Madman Across the Water

Jonathan Bellman

Apologies for the infrequent posting, but work’s going well.

Phil’s tips for new professors are all right on, and worth remembering—particularly the things about remembering who you are, when. Academic bloggers need to remember that there are actual readers, some of whom might be one’s students, colleagues, and even administrators. Understanding the difference between oneself and the professional personna one maintains for students, too, is all-important. I always think of the story of the retired (Buddhist? Christian?) preacher: “As soon as I started to listen to myself, I quit.” Phil’s use of the hiphop idiom, though, struck me for a couple of reasons. First, of course, I loathe it, and all the out-of-control strutting, violence, and drug-dealing lingo associated with it—whether that’s what it’s talking about or not. (When I analyze music, too, I believe that surface style is crucially important.) The parallel with ancient history (my own youth), however, gives pause. People got freaked out, something was a trip, one had a flashback about something (or just flashed on it), something was a real bummer, etc. Somehow, in early adolescence, all that drug-oriented lingo sounded communal and unthreatening: verbal warm fuzzies for the politely wannabe transgressive. I suppose that to our parents it sounded far more sinister. Though I am usually on the lookout, I may be guilty, here, of the Golden Age Fallacy: it was better then. It’s horrible now. The drug-influenced idioms were nice drug-influenced idioms when I was young, not like the way those awful, lawless young people do it now…

The Golden Age Fallacy shines forth in the celebratedly loopy comments Elton John made in the Sun, an English Murdoch-type puppy-trainer. “The internet has stopped people from going out and being with each other, creating stuff. Instead they sit at home and make their own records, which is sometimes OK but it doesn’t bode well for long-term artistic vision.” I appreciate Sir Elton’s acknowledgment that personal creativity, a kind of democritization of the music-making process, is “sometimes OK.” I’ll quell the urge to ask him when those times might be, because obviously the rest of the time we (presumably) should be buying records by professionals…that is, his. I’ll also refrain from tracing the “long-term artistic vision” that led from his earlier work, great song after great piano-driven song, to…the Eldorado soundtrack. You’re welcome, Sir.

Doubtless Sir Elton was not thinking at all of classical music. How many people, though, pursued training though a huge career was a known impossibility, continue to practice for themselves and maybe a few others, and continue to perform and even record…as amateurs? You practice alone;that’s how you get better. What’s the alternative? I have noted before, in this space, that both creativity of interpretation and availability of repertoire are hugely improved in recent decades, because so many people—and independent classical labels, and funding sources (government, university grant, whatever)—are involved. None of this guarantees listeners, but it does open interpretive and repertoire choices in a way unheard of in the 1960s or 1970s. If RCA Red Label goes broke because the endless Rubinstein resissues are no longer must-haves, how bad is that, really?

Back to popular music, or popular culture, or something Sir Elton doesn’t like. “I mean, get out there—communicate.… Let’s get out in the streets and march and protest instead of sitting at home and blogging.” Really. Thing about making your own music and blogging is, of course, that you dependent on someone else’s product. Recent anti-blogging op-ed pieces (e.g., one from the Los Angeles Times, which I’m not going to hunt up right now) strike a similar tone: bloggers are amateurs, harbingers of the death of culture, no one is reading real journalists anymore, and so on. I will leave to readers of Dial M whether the professionals at say, ABC and Fox News—or for that matter the White House Press Corps—have met their responsibilities and behaved with full journalistic integrity, thus obviating the need for other opinions. Or consider Dial M: should whatever role we play more properly be filled by a newspaper? A university press? Some other entity? I still wonder where the harm is; some blogs are better than others, as some creative writing is better, some worse. Given the way journalists now carry water for the corporate owners, and the fact that books and periodical pieces have a much different developmental curve and function, why the protestations, and the fear of blogs?

Making your own record, or blog, means you now have a little access to something formerly only dreamed of, something that previously would have required megabucks for studio time, or the approval of a publisher. Those who the doors opened by such opportunity, and the products that result, tend to assume a high moral tone, opining about lack of professionalism, the demise of quality, and so on. I hear something else, though: the desire to control, if not shut down, the rabble—us, I mean—who now get to share the same playground. It is hard to avoid the sense that the real problem is not the quality of the product, or that people aren’t communicating, but rather something else: marginalization from what was once a privileged position. I wonder if Sir Elton can even remember a time when his new records didn’t sell in advance like Harry Potter books.

“Let’s get out in the streets and march instead of sitting at home and blogging”?! Sir Elton may not be aware that much blogging actually is protest, and is probably more effective than yelling and carrying a sign. Were the old days of antiwar protests and ensuing mockery from Nixonian TV-heads really all that good? I don’t remember the protests being all that effective, TV time or not, and the blogosphere is having more effect. “In the early Seventies, there were at least ten albums released every week that were fantastic.” True enough, and several of them were his, including the one for which this blogpost is ironically named. On the other hand, by the later seventies—around the time of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, say, and after—virtually everything was formulaic and godawfully uninteresting…and made by (ahem) professionals, many of whom had establish their “long-term artistic vision.”

Still another issue, of course, is that Sir Elton admits to being a technophobe and a Luddite. Still, I hear not the fear of the technology, primarily, but rather the good old-fashioned English class system. Who are these upstarts making their own recordings and writing their own…blogs, I think they’re called? Shouldn’t those chaps be…be…protesting? Yes, quite right; protesting! And “communicating,” rather than all this blogging nonsense…simply not done…!

Enter good old Adam Smith and his division of labor. You all go to protest and hang out in pubs; Sir Elton gets to write songs and make records, and you get to buy them. Everyone knows his place, and no one’s better than he should be. God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world. Pass the steak and kidney pie.

Moral: if you have something to say, write a blog. If you want to make a recording, make it. If no one listens, that’s the risk you took. If, on the other hand, people like it, you’ve really gained something. As always, when discouragement comes from above, we learn far more about the speaker than the subject.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to Madman Across the Water

  1. Here here. I don’t feel like I’m saying much on my blog, and certainly not in a way that is supposed to “make a difference,” but it’s not as if all of us are sitting on the couch, devouring pizza and watching TV as we just keep posting “you know what I hate?” Your moral really hit the nail on the head.

  2. Squashed says:

    I wonder how many emails Sir. Elton is getting that says “shut up already. And try to write real music for once. ..”
    now that’s digital communication in action.
    Of course All Elton has to do is run his name on technorati or fark.com to see how people are answering back all over the net.
    “I’m sure, as far as music goes, it would be much more interesting than it is today.”
    http://www.thesun.co.uk/article/0,,2-2007350453,00.html
    OMG. I’ve never listen to so much music than now in my life. All sort of odd sound from all over the world. Somebody, introduce Sir Elton to Hypem.com.
    http://www.moteldemoka.com/
    (maybe I should wrote an open letter/blog post and see if Sir Elton will notice. Something that will prod his ego. hah… )

  3. Chris King says:

    Despite his last name, I don’t think Sir Elton is that full of shit, at least about the protests. Communicating only via internet DOES alienate people, to a degree. We cannot lose touch with physical reality. A physical protest of thousands has a characteristic weight that every blogger in the world complaining in unison cannot match.

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