Relatively Unpopular Music

Phil Ford

I don't think I've ever mentioned this old Alex Ross essay, but I should. It was one of the things that, in some oblique way, inspired me to start blogging, even though it isn't about blogging at all. And it has a great opening paragraph, which very much captures my own deep dislike of the term "classical music":

I hate “classical music”: not the thing but the name. It traps a
tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. It cancels out the
possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be
created today. It banishes into limbo the work of thousands of active
composers who have to explain to otherwise well-informed people what it
is they do for a living. The phrase is a masterpiece of negative
publicity, a tour de force of anti-hype. I wish there were another
name. I envy jazz people who speak simply of “the music.” Some jazz
aficionados also call their art “America’s classical music,” and I
propose a trade: they can have “classical,” I’ll take “the music.”

But calling it "the music," though cool, isn't going to work. Anyway, as Ross points out, all music becomes "classical" in the end, often through a well-marked series of stages:

All music becomes classical music in the end. Reading the histories of
other genres, I often get a warm sense of déjà vu. The story of jazz,
for example, seems to recapitulate classical history at high speed.
First, the youth-rebellion period: Satchmo and the Duke and Bix and
Jelly Roll teach a generation to lose itself in the music. Second, the
era of bourgeois grandeur: the high-class swing band parallels the
Romantic orchestra. Stage 3: artists rebel against the bourgeois image,
echoing the classical modernist revolution, sometimes by direct
citation (Charlie Parker works the opening notes of “The Rite of
Spring” into “Salt Peanuts”). Stage 4: free jazz marks the point at
which the vanguard loses touch with the mass and becomes a
self-contained avant-garde. Stage 5: a period of retrenchment. Wynton
Marsalis’s attempt to launch a traditionalist jazz revival parallels
the neo-Romantic music of many late-twentieth-century composers. But
this effort comes too late to restore the art to the popular
mainstream. Jazz recordings sell about the same as classical
recordings, three per cent of the market.

And Ross goes on to point out how the same sort of thing is happening in rock. And one day it'll happen to hiphop, and some future version of Ken Burns will do a 20-part documentary that all surviving hiphop heads will hate, and some future hiphop version of Gunther Schuller will be traveling the college campus circuit lecturing about how lousy American popular culture is these days — why, when I was a young man, you could see hiphop on network TV instead of PBS pledge drives. (Except of course there won't be any network TV. Or TV. There will be PBS pledge drives, though.) So I propose a new classification: Relatively Unpopular Music. (RUM: nice acronym.) It wouldn't get rid of the "classical music" handle, but it would create an umbrella designation for "classical," jazz, the arty kinds of rock at stage 4 and in denial about stage 5, or hiphop that's at stage 3 and thinking about stage 4. It's not music that's widely despised, it's not music that's trying to make you hate it (not necessarily, anyway) but it's not What The Kids Are Listening To These Days. Maybe it's music like George M. Cohan's "I Want to Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune," which in its day could boast that it was hashy, trashy, dashy, and gets the cashy.  But now that no-one listens to it we are free from the usual intellectual anxiety about music that is maybe just a little too popular, we can now see it as just another kind of art music.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to Relatively Unpopular Music

  1. Scraps says:

    Are you aware of Robert Christgau’s coinage “semipopular music”? He’s speaking of an area of pop/rock/soul that sounds more or less like what you’re talking about, although I don’t think he extended it to pre-rock music, modern jazz, classical, etc.

  2. Why the cop out with all this ‘relatively’ and ‘semi’? Simple ‘unpopular music’ offers a challenge to the listener: are you going to listen because other people are, or are you going to listen because I actually speak to you, as music.

  3. Scraps says:

    What cop-out? Semi-popular and relatively popular are accurate descriptions. You seem to be more interested in anti-popular than unpopular: the in-your-face “are you going to listen because other people are” is just attitudinizing (hence the buzzword “challenge”, signaling here as it almost always does condescension to follow). Anti-popularity cares as much about what’s popular as crowd-following does. Whether something “actually speaks to you as music” isn’t about opposing cultural forces, it’s about existing outside them, inasmuch as that’s even possible.

  4. eliot says:

    I think it should be noted that only some types of music go through this process. Although you say “all music becomes ‘classical,'” only some types of music follow this process. Beyond this, different musics have followed different paths towards ‘classicization,’ over different amounts of time, in different places, etc. Do you really think that someone in the future is going to be able to listen to ‘crank that’ as art music? Do we listen to all music from the past as art music? Do we (specifically musicologists) really listen to all music from the past as works of art, or do we appreciate them for their datedness and specificity (however much we deny this)?
    While Ross has an excellent (if pessimistic) point, it seems that he is ignoring (at least in these two short excerpts) the fact that these musics become ‘classical’ for very specific reasons.

  5. Mark says:

    Eliot’s specificity: my dad was once on a mission to find the very Louis Armstrong recordings that he listened to as a teen. He wasn’t so much interested in Louis Armstrong as in using specific records as a catalyst for nostalgia. This sort of thing happens all the time, and while I like to think that I’m too sophisticated for it, I do it too.
    Funny how “classic” rock seems to escape the Ross model (or does it?) How do we explain the ridiculous popularity of rock music recorded 20 or 30 years ago?
    And what is jazz going to do to keep moving forward? I don’t think the Ornette Coleman school of jazz has been milked dry yet. Anyway, as great as Wynton is, sometimes I wish he would look forward rather than looking back. Maybe jazz cats should rethink the idea of a “standard,” as many have suggested, and some have done (with mixed results).

  6. I’m just sitting here, stupified. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out who these composers Alex refers to:
    “…the work of thousands of active composers who have to explain to otherwise well-informed people what it is they do for a living.”
    That make a living from composing, not teaching? “Classical” music? Thousands?

  7. squashed says:

    The problem with only “talking/writing” about music, most people are lost. No context except random names, vague reference, etc.
    A cure for classical music is “start posting” the actual music. Those semi legal FLAC/APE posters do more to save classical music than an army of lecturers. They drive people interest with actual object of art. (anybody actually believe a listener can genuinely enjoy beethoven large work at 8 a.m. each monday? I think not)
    Same thing with any type of music. Anybody can talk about how popular dubstep or dancehall tracks are in some scene and what LP is good for mix, but people would just glazed over. Just like discussing which Schnabel performance is most historically important.
    This happens a lot in rock review. A good writer can flower up writing making a mediocre albums to appear like the second coming. Thankfully with mp3, such nonsense is hard to pull these days.
    If public can get accessible context, any abstract object of art will die.

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