually fail to notice their influence. And I want to examine the values they represent, the interests they reinforce, the activities they enable, the possibilities they exclude, and their histories within the contested field that music inevitably is.

If we disdain convention in favor of radical innovation, we miss the real “work of music” if you believe that work to be the work of reflecting our own cultural obsessions back at us.

Three years further on, Derek Scott writing on behalf of the newly empowered field of “pop” studies within musicology, laid out the relevance doctrine in about as clear a way as possible:

The social history of our times is inseparable from pop music so that, measured in terms of social significance, the twelve-bar blues may be said to have been of greater importance to the twentieth-century music than the twelve-note row.

The 20th-Century Rockist Line

That was, indeed, a shot, right at the heart of the white whale, the canonic supremacy of “difficulty” in classical music as it extended now across the 20th century. For those not in the know on this, the 12-tone row refers to a compositional system devised by Arnold Schoenberg which became the 20th century’s most infamous paradigm within which composers explored the complex possibilities of systematic atonal music. It is the very symbol of challenging avant-garde proto-rockism in modern “classical” music. That school of composition, and its various offshoots and followers who held to the twin demands of complexity and transcendent autonomy, defined the century in “classical” music — at least according to the prevailing story told for decades in Music History classes.

You could hardly find a better father figure for Frank Zappa or perhaps even Sid Vicious than Schoenberg, who proudly proclaimed in 1937 that if any work met with listener approval “either the music or the audience was worthless.” He put his money where his mouth was. Writing music designed to annoy, he considered it an ethical obligation to be revered and ignored rather than popular and compromised. Look through most music history textbooks and you see a 20th century musical narrative that mostly follows the composers who disdained popularity, marking the century innovation to innovation: Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Webern, Boulez, Babbitt, Cage, all maximizers of difficulty in one way or another. Who tends to be missing? Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Vaughan Williams, Nielsen, those marked as “conservative,” the “not-avant-garde,” the too-easy. Canonic space (and textbook columns) are precious real estate, and there isn’t enough room for those who didn’t “move things forward.” Yet leave the textbooks behind and trace the experience of 20th-century music by the vast majority of listeners, by orchestra and chamber music programs, or by looking through the record collections of those who lived through some substantial amount of the century, and that second group dominates. Those creating the 20th-century canon and those doing the most listening were not hearing the same things.

Again the call to adjust this canon came from the “new musicology.” In an influential 1993 essay, Christopher Williams labeled this privileging of innovation as “techno-essentialism.” Those “familiar prejudices of avant-garde aesthetics which favor technical sophistication.” The result is a 20th-century timeline taught to music students in which:

The styles of commonly acknowledged leaders of the avant-garde — Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Boulez — are parsed, defined, and distinguished, while those of other figures are lumped together in an undifferentiated mass […] The chief element in this framework is an insistence on progress as the highest goal of aesthetic effort.

That, of course, is the rockist mating call (it’s right there in the “prog” part of prog-rock!). Left out, for Williams, is exactly the same criteria the poptimists claim to offer to music criticism: that of relevance and constituency over challenge and exploration:

But the idea of historical progress commonly perpetuated by most musicologists is a narrow one, according to which value judgements tend to be conditioned by abstract, measurable standards of technical progress, standards which may not be germane to an artwork’s cultural significance.

Two decades into a new century it is easier to see rockism versus poptimism as yet another version of this. In this form, that of avant-gardism versus populism, it was the defining struggle over modern classical music. It is relatively easy to place almost any important name into one or the other camp based on whether they believed the “true” purpose of music was intellectual exploration or cultural reflection. The attacks flew through multiple generations so that by 1946, when Schoenberg famously sniffed the pre-credo of proto-rockism, that “if it is art it is not for everybody. And if it is for everybody it is not art,” he had been carrying that candle four decades against a rising backlash.

Pop-ulism versus The Avant-Garde

On the other side, some of the brightest minds in music, many of them raised to follow in Schoenberg’s difficult footsteps, had turned instead toward political engagement and decried the avant-garde stance of alienation and intellectual purity. Kurt Weill, eventual composer of The Threepenny Opera (and its still popular tune “Mack the Knife”) took direct aim in a 1928 newspaper editorial: “There are again today great issues that are of concern to everyone and if music cannot be placed in the service of the general public then it has lost its reason for being. Write this down! Music is no longer something for the few.”

Weill was following the lead of a newly politicized art style in Germany following World War I led by artists like George Grosz, who declared: “My aim is to be understood by everyone. I reject the ‘depth’ that people demand nowadays, into which you can never descend without a diving bell crammed with cabbalistic bullshit and intellectual metaphysics.”

