Can we chill on the criticisms of pop music and its performers for a bit? You don’t have to love them. But to fail to recognize the genius at work in the genre is really a failure of vision. It’s a case of taking snobbery too far, to the point that it blinds us to truth and the brilliance of how the market economy lifts greatness to the top. This attitude might begin as class affectation, but it invariably ends in a loathing of consumer culture and capitalism itself.
Bowie and Prince
The occasion for the above outburst is the devastating loss of two pop greats this year. The sudden and deeply sad death of Prince at the age of 57 comes only months after the death of David Bowie at 69. With Prince as with Bowie, we are seeing an amazing outpouring of memories and tributes. The word genius is commonly used for both. The word is wholly justified.
With the news of their passing, millions are struck with a sudden awareness. They were idolized as megastars, but they were mere mortals. Their lives touched us all. They shaped our times. They defined so many memories. Their art was the soundtrack to our lives.
And yet we took them for granted. We thought they would always be there for us to judge, to like this song and not like that one, to inhabit the peanut gallery and enjoy what we liked and sneer at what we didn’t like.
Their exit from the land of the living stuns us with a harsh but ultimately inspiring reality: human beings must go the way of all flesh even as their art is mysteriously immortal. We can conjure up their art with a few taps on our smartphone and relive the best of it as long as we are on this earth. So too can all generations hence. These artists’ personal capacity for continued creativity ends, but their influence over our lives and the art of the future can last unto the end of time.
Every tribute to these people being written right now is some spin on those themes.
And yet there are always the outliers, the defectors from mainstream opinion on these artists. Maybe it is just my set of friends or my social group, but I bump into the severely negative judgements constantly. They say pop is not serious art. It is industrialized, canned, and inauthentic. The seeming talent only exists because pop music has such low standards. This music is produced for purposes of making money, and it works at the expense of its artistic integrity.
A typical claim goes like this: “There is simply no soul left in today's music, and anyone who hasn't lost their taste in culture or enlightenment can agree with my claim, while brainwashed sheep follow and listen to whatever they're told because they can't comprehend that the computerized garbage they relish in consists of no instrumental soul, emotional movement, or varying sound.”
As a classically trained musician, I’ve variously been tempted by this view. I get it. Snobbery in this realm comes easily, and I have every basis for it. I was listening to Brahms’s chamber work from an early age. While the other kids were out playing basketball, I was indoors with my records transcribing Mahler songs by hand on five-line music staves. My father was a composer, choirmaster, and conductor. I played in the symphony. I later became an enthusiast for Gregorian chant and conducted a choir that specialized in Renaissance polyphony.
It’s the easiest path for a person with such a background to dismiss anything on a mainstream radio station. It might be catchy. It might have a nice beat. The lyrics could be morally edgy. But let’s not conflate this with genuine art, which naturally emanates from the conservatory. Real artistic achievement can’t ever really be popular much less profitable. I might have held on to something approaching this view.
And yet, as I look back on the legacies of people like Prince and Bowie – the list could be expanded to hundreds of musicians – it becomes obvious that they were hugely important parts of my own life. They challenged my musical sense of things. I listened to both constantly even while I pretended to be above fandom. I was honored to attend a live concert of Bowie on his “Let’s Dance” tour. I recall seeing Prince’s “Purple Rain” in the theater. It is only in their passing that it is obvious to me that both did for me precisely what great art is supposed to do for our lives.
Both Bowie and Prince have been decisively declared as "high" pop and therefore suitably tolerable for some elite tastes. And yet, I distinctly recall how fans of Bowie were devastated by his "Let's Dance" tour because they found it too low; and this was precisely the moment when his influence broke into mainstream culture. As for Prince, I recall how his "Purple Rain" at the time was considered to be evidence that this weird guy was trashing up the music world with schlock, bad movies, and garbage sex talk. High and low are rather flexible.
Thus Has It Always Been
Consider this critic’s view:
"It is impossible to convey through words an idea of this musical monstrosity. Never have I experienced a more contrived and insolent agglomeration of the most disparate elements, a wilder rage, a bloodier battle against all that is musical. At first I felt bewildered, then shocked, and finally overcome with irresistible hilarity... Here all criticism, all discussion must cease... Who has heard that, and finds it beautiful, is beyond help."
Everyone has heard some version of such a criticism. It could be applied to Prince, Bowie, Bieber, Beyonce, or Gaga. It so happens that the above was written about Franz Liszt (1811-1886), another genius rock star of his age. His life was not unlike Prince’s own. He was obsessively followed by fans (a common claim is that even his cigar butts were highly valued). He played concerts all over Europe and constantly. His creativity was boundless. His music broke new ground.
The brutal criticism was penned by Eduard Hanslick in 1881. He was considered the arbiter of high music taste in Vienna, the very epitome of the snob. In those days in Vienna and Berlin, the high-art critics disparaged not only Liszt but also Wagner, Bruckner, Berlioz, Brahms, Puccini, and Rossini. They were all flailed for the same reasons that people put down pop today.
