How to Affect Popular Culture
The 800-pound gorilla in the room is how popular culture is determined and disseminated. 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?
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.”
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 , 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!)