Earlier this year, I was in Chicago, visiting my sisters and brother. We were all gathered for a graduation for my nephew and niece. It was a very nice event, and after the party, my brother and I went back to sister Polly’s house for the night. He was leaving for Detroit the next morning, and I was spending a couple of days in Chicago before returning to Baltimore.
That evening, we were watching a program on PBS about the 1960’s, and, of course, a big segment on the Beatles was a part of it. While we were watching, I made the comment that I thought that in the future, the Beatles (and musicians of that ilk) will be viewed more as sociological phenomena than as musical phenomena. My brother quickly asked me what I meant by that, and I told him that I felt that musically, they didn’t really do anything revolutionary, but they had a profound effect on the youth of the world, in a very revolutionary way. That did not sit well with my brother, who got rather upset and accused me of being “one of those people” who think that if it isn’t classical music, it’s junk. Despite my best efforts, I could make no headway in the “discussion.” I told him that I like popular music, particularly from that era (more on that later), and that most classical musicians that I know do as well. They don’t look down on it as an inferior art form. At least, most of them that I know don’t. I saw an interview with Lang Lang where he said his favorite artist was Michael Jackson. After saying that, I said that realistically, 200 years from now, this music will be mostly forgotten, or looked upon as a curiosity of the times, while Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc. will still be performed and recorded (if they are still recording 200 years from now).
That made the matter worse, and I was surprised at the passion of his feeling about this. He clearly took it personally, and at that point, I just said I was tired of discussing it, and we moved on to other things. Well, since that time I have had similar discussions with several other people on the same subject. Many have agreed with me, but those who did not immediately became very passionate (dare I say defensive) on the subject, much like my brother had. This got me to thinking more seriously about the differences between popular music and classical music, and also why people react so strongly to it.
I think a few things need to be looked at in this context. First of all, “Pop” or popular music is nothing new. It has been around longer than classical music, actually. Before we even had systems of musical notation, there were singers, usually called minstrels, who sang songs of love, songs of humor, songs making light of authority (when they could get away with it), and the such. They were very popular, and traveled the countryside singing in various villages and towns, the people always looked forward to their arrival. Some just “sang for their supper,” while others, if attracting the right crowd, did very well and made a lot of money. Of course, recording is a 20th century phenomenon, and so before it, if you heard a song you liked, you either learned to sing (or play) it, or you just remembered. The vast majority of these songs are lost, committed to the dustbins of musical history. There are a few that remain, only because the composer actually wrote the words and, once a system of notation was developed, the music as well. Some of them survive because composers of the time used them in larger works, such as variations (Mozart and Beethoven did this a lot). These composers enjoyed the popular music of their day, and were not shy about using a well-known tune in one of their works.
Since recording started, suddenly, we were able to maintain a record not only of a popular song, but of the artist who sang it. That changed a lot of things. As recording techniques improved, and playback devices became more readily available, more and more music that might have faded into oblivion developed some “staying power,” by merit of the fact that their recordings could be listened to long after the artists were gone. In Bach’s day, when a popular minstrel died, much of his music died with him. Some of his songs might have been remembered by people, and sung after his death, but authorship was unimportant. Witness the number of songs attributed to “anonymous” that have managed to survive. Those days are long gone. Now, there seems to be a record of everything, whether one wants it or not. And, of course, thanks to the internet and social media, if someone sings a song, a recording of that song can be heard worldwide almost immediately. There was no “going viral” in Bach’s day.
Thanks to the recording industry, the idea of “artist specific” music now exists. By this, I mean that, for example, when the Beatles recorded a song, people bought their recordings, and listened to the Beatles sing their music. A Beatles song just is not the same when someone else sings it. Certainly, there have been artists that have done well singing Beatles songs, but it’s not the same as hearing the “original.” Much of the popular music that we know from the first part of the 20th century was written for musicals, and not necessarily intended for specific artist. Many of these songs are popular today, simply because they were not “artist specific,” and have been recorded by a large number of artists. Jazz musicians have kept much of this music alive through their performances and recordings. It’s interesting to note, though that most jazz listeners are not so concerned about the song that is being interpreted, as much as the artist performing it and how it is handled. Since the 1950’s, though, much of the popular music of the time was recorded by specific artists, and it is those recordings that we hear that keeps this music alive.
It is my opinion (and my opinion only, I might add) that as the artists who performed this music leave this vale of tears, and as the generation of people for whom this music was significant depart as well, much of the memory of this music will evaporate as well. Of course, unlike the “pop” musicians of centuries past, there will always be recordings of this music as an historical record. Eventually, (once again, my opinion) interest in these recordings will wane, and there will come a time when these recordings are listened to largely as curiosities when studying the culture of the mid-20th century. Will there be songs that transcend the artists who created and first performed them? Almost certainly, but they will be an extraordinarily small percentage of the total songs produced in that time.
As to classical music, it was written (for the most part) specifically to be performed by other people. Before the recording industry, a composer made money with music by getting it published, so that other musicians could perform it. Certainly, composers like Beethoven (and others) wrote works designed to show off their technique as performers, but the idea was always to get the work published so that more and more people could perform the music (after they paid for the score, of course). Aside from issues of interpretation, the music is not “artist specific” in the sense that it was meant to be performed by others. We all have our favorite performances of certain works, but the music itself, at its core, remains the same, from one performer to another. It is for this reason that I feel that music by Bach, Beethoven, and others is timeless, and transcends the vicissitudes of trends, fads, styles, and tastes, and will always be performed long after the overwhelming majority of popular music from a certain generation is forgotten. I don’t say that to denigrate popular music. There is a lot of it that I really like. But remember, it’s “popular” music, and “popular” music, like many other things that are popular are ephemeral in nature.
So, back to what I started with. Why the passion when the subject of popular versus classical is raised and the truly temporary nature of popular music as opposed to the timelessness of classical is brought up? The best I can come up with nostalgia. Let’s face it, if you ask most people what their favorite popular music is, they will name the music (actually they will name the artists) that were popular when they were growing up. From adolescence to early adulthood. The formative years. You ask a person who is 80, and that person is likely to think of Glenn Miller. You ask a person who is 70, and that person might very well name artists like Patti Page, Vic Damone, or Nat “King” Cole. You ask a person who is 60, you will probably hear The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunckel, etc. Once again, it is the ARTISTS that are called to mind, rather than the music itself. None of us want to think of this music as dying, because so much of it was a part of our lives, and when that music goes, what happens to us? Perhaps this is why people cling so desperately to this music. Perhaps this is why recordings of this music (regardless the generation) are still being purchased. And people want “authentic” performances. That’s important. It takes us back to a time that is important to us. Nostalgia. It’s a pretty powerful force, and I think is the reason for the passion when the suggestion is made that certain music will soon be relegated to insignificance.
OK, all that being said, I think it’s important to remember that music is music, and will always have the power to move us and touch us in no other art from can. Whether it is by Beethoven, Bob Dylan, or Lennon/McCartney, if the music sings the song you need to hear, and makes your world a little better, then it is great music, for the power to do that is a great power, indeed.