Friday, March 30, 2007

One last rant before I go

A friend just tried to hit me with the old argument about pop music's profound invention of the concept album. I tried to hold my tongue (I blog with Via Voice) but just couldn't let it go. So here's the rant:

Commercial popular music is fundamentally conservative; it never innovates, it incorporates. "The concept album", for example, much praised as an innovation of 1960's pop was in fact the invention of Robert Schumann. The origin of the record album in a sheet music genre just happens not to have a place in the shallow memory of pop, which barely remembers that an album was initially required as a container for 78s of classical music which went beyond the time limits of the discs. Pop music is completely fixated on the recorded commodity, which may be re-packaged but only under great constraints, re-imagined. The identification of a piece of pop music with specific emblems or artifacts of its recorded form is near-complete. Live performers strive to reproduce studio recordings. Even a "cover" of a pop song -- the genre in which pop music approaches an interpretive art -- is measured precisely by the amount of material in the original recording that has been replicated and the degree of fidelity to it, with only the most extraordinary acts of great license from that fidelty tolerated. This contrasts to notated music in which the notation may suggest an ideal, but notation is never unambiguous and can only ever be approached and realized by interpretation. (Recall Richard Winslow's Law: if you want to reproduce something precisely, transmit it aurally; if you want to guarantee that something changes over time, write it down). Over the years, many composers of serious music have ventured into pop music; the results are not always pretty (anyone else remember The United States of America or The Open Window or Elephant Steps?) There's much talk about a need for art music to appropriate the "energy" of pop, but that's only a short-term move, as the capacity of pop for forward drive and amplitude will always be greater. Art music, on the other hand, has a larger capacity for containing information, and sometimes that's a useful quality.

Don't get me entirely wrong -- there is always room in life for a song and a dance, and popular music can do both superbly. Contemporary art song, for example, is always going to have an existential problem alongside the songbooks of a Randy Newman or a Roy Orbison. But art music has the luxury to push our comfort zones a bit beyond the everyday song and dance, and by taking advantage of that luxury, the two genres can thrive in a relationship that is complementary and not parasitic.


Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

I agree 90%. The part I don't agree with is the bit about covers. While it's true that "cover bands" do strive to faithfully recreate the original, their point of existance is standins for the original bands. When non-cover-bands do covers, they often seek to incorporate their own sound. For a silly example, check out punk rock covers. People doing punk rock covers of "The Rainbow Connection" definitely aren't trying to sound like Kermit the Frog. This kind of cross-genre cover is pretty common. Also, pop artists will just cover pop songs, like Madonna doing "I Think We're Alone Now." It was very much a cover, but so updated that many of her fans didn't realize that it wasn't originally by her. Or Guns and Roses doing "Live and Let Die." That really popular song by Four Non-Blondes is also a cover and it ended up defining their sound.

I'm really dating myself and what years I listened to pop here . . .

Anonymous said...

Agree totally about covers - some of them *do* sound different, and even better.

Has Winslow's 'law' ever been tested? Is there any way to tell whether 'aural' transmission does lead to exact reproduction? If one found different variants of the same folksong, would it disprove the 'law'?

Actually it's only in these days of digital recording that one can talk at all of 'exact' reproduction. The transmission in that case is neither aural nor written.