I’m better than you


A response, of sorts, to Jonathan’s “Poppy Ott” post the other day. Particularly this line:

We have far less trouble with the actual music and culture than we do with cultural spoon-feeding and implications that X is higher or better than Y—the originally well-meaning Women’s Club, it’s-on-us-to-civilize-our-New-World-savages approach.

My question is, who exactly constitutes the entity, this “well-meaning Women’s Club, it’s-on-us-to-civilize-our-New-World-savages approach”? Do we know these people? Who is engaging in this long-protracted act of culture shaming? Is there a club somewhere? Who are the classical-music types telling everyone else their music is stupid?

It’s not any one person. You may know someone who has taken it upon herself (usually a “her,” in the popular imagination) to civilize the New World, but I have not. I suspect “she” is mostly myth, a figure from old Garland-Rooney and Marx Brothers movies, the matron poised for the whoopee cushion. She is the concrete personification of an abstract force or process, sort of the way deities or demons were accounted the rulers of wind or pox.

It’s coming from somewhere, though. I find myself in institutional situations where that civilize-the-natives narrative is implicit, if not actually come-right-out-and-say-it overt. It’s where a lot of conversations (online or IRL) go when art-music scholars and performers get to talking about some kind of vernacular music, like hiphop, that has yet to claw its way to some official regard for its native artistic complexity. At some point, someone will say something like, well, it’s OK that someone makes this music or even cares about it, and what the hell, we could talk about it for five minutes in the undergraduate music history survey, but just as long as we’re all clear here: the great works of the western art music tradition are and will always represent a higher form of culture. I have often wondered why so many who love art music have this neurotic itch to assert the superiority of their music, and to have it generally acknowledged. It’s not just that they think their music is superior; pretty much everyone thinks his/her music is superior. It’s about selling the music with the idea of superiority, or more generally making the music be about superiority. This, and not some finger-wagging Margeret Dumont type, is the problem.

I’m not pointing fingers here; what I’m interested in is institutional or collective rather than individual tendencies. Whatever it is, it isn’t unique to classical music: you find it in jazz as well. It’s always a short way from a righteous love and pride in our music, which is what I take it to be what Jonathan is after, a kind of This Is Our Music thing (the cover of the Ornette album summing up for me the basic attitude of music — fuck yeah!), to “this is our music, which is on a higher social and cultural level than your music.” And once you get to that point, the conversation is over, because this is America and no-one ever says “I’m better than you” and gets away with it.

We are scholars and practitioners of a high art music tradition; we uphold and preserve that tradition. No apologies there. But we’re at a point in American cultural history where the legitimating stories that justified large-scale funding of that tradition (endowments for orchestras, state university funding for  music centers, etc.) no longer carry much conviction. One potent old line of justification was what Lawrence Levine called sacralization: this difficult, labor-intensive, and thus costly music should be protected from brute American market values by a generous subsidy, and it should be so protected because it embodies our culture’s highest spiritual values. The problem is, what is now “our culture”? Who’s the “us” here? What are “spiritual values” anyway? We are famously post-consensus on both questions.

Much as I love Parsifal (and I do), a Saturday afternoon broadcast of it nowadays will likely meet with discontented grumblings from those who feel excluded from its ponderous mysteries, which let’s face it is most people, especially when said mysteries spill out over 5+ hours and take out a whole weekend afternoon.* You need a reason that this broadcast is sitting squatly in the middle of a valuable chunk of radio real estate, when people are out doing errands in their cars and listening to the radio. The traditional answer — because this represents the greatest art our civilization was produced, and it needs to be preserved — will likely be met with a response something like, well, it’s not my civilization you’re preserving here. This has nothing to do with me. And for the most part, those of us who uphold the western art music tradition get stuck here, because no answer to this objection will satisfy. But this is your civilization. You just haven’t been educated properly. Uh, no, that won’t work. We don’t care if this music speaks to you or not. It’s great. Acknowledge the greatness! Neither will that. But if the Met isn’t broadcast, then all that’s left is the crappy music that ordinary dumb people like. Again, no.  But opera belongs to everyone! True but vapid. It doesn’t answer the question, why should I care? Why should we, as a society, invest in this art?

Ultimately, this isn’t just about classical music. It’s about the arts and humanities more generally, which (have you noticed?) have lately become the targets for one of those odd waves of American prosecutory enthusiasm. Why should our kids study the arts and humanities? Why should parents pay for it? Why should our taxes pay for those departments? We need good answers for these questions, and appealing to cultural uplift and so on  isn’t going to work. But at this point this becomes a much larger conversation than I can attempt in one blog post. More later, maybe.

I do think there’s an answer. It has something to do with this wonderful interview between Nardwuar and Questlove. (It’s 45 minutes long but well worth your time.)

*The reason I bring this up as an example is that my local radio station, WFIU, has decided to stop the Met broadcasts. I bought a couple of books at Caveat Emptor, a local used-books place  run by a couple of serious music-lovers, and they asked me to sign a petition against the banishment of opera from Saturday afternoon, which (not wishing to be rude) I did. But to be honest I can see both sides on this one.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to I’m better than you

  1. rjudd11 says:

    Thanks for this — indeed, “larger conversation” is an understatement! Coincidentally, I came across this blog post: http://musicalassumptions.blogspot.com/2013/06/taruskin-on-classical-music-audience.html — Essentially a simple quoting from Richard Taruskin in 1995, his NYT essay on Beethoven vs. pop music at the fall of the Berlin Wall and implications for the demise of classical music. Interestingly, the anonymous commenter turns it around and bashes musicologists as part of, or at least related to, the problem. Not mentioned, but the subject of open access to scholarship seems to be the implication. If we want to reach a larger audience *for anything*, does it ultimately mean a market-based thought process that deals with costs and benefits?


