Monday, December 19, 2011

What If Bach Was One of Us, Just a Slob Like One of Us

An old friend of mine posted a link on Facebook today to an article on the worst pop song lyrics of all time. The article attempted to provide the top (or bottom) ten, but many deserving examples didn't make the cut. No Stevie Wonder? No Prince? No Neil Young? No Paul McCartney? No Ira Gershwin? All the examples were relatively recent, and thanks to the "Golden Age" program on our local community radio station I know a lot of stinkers from the pre-rock era too.

For that matter, why limit it to pop? Opera is famous as a genre where you're often better off if the libretto is sung in a language you don't know, and European art song for having proven long before Bob Dylan was born that poetry and music tend to go together like oil and water.

In the comments my friend, who by the way is a classically trained composer, turned the discussion in a different direction with this:
When I was a kid and a rock fan (another life!) I never knew or cared what the lyrics were, or what a song was supposedly "about". So it always shocks me how non-musicians hear music. I mean, if you ever play piano in a bar, you will be constantly pestered to play certain "songs" - no matter how musically worthless- on the basis of the appropriateness of some bit of lyric ("Excuse me, my wife is wearing a red hat, so could you please play that song "My Wife Is Wearing a Red Hat, Oh Yes She Is"?). I want to say, "Listen, mister, your wife is also beautiful. How about I play something that's beautiful -- like this Bach sarabande, which has no words and is 'about' nothing at all?"
One side effect of being gay was that when I first made my debut in the university gay community, I met quite a few classical musicians. I'm a musician, though not a classical musician, as well as a poet (in fact, a few of my poems were set by another classical composer I know), so I straddle some categories here. One of the things that surprised me was the way classical musicians think about music, and for awhile they persuaded me that their way was the right way.

But it's been several years since I hung out with classical musicians, and while I don't think their attitude toward music is wrong, it's just not the only right way. It's not even better than that of laypeople, since musicians' view of music is narrowed by their relation to it, as composers and performers. (I admit gratefully that I met some classical musicians who had a broader view of music, like the world-class pianist who assured me that I was a musician; he had no patience with the view that you had to be a virtuoso to qualify.)

When I was writing poetry, I learned to think about it as form and technique, but even so, I showed new poems not only to English majors, but to people who "don't know anything about poetry." Of course I hoped that trained readers would like what I was doing, but if it didn't work on the immediate sensual level, if a non-English student couldn't read it and get something out of it, I didn't consider it a success. Technique -- meter, rhythm, sound, form -- are important, but there's no reason why a non-poet should care about them.

On the other hand, I think that everyone should get some sense of how to write a poem, to write a piece of music, to play an instrument, to dance. It's like sports, really. Some people may think that children should learn to play basketball just on the off chance that they might grow up to be Michael Jordan; but the elite players will be better off, and I think happier, if the audience understands what they're doing, even if they can't play at that level themselves. Ditto for the arts: an artist needs a knowledgeable audience. Besides, making art is often a pleasure, even if you aren't a genius. Making music is intensely pleasurable, though like anything it can become an ordeal if it's turned into competition.

We tend to forget that European art music was primarily popular music for a lay audience, many of whom could nevertheless sing a little, play a bit of violin or flute or pianoforte. (Around the time Amadeus was fairly new and much-discussed, I had a strange conversation with a graduate student in European history who didn't know that in Mozart's day there were many composers, most of whom were forgotten in a generation except maybe by the churches or small orchestras where they'd played -- just as every small American town in the 60s had its own garage band, some of which recorded forgettable singles, a few of which had regional hits, and a very few went national. He really seemed to think that there were only about half a dozen composers in all of Europe, and most of them were in Vienna.) When Verdi died, for example, he got a state funeral, with thousands of people lining the streets and the best singers in Italy vying to sing in his funeral mass. There were always musicians (late Beethoven is one example, I think) who wanted to follow the internal logic of the music in their head, and to Hell with the listener. I think people should be free to make any kind of music they like, but I also have little patience when they complain that nobody else likes it.

Worse, though, is my friend's contempt -- I think there's no other word for it -- for the associations that non-professionals form around music they love. (This was also a sign that something was wrong with Daniel Harris's dismissal of the Names Project, the AIDS quilt, as "kitsch.") I'll leave aside the vexed question of 'pure' music that "is 'about' nothing at all," though I disagree that there is such a thing; I just don't think it's bad to like music that is 'about something,' even if it has terrible, maudlin lyrics and is sappy, sloppy, or syrupy. Sure, playing a Bach sarabande would have pleased the pianist, but the husband asked for a specific song because it had personal meaning for him and his wife, while the sarabande would have had none.

As a musician who doesn't play arenas and so has face-to-face interaction with audiences and their requests, I know very well how it feels to be asked to play a song you consider "worthless," but that's something every performer has to come to terms with. In his (unfortunately titled) book How the Beatles Destroyed Rock'n'Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, the writer and folk-pop musician Elijah Wald spent a lot of time on this matter: how many musicians for a mix of reasons preferred to make music people couldn't dance to, for instance, or without tunes that people might hum on the way home. (Me, I've never been happier than when people heard my music and wanted to get up and dance, so I'm biased there. But I also like music that doesn't make me want to dance; I don't think I have to choose between the two.) As usual in these elite vs. masses conflicts, there are contradictions: the masses dislike my art because they're stupid, and only an artistic whore would pander to them, but I have a right to demand that the public support me so I can make my art and commune artistically with God. But if they began to like me, that wouldn't mean their taste had miraculously improved, it would mean that my art was no good after all.

I should mention that I don't demand instant accessibility from art myself: among the composers whose work I like are some fairly difficult, even forbidding types like Penderecki, Webern, Ligeti, and Messaien. It's possible that I like their music for the wrong reason, because I get pleasure from listening to it, and pleasure is as suspect in some artistic circles as it in some religious ones. (The idea is to disassociate art from the human body: from rhythms that stir us, from anything that might produce physical reactions like tears, laughter, or erotic arousal.) Certainly I don't claim to understand what they are trying to do technically, but I don't think it's necessary to understand the music technically to enjoy it, and I believe that the enjoyment by itself is enough.

If I want to play only music that I like, I can do that at home. (As a blogger, I write to please myself, but I also hope to communicate with someone out there.) If I want to perform, I need to meet my audience halfway; if I'm getting paid to perform, I will probably have to go more than halfway. The audience should never forget that there's a human being up there playing for them, either. But much of the point of performing in public is that mysterious interaction between performer and listener, a relationship you can't get from recorded music or playing solely for yourself: when you can feel that the audience is feeling what you hoped they'd feel. To use an analogy I've often thought of in this connection: masturbation is perfectly fine, but it's not the same as touching another person's body.

Replying to my friend's remarks, I said that the ox sees the plow differently than the farmer does. Like it or not (and few of us are compelled to be artists), the artist is the ox.