For this group, the intellectual rigor of the avant-garde didn’t make it incorruptible and uplifting but rather irrelevant. It was an abnegation of the responsibility to impact one’s moment. Of course, to impact one’s moment in the 1920s was to get bound up in the fraught running street battle over the future of Europe, and those, like Weill, declaring that value came from relevance began quickly to take on the familiar utopian Tumblr-tone:

Modern music has no audience; no-one wants it. […] The decline of bourgeois culture finds its strongest expression of all the arts in music. In spite of all its technical refinement, it is redundant, since it is devoid of ideas as well as a community. Art that loses its community loses itself. It is up to the proletariat, with the experience and artistic means of the bourgeoisie to create its own new music.

That propagandistic turn only solidified the resistance of the avant-garde, who saw a great danger in making art so easy and accessible that it could be co-opted in service of political movements, far left or right. And so they insisted on the safety valve of even greater exclusivity. That main line of “textbook-worthy” composers from the 1920s through the 1960s runs like a list of mad scientists and their monsters turning from the world in favor of the laboratory: Webern, Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage, Carter. Exploration leading to new techniques leading to new explorations: 12 tone led to symmetrical arrays led to integral serialism led to musique concrète led to sonorism led to aleatoric composition led to time screens. Every new piece requiring a new language and a new process and no one able to follow any of it. But that was not a mistake. It was part of their design.

For the avant-garde, the idea of progress bled across the lines of art and society. To fail to move forward in one is to fail in the other as well. To give in to mass culture is to prep oneself to collude silently with whichever brand of banal evil would rear up and grasp the masses next with emotionally satisfying hooks, grooves, and exciting special effects. If it’s got a good beat, it’s easy to march to.

Triviality is evil — triviality, that is, in the form of consciousness and mind that adapts itself to the world as it is, that obeys the principle of inertia. And this principle of inertia truly is what is radically evil.

Nothing, in the mind of Theodor Adorno quoted above, represented that surrender to triviality so much as unambitious music (“popular music constitutes the dregs of musical history”). It is hard to argue against Adorno on moral grounds once you accept that the inertia he warns against in art stands as a regressive block on the intellectual rigor that is, according to him, our only hedge against the terrors of the 20th century.

It would be advisable to think of progress in the crudest, most basic terms: that no one should go hungry anymore, that there should be no more torture, no more Auschwitz. Only then will the idea of progress be free from lies.

It’s a tough case to reject. Particularly in the year of Trump, how many are comfortable playing the anti-intellectual’s hand?

But who is being liberated by art so obtuse that no one hears it or understands it? Is that level of obscurity not a retreat of a kind? A kind of tacit surrender of the widest part of the field to political charlatans and mass marketeers? Susan Buck-Morss asks as much in her 1979 critique of Adorno and Walter Benjamin.

[P]recisely whom were the avant-garde leading? The answer could only be those who understand the complexities of musical technique, that is, other intellectuals. […] In reality, access to the “truth” of Schönberg’s music (or of Adorno’s philosophy) was open only to the cultured elite from the bourgeois ranks whose economic security gave them the necessary means for acquiring a specialized training. The difficulty was that this group would always remain a “few” so long as the educational system of bourgeois society remained an institution for the perpetuation of its ruling class. Due to the elitist, class nature of education, then, the connection between avant-garde intellectual praxis and the formation of a “true collective” was effectively blocked.

The already strained relationship between audiences and composers broke down completely in 1958 when Milton Babbitt’s infamous essay “Who Cares if You Listen?” (provocatively titled not by him but by his editor at High Fidelity) gently informed us that our attention was, while a perfectly nice gesture, ultimately futile and no longer needed for the survival of musical “research.”

I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition.

Meanwhile the other side, proto-resistance to the proto-rockism, thrived in composers like Shostakovich and Britten, whose music spoke to the crowd, containing obvious emotional messages and political allegory. They were banished from the fraternity of “serious composers,” however. While it’s probably difficult for many reading this to imagine a music journalism in which Shostakovich is deemed “too easy,” Richard Taruskin has documented the attacks on Shostakovich’s famous 7th Symphony in Defining Russia Musically:

Critics took revenge. Virgil Thomson launched his review in the New York Herald-Tribune with a really memorable salvo: […] “That he has so deliberately diluted his matter, by both excessive simplification and excessive repetition, to the comprehension of a child of eight, indicates that he is willing to write down to a real or fictitious psychology of mass consumption in a way that may eventually disqualify him for consideration as a serious composer.”

Shostakovich, in particular, was viewed through much of the 1940s and ’50s as the poster-boy for political propaganda music, a nearly forgotten criticism today after 30 years of the equally questionable heroic narrative of Shostakovich as the brave (practically suicidal) musical dissident stabbing at the Soviet regime with each dissonance. But during the era of HUAC, his very survival under Stalin was somehow evidence that his music was a collusion with the authorities — that its purpose was to control and motivate an oppressed population — symphony as mass-market sloganeering. It’s not like Adorno didn’t warn us.

