Popular music

Some remarks on "popular music" are almost essential at this point. It becomes too easy to simply juxtapose the term with the "art music" usually under discussion, and to consequently dismiss it broadly or simply make implications which might not be intended. Previous comments on the purpose of music nonchalantly brushed aside "music as mere entertainment" as a topic of no interest here. Certainly these discussions center on music which sustains a greater variety of interpretation and depth of thought from the perceiver, and such topics are naturally of more interest to anyone taking the trouble to read this column, but some basic thoughts on music as entertainment can help serve to orient other discussions. For one thing, popular music does often have an interesting sequence of thought processes or influences underlying it, even if these aspects are not of much consequence to the surface of perception. Another basic fact is that the musical experiences of our youth are frequently inescapable, and for nearly everyone, popular music sets the context against which other music is perceived. I want to relate some anecdotes on that point.

The immediate stimulus to this article was a note informing me of a popular rock 'n' roll band which is performing arrangements of Renaissance songs together with original compositions in similar style. Well, I thought I might just resist such a phenomenon, but it turns out that some of the people in the band were musicians whom I admired as a teenager. That kind of serendipity was too much to pass up. As it happens, I was mysteriously drawn to classical music as a child. Although no one around me particularly cared for it, there were still public radio stations playing classical music throughout the US, and I found myself listening to ours regularly. My parents thought that was strange. Later, I went through the more usual adolescent cycle, and was attracted to such "rock" bands as Deep Purple, Jethro Tull and the Moody Blues. Not coincidentally, those bands also incorporated a large amount of classical material. The early 70s was really the period during which classical music had its most direct impact on popular music, at least in the United States. Beyond that, I don't claim to be a music historian for the period. Anyway, the new album is by a group called Blackmore's Night (Ritchie Blackmore was the guitarist for Deep Purple, and did such things as perform Beethoven arrangements in concert with his Blackmore's Rainbow band in the mid-70s), and apparently it is already a gold record in Europe. I find that interesting, to be sure, especially as it impacts perceptions of Renaissance music in the broader culture. More specifically, as it happens, I thought the music itself was quite banal, but I'll just leave it at that.

One thing which that judgement immediately brings to mind is the essentially ephemeral nature of style in popular music. I still enjoy the music I enjoyed as a teenager, even if I am less enthusiastic now. But popular music today? Well, I would just repeat what every older person says. The sheer universality of such perceptions must mean something, and of course they are most prominent in reaction to the popular spheres. There are any number of sociological reasons for successive generations to want to distinguish themselves from their parents, but when I pride myself on some sort of "musical objectivity" as a critic, I wonder why my reaction to popular music is so routine. Is it lack of sophistication in this area? I cannot rule that out, but then as discussed, this is not really music intended for deep thought. More to the point, maybe it is intended for me not to like it, by way of an establishment of self-identity. That isn't entirely true, because some individual pieces (I hear things randomly, from time to time, just by virtue of being alive & breathing) are definitely better than others. A lot of the popularity is also tied up closely with the very fleeting trends of popular culture, and I am not well-acquainted enough with those to catch the references which make the songs popular despite their frequently insipid melodic & harmonic material. You see, I sound like anyone else. I find that curious. I sometimes wonder which aspect is really primary, and indeed whether my classical tastes were molded more by popular music than the other way around.

In many ways, it is too early to make clear judgements on the phenomenon of popular music, as it has simply not been around in its present form for long enough. After all, distribution of music was formerly reserved to the upper classes, whether by power or literacy or both. Today, one cannot really escape it at all, and instead of a vast array of regional styles, every month has its handful of "hit songs" which are played everywhere. At the very least, this represents an extreme bifurcation with art music. I definitely think there is a place for lighthearted amusement, whether in the musical domain or elsewhere, but the present sensual bombardment concerns me. I don't think its effects can be adequately gauged at present, although the basic dissociation in both 1990s postmodern art music and "stand up there and make a bunch of noise" popular music can be linked to this fact, if tenuously. It is physically difficult to create enough mental space to conceive easily flowing melodic lines. Perhaps more to the point, the commercialization of amusement can serve to put trends more sharply in relief. Everything moves in unison, because it springs from the same sources. That perception is probably more fundamental to my general views on popular music than the simplemindedness of it, because I do think the latter has a place, especially when it allows one some relief. We could do well to ponder that whereas popular music is now more monolithic than art music, just a few decades ago and for most of history that situation was reversed. One might even conjecture that the divergence of classical styles in the later 20th century is driven in reaction to the ascendance of mass-market popular music. At the very least, there are forces at work in both directions.

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Todd M. McComb