An entire industry of commentary emerged in these years, in the UK and Europe, that disparaged anything popular and profitable. Consumer culture was emerging as an awesome power, displacing the patronage and hierarchical systems of old.
Leading the charge against art capitalism in England was pompous culture critic John Ruskin, who wrote volumes celebrating the glories of the past while condemning anything and everything associated with consumer culture. He popularized a new kind of criticism of capitalism: it might create great wealth but it destroys beauty and art in favor of trash. (Ludwig von Mises hilariously wrote of Ruskin: “A wretched character in his private no less than in his public life, he glorified war and bloodshed and fanatically slandered the teachings of political economy which he did not understand.”)
Three features made an artist the subject of attack in these years: the music was creative and new, the music was popular, and the artist rich and idolized. The modernist critics assumed that these features alone disproved their worth. It’s a view you encounter ever less in literature departments, where pop culture is finally getting its due, but it still thrives in the music conservatory and elite circles of art theory.
Some years ago I was reading in the deep history of music and was stunned to see that elite criticisms of new and popular music can be found as far back as the 11th century. The early experiments with polyphonic music -- two or three lines of notes running simultaneously -- was widely derided as vulgar, ugly, and cravenly obsequious toward a fan base. The old guard saw these innovations as the beginning of the end of all that is true and decent. Again, this was one thousand years ago!
Clearly, there is nothing new about elite derision that greets every innovation in art.
It’s also true that it can be difficult to recognize genius in our own times. I recall reading a history of classical music that was published in the 1890s. As with all such books, it ends with a list of the best composers of the age, all conservatory approved, not one of whom had achieved popular success. The author was cocksure of their magnificence. To this day, they remain obscure. They all vanished over time.
The lesson is that the experts often know less than the market.
How does one overcome this tendency to put down the popular? Here are five insights that can help.
- Popularity is hard. Millions of artists and musicians desire popularity and the profitability that comes with it but only a small percentage achieve it. Is this pure luck? Or perhaps there are secret king-making capitalists out there who are choosing winners and losers? A more plausible explanation is that popular musicians are great at what they do. They succeed due to skill and hard work. This is something to appreciate. You realize this when you see videos of a 10-year old Justin Bieber being amazing as a singer and player. Like many musicians today, he got his start doing homemade youtube videos and gradually built his fame over time. In this way, they mirror the success in any business.
- Staying popular is even harder. The more popular you are, the more detractors you gain as well, and people love nothing more than to watch a fall from grace in real time. For popular performers, they are all one concert away from experiencing that fall and being declared a has-been. They must constantly stay innovative, and that poses risks too, because doing new things risks alienating an established fan base. As with any business, the only way forward is through ceaseless innovation. And this innovation is presented before multitudes of people -- 20,000 in person and millions on digital distribution -- who are judging your every note. If it is so easy, try it and see for yourself.
- Achievement in pop music comes through discipline not decadence. Have you ever looked at the schedule of touring musicians? It’s absolutely stunning. They spend vast time in transit. They appear every few nights and must be in top form, as if it is the first concert they ever did. Fans expect no less than to be thrilled to the bottom of their souls. Performers can’t be moody, sickly, depressed, or tired. For this reason, they develop remarkable discipline: early bedtimes, good diets, minimal drinking, maximum focus on the task. Essentially they live lives that are more or less opposite of what they sing about in their music.
- Find the hidden genius in the music. You don’t have to like the music but there is most likely something within in that causes it to rise above the competition. It has a special sound, an infectious beat, an interesting sensibility, a sensitive performance. You might have to listen carefully to find it. Within Adele, for example, you can discover an amazing ability to carve out a dramatic musical phrase. Within Bowie, you find creative poetry and eccentric use of rhythm. With Prince, there is always virtuosic talent in at least five skills: composition, production, guitar, piano, and vocals. A good test of talent here is to strip away the pyrotechnics and consider how they sound completely unplugged. In one of Prince’s last concerts, he demonstrated this skill on piano. It was amazing.
- Enter into the mind of a fan. Sometimes we hear music we don’t like and follow the first instinct of dismissing it as junk. But if you can crawl out of your biases and think in a new way, you might find its source of inspiration. I was never a fan of rap until I tried listening to it with different ears. I was surprised to find humor, deep levels of internal criticism, political protest, and even self parody. It was amazing for me to suddenly experience an enlightened sense of understanding. I am still not a fan but at least I have a greater appreciation for the phenomenal success of the genre. And I no longer dismiss it as junk. Another example of this in a different genre is my own deconstruction of a song by Shakira.
Pop Music Might Be Great Music
Not every song you hear on the radio is a paragon of musical excellence. Nor is it the case that genius is always rewarded by the market. Still, we too easily dismiss the merit of all forms of art that are popular and profitable. Pop art can be great art; indeed, as Lady Gaga would say, the popularity itself becomes an integral part of artistic expression.
What might be driving the snobbish dismissal of pop is resentment against achievement, the emotional driving force behind anti-capitalism from time immemorial. In an industry characterized by ruthless competition and in which success is achieved only through consumer approval – people spending their own money on downloads, concert tickets, and swag – market success is most often evidence of some kind of greatness.