Britten too was accused of pandering rather than progressing. He dared work in the populist big-business form of large-scale opera and to write beautiful melodies, tonal harmonies, and memorable motives. Not a Columbus, he. Worse, pieces like his War Requiem were obviously and self-consciously meant to be part of his political moment, populist both in the sense of being accessible to listeners and being intended to speak to their political world. That piece was commissioned for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, 20 years after its destruction during the Nazi bombing campaign. A big-budget festival-commissioned opus to give everyone the feels? To tie into a mass sensibility of spirituality and nationalism? Too socially engaged, it marked him as just another Shostakovich. Serialist composer Luigi Nono refused to shake his hand in public when they met. Stravinsky sniffed that the requiem was a mere “cinemascope epic” (the dismissive whiff of film music enough to make the point of where he landed on “serious versus pop”).

Britten met the traditional proto-rockist attacks with an attack of his own, reminding us that the other side has always been there, always engaged in the fight:

I do not write for posterity—in any case, the outlook for that is somewhat uncertain. I write music, now, in Aldeburgh, for people living there, and further afield, indeed for anyone who cares to play it or listen to it. But my music now has its roots, in where I live and work. […] And I can find nothing wrong […] with offering to my fellow-men music which may inspire them or comfort them, which may touch them or entertain them, even educate them—directly and with intention. On the contrary, it is the composer’s duty, as a member of society, to speak to or for his fellow human beings.

In 1967, five years after the premiere of the War Requiem, the young American Philip Glass, studying in France, found himself feeling a similar disillusionment with the detachment of the avant-garde, “a wasteland dominated by these maniacs, these creeps, who were trying to make everyone write this crazy creepy music.” Upon returning to New York he found that the music he had been studying was utterly irrelevant to the moment:

[T]he people around me at the time — painters and sculptors like Bob Rauschenberg, Sol LeWitt, and Richard Serra — all listened to rock ’n’ roll. They did not listen to modern music. It was not in their record collections.

For the then very young Glass, obtuseness was irrelevance and the patterns of history would some day show themselves to have been moved not based on who was the most challenging but what was in people’s record collections. The importance of music is more a matter of its constituency than intellectual revelation. It speaks, if nothing else, to a renewed optimism in the late 1960s in the ability of the crowd to know what matters to them, and to be right about it. Thus in the birth era of actual rock ’n’ roll rockism, classical music was already on its fourth or fifth iteration of the backlash to the backlash.

To allow composers like Shostakovitch or Britten into the canon of greats was to challenge the very notion of autonomy and difficulty as the defining features of greatness. Richard Taruskin does as much in his defense of them: for him, Shostakovich “managed to bear witness against the state on behalf of its citizenry. This was perhaps the most honorable civic use to which music has ever been put, a use in which the composer and his audience acted in collusion against authority.”

Moral high ground indeed! A most honorable civic use. Maybe the most … except maybe for that other one that also sounds pretty darned honorable, or at least worthy of being given space to do its work. As late as 2009, Milton Babbitt himself, that ultimate disdainer of populism, was still holding the now centuries-old Schoenbergergian, Adornian, proto-rockist line: “I don’t understand the morality that would insist that it is more moral to stoop to conquer the masses rather than to set a standard to which they might aspire.”

Sanctimonious snobbery or self-sacrificing nobility? What becomes clear in Babbitt’s wondering is all the fear and suspicion that leads to the impasse. A lot depends on what you think of people: (“the masses” or “the citizenry” depending on who’s talking or who they’re talking about) and whether speaking for them (or even to them) is “stooping” (boo!) or “reflecting,” (yay!) “conquering them” (boo!) or “bearing witness on their behalf” (yay!). We can, of course, all think of plenty of beautiful and horrible examples on both sides.

Is Taylor Swift empowering a generation of young women to feel and express themselves in a way that will some day translate to forceful critical thinking? Or is she turning them into a Twitter army of Soylent blonde Matrix pods tailor-made to gorge her corporate sponsors forever? Are Celine Dion’s adoring throngs genuine? Or genuinely deluded? And even if they are genuine, are they the people that matter or not? Is it impressive for a musician like Drake to be as clever as anyone could be while shackled by billion-dollar formulas? Or is it instead a collusion, a failure to break free or demand better? I never said that classical musicology had solved the problem. If anything it reminds us that it is not one of those problems meant to be solved. It is a tide that turns and churns, as old as the warming pacific, or at least as old as Beethoven. Does that mean it’s not worth getting worked up over? Hardly. It is, if nothing else, a welcome sign that one’s taste in music still matters more than one’s taste in pastries.


Michael Markham is an assistant professor of Music History at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

LARB Contributor

Michael Markham is an assistant professor of Music History at the State University of New York at Fredonia. His writings on Baroque music and performance spaces, on solo song, and on J. S. Bach have appeared in Gli spazi della musica, The Cambridge Opera JournalThe Opera Quarterly, and Repercussions. Two recent essays can be found in The Music Room in Early Modern France and Italy: Sound, Space, and Object published by Oxford University Press and The Music History Classroom published by Ashgate.


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