The Man in the Hathaway Shirt
This is a courageous book to write in the current anti-intellectual climate. Julian Johnson flies in the face of the prevailing winds, not just in popular culture, but in much academia today as well. What Dr. Johnson says, essentially, is that the trend of seeing so-called "high culture" and particularly classical music, as elitist, as exclusionist, is itself actually elitist. He reasons that people or organizations that set themselves up as today's cultural arbiters are in fact exclusionary, because they are determining what is right for the public, what they desire. It's far more than just a clever contrarian argument. Johnson gets to the core of classical music, its essence, what makes it different from any other music in history, by discussing how it is put together, how it develops, how it works through time, and then shows how these techniques are not present in today's popular music, which rely instead on simple, short repetitions to create and reinforce a mood, a moment, a feeling. Thus, he argues, pop music is more about feeling, about gratification of the senses, about "taste" and subjective preference, while classical music, from a musicological point of view, has traditionally measured greatness by how the individual work exceeds the expectations and limitations of the form in which it is set. Classical music's tension is (generally) in this structural conflict between the formal and the individual, whereas pop music's (generally) is from the personal reaction the listener has to the textures, sounds, and lyrical message, conveyed through repetition, circular (non-developing) structures, and novelty of sound conveyed through electronics more often than not. And there is a difference, as he points out, between novelty and originality.
What all this means is that classical music has a unique value as a cultural artifact that today's musics, no matter how different they try to be on the surface (with new synthesized sounds, new volume levels, new extraneous gimmicks such as costumes and props), cannot convey. He insightfully points out that often the most advanced technology is used (under the banner of progress) to create the most rudimentary of song forms and structures, and that people are responding to the surface "lust," the sheen of the sound world, rather than intellectually to the construction, the stretching and reevaluating of boundaries. We come to the ironic realization that technologically-crude music made hundreds of years ago is actually more "cutting edge" than the most advanced pop manufactured on synthesizers and computers, because (although he does not quite say this) technology does not replace the human intellect, but it *can* allow it to hide behind a curtain, much like the old man at the end of The Wizard of Oz.
The overall excellence of the book doesn't stop Johnson from making some serious missteps. Like many pro-classical writers, Johnson sees all marketing and image in pop music but misses the considerable marketing and image-making in the classical music industry. Such passages as "The emphasis on the surface of things [in pop music] is essentially inhumane. It is pornographic because it fetishizes the materiality of human existence and denies the spiritual personality that vivifies it from within. Perhaps my use of the term 'pornographic' seems inappropriate and sensationalist in relation to music." In a way, though, there is a *little* bit of a distinction between the fetishisation found in pop music vs. that of classical. As a general rule, the objectification in the latter tends to be imposed on the performer against their will by the recording or promotions company. Of course one can point to the Karajans and Pavorattis, but on the whole classical performers have been dragged into the marketing aspects of classical music--at least, until very recently. Pop music, on the other hand, has thrived on the packaging from day one, with plants in the audiences to scream and jump up and down for Frank Sinatra and the Beatles. And while the portrait of the artist as a hipster of sorts goes back at least as far as Franz Liszt, it has been taken farther by marketers in the last 30 years than any classical artist ever dreamed possible.
Still, Johnson keeps trying to tie classical music's value to some sort of humanitarianism (both unnecessary and naive, in my opinion). On p. 8 he makes one of the book's oddest statements: "Those who devalue art today point out that only in the last few hundred years has our society privileged certain works and activities as art and promoted them to an almost sacred status. But it is no coincidence that this has taken place at the very time that the rationalization of human life--both private and public--has severely threatened the idea of individuals' value by making them dispensable units in a quantitative system." Despite the admitted evils of modern mechanization, I've never read anything in history to indicate that we valued life more in the past than we do now. And I feel the author gets carried away in the "commoditization" of classical music, making the silly statement that packaging has made all music "the same size and shape," i.e., a CD jewel box. How is this different than 60 years ago, when Glenn Miller and Arturo Toscanini were "commoditizised" by identical-looking 78 records?
Johnson isn't completely against today's pop music (I won't call it contemporary or modern music because it is not, except chronologically, as Johnson shows). As he says at one point, "We need to dance as well as be still." But the culture that promotes only dancing, that views any dissent as to the value of dancing as elitist, that condemns that which it does not understand, has never taken the time to sample, and is hostile towards because of imagined cultural baggage, is elitist, closed-ended, and tyrannical--ironically, the very things many of today's young people consider classical institutions to be.
Johnson's discussions about the obsession today with the surface sheen are curious and interesting. Of course, as anyone will quickly point out, superficial populist music has always been among us, and for that matter has always been dominant, at least in terms of sheer number of listeners. The difference, I think, which I don't feel he hit hard enough, is that prior to mass consumption of recorded music, made possible by changes in technology, sociology and psychology that today's listeners only dimly grasp if at all, this populist music was recognized for precisely what it is, diversion with a surface-sheen. Today's popular taste-makers have held this simpler, less-developed music up as Art, or at least serious cultural material. Most of today's taste-makers in the mainstream industry, which boils down to marketers, really (most of whom are in their 20s, and regard The Beatles as ancient music--my injection, not his) say music evaluation is at best "a matter of opinion," and at most, classical music is a despotic artifact of an age no longer relevant. And he says that's nothing more than willful ignorance, one that media outlets and even academic institutions are willing to go along with, for the sake of the all-mighty dollar. Although I would have liked to have seen a deeper examination of this capitalist viewpoint, I am still pleased that books are starting to deal with this obvious-but-ignored issue at all. The same liberals (and conservatives for that matter) who find all sorts of objectionable matter in TV programs, newspapers, and billboard ads give rock music pretty much a free pass. Somehow Calvin Klein underwear ads damage our youth's fragile psyche, but music whose themes and images involve rape, bestiality, murder and mayhem do not. Hmmm...
So why am I withholding the final star? Because in the last few pages he blows it, lapsing into the very sort of subjective rationale for his musical preferences I was cheering him for avoiding. I agree the best of what we call classical music is more complex, more subtle, more existential, and of greater value than "popular culture" for those reasons. However, he then starts giving analogies between the smooth intricacy of the string quartet and the intricacy and smooth functioning of a democracy. He sees direct parallels between one's advanced musical and one's advanced political and civic choices, and argues implicitly that classical music is good for civic harmony. Well now, some of the most fervent classical artists and audiences who ever lived were in Hitler's Nazi Germany. 'Nuff said. Here and throughout the book Johnson seems to think that good art makes for good human beings. Obviously it's never that simple, much as we would like it to be.
But despite a few blemishes, the book is very worth reading. It's refreshing to see anyone tackling these issues at all, and Dr. Johnson tackles most of them with considerable insight.