Classical Cargo Cults: Taking the Wrong Lessons from Popular Music

I’ve said elsewhere that classical music insiders lack respect for their surrounding communities. They whine when they have to program or play music that typical people like or connect with — which is sometimes gorgeous symphonic music that’s every bit as complex as anything written 100 years ago. And they have heart attacks when people suggest playing Bach or Tchaikovsky on a non-symphonic instrument.


Because average people like this stuff.

Eew, them?

Yes. Those people whose money you need on ticket sales to stave off Chapter 11? Them.

The disdain for the typical surrounding community is palpable. The classical music industry needs the community’s money through ticket sales, but it hates playing what they like, which is often beautiful and complex, and wants them to keep their cooties off of it. (And by the way, I’m not talking about the musicians. I’m talking about the management and funding structures. The musicians rarely if ever disdain any one entire form of music.)

However, the classical music industry also wants to be relevant to them at the same time. Or relevant enough to get them to open their wallets.

Pop and rock doesn’t reflect this disdain in its music. That’s why pop and rock make more money, because they don’t disdain their audiences. In fact, they often write music from the point of view of the typical listener. (Billy Joel, Carly Simon, and Jonathan Cain are geniuses at that — and there’s more of them. I’m only mentioning the ones that a typical 45 year old would know.) They write and perform things that ennoble the audience as they are. “Here you go: here’s a song (ex. “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” or “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be”) that speaks of what rhetorical-you, the listener, are feeling and living and have experienced. It is noble, and by extension, you are noble.” That is why people love that music.

When I was thinking of why people love, as an example, “Don’t Stop Believing,” it really hammered that point home. This is a song that ennobles the emotions felt by no one more elevated than your typical blue-collar kid who feels trapped by their surroundings and who is in the midst of a deep episode of “anywhere but here.” That’s essentially all the song is about.

It’s certainly beautiful just as a piece of music, something so catchy and meaty that it almost demands that you listen to it from the minute the opening hook starts. But there are a lot of songs with catchy hooks around, and they aren’t all the most downloaded song ever on iTunes. This one ennobles the audience. It doesn’t act like the listener is just a cheap little working-class nobody who has to be ushered into the World of Fabulousness occupied by the elevated musicians and insider audience. It doesn’t promise to elevate the listener by first reaching down to them. It can’t. It was written and performed by people who had been blue-collar kids looking for a means of escape themselves.

Yet what conclusion does the classical music insider reach when pondering why this sort of music has such a devoted (and financially rewarding) following?

It must be the video screens! Oh, and Steve Perry ran around on stage in jeans. Maybe if we had video screens and our musicians wore jeans instead of tails (Perry, in a massive stroke of irony, often wore both) we might get the same reaction!

This is cargo-cult reasoning — that empty aping of the shallowest gestures from a given culture will result in that culture’s bounty raining down from out of the sky.

Only the most pathologically distant, culturally incompetent people, who couldn’t connect with the average listener if their lives depended on it, would conclude that the video screens, flashing lights, and blue jeans were the secret to that music’s success. Only people who have no idea what it means to grow up trapped in a grey industrial life, fully aware that one either escapes when the getting is good or one will live out one’s entire existence in an undemanding, poorly-paying job, tied down and forever unfulfilled, could possibly see nothing but the lights and jeans in popular music. It’s boggling.

And yet, since the classical music industry often runs on donor support — the support of very wealthy people — the back offices are skewed in favor of people for whom caviar luncheons are simply the way the universe works. Moreover, if that world runs on donors, there’s no other choice.

As a result, I don’t think that the current classical music industry can ever manage to reap the level of audience devotion and connection that popular music can. They function in a world where connecting to the very rich is an absolute requirement, since donations are how they survive. Connecting to the ordinary person is in direct opposition to this.

Hence, they are left with nothing but the empty gestures of popular music to mimic. The wrong lesson is all that they can bring into their world, because the right lesson just doesn’t breathe the same air.