  2. Elaine Fine says:

    Oddly that commenter also deliberately misspells Taruskin’s name! I have the greatest respect for musicologists (including Taruskin), and believe that it takes a great deal of courage to attach a name to a statement about your own interpretation of history, because historians are often wrong. The whole game of history, musical and otherwise, is to further a discussion of who we were (or who somebody was). Who we will be and where we will go is, unfortunately, not up to the people who make the things that become cultural artifacts (like music and art). It is up to the people who buy, sell, and preserve the cultural artifacts. It is up to people who find it valuable to keep that which is no longer current (like Parsifal to most people) in the larger culture (like on the radio).

    I was in a used bookstore myself a few months ago, and I heard a most wonderful Siegfried on a little radio that was tuned to the Met broadcast. I turned up the volume a bit, and I sat and listened instead of looking at overpriced used books, I enjoyed a superbly-performed act of Wagner. I really enjoyed my afternoon, and after hearing such a terrific performance, I had a new-found appreciation for not only the opera, but of Wagner.

    Why should children study music and art? Because ultimately it is the only thing that matters in life. Children live in a magical world, and children who are exposed to its wonders keep magic in their lives. Ask any three-year-old. Most three-year-olds will sing for you, dance for you, and make up stories. Give a three-year-old a crayon and some paper, and she will draw for you. And it will be beautiful.

    What she makes when she grows up may indeed be a higher form of culture, but you can’t ever count on that happening if you starve her of culture when she is a child. It is not our (as in grown adults) place to decide what will be great culture in the future, but it is also not our place to deprive our children of exposure to what we consider great culture now.

    Great culture will always be personal, but learning how to recognize the great amid the good (with literature, music, art, film, food, and musicology) is a gift that lasts a lifetime, and something that we can pass on to our children and our students.

  3. grahamlarkin says:

    To an amazing extent, Phil, Americans *can* get away with saying, in effect: I’m Better Than You. Let’s face it, one-upmanship–in posture and in deed–is a vital part of the rap music game. And I’m sure you wouldn’t want it any other way!

    Granted, it would be preposterous for anyone to earnestly proclaim “I’m better than you” in those exact words, as Lyrics Born cheekily demonstrates. (“I’m smarter than you, I’m harder than you I’m better than you, I’m just raw / I’m hotter than you, more popular than you / More clever than you and goshdarn it, people like me.”) But thanks to their excellent game, timing, wording and plain old American chutzpah, Romantics from Frank Lloyd Wright to Norman Mailer and Muhammad Ali have all gotten away with proclaiming their superiority in one way or another. By giving themselves permission to do so, they invite the rest of us to follow suit at our peril.

    Of course that venerable tradition of dick-swinging doesn’t undermine your basic point about the ineffectiveness of school-marmish injunctions. It is getting increasingly hard to say: This Will Improve You; You Must Learn to Like This; &c. Instead I think we need to sustain traditions by cajoling people into digging a variety of different material. As you begin to suggest, the best way to do that is to go deep into a given domain with a guide as voraciously curious and knowledgeable as Questlove. That’s a tall order in an age of standardized testing, since it effectively requires each teacher to stick to material that he or she really loves–and maybe to fill in the gaps with inspiring YouTube interviews.

  4. philphord says:

    Hey Graham —

    It’s true that saying “I’m better than you” works when it’s Muhammad Ali riling another fighter or Lyrics Born calling out other rappers, but what is generally not tolerated is the assertion of privilege. The reality of privilege is tolerated, of course, provided it is suitably fig-leafed (GW Bush’s preppy upbringing smothered in Texas affectations, for ex.), but you’re not supposed to say “I’m richer, more powerful, better-educated, and better-regarded in high society than you, and I should continue to enjoy all the benefits that flow from my superior condition.” Then again, there are those who are pretty blunt about saying that, too, but the point is, you’re not supposed to. And classical music culture is so used to asserting its generic superiority, its privilege, that it doesn’t know how to justify itself in any other way. And that is a disastrous problem, I think.

  5. Sara Haefeli says:

    Every year I teach Boethius’ distinctions of “musicus” and “cantus” to music majors and since I am fresh out of MP3s from the medieval period I use modern examples. The “high art” example is usually something fairly new and virtuosic (Ligeti’s “Devil’s Staircase” works well). The “low art” example is usually hip hop (I used Nelly’s “Tip Drill” until it got too old, this past year I used Nicki Minaj’s “Stupid Hoe”). I don’t say anything about the examples except to say that they will facilitate a discussion of Boethius’ constructs “musicus” and “cantus.” Without fail, after the hip hop video one of the students shouts, “That’s not music!”

    Every year I think, “This might be the year that this doesn’t work any longer,” but it has yet to fail. So even though there are a number of academics who might be preaching a moralizing message of Great Art, they are preaching to a largely willing audience.

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