Random Jottings (2): Is Pop Music Killing Culture? from 2016

Hannah Arendt was a philosopher who preferred to be called a political theorist. She was a remarkable woman; a German Jew who escaped the clutches of the Nazis (she had been imprisoned by the Gestapo in 1933), she finally settled in the USA where her work found increasing definition through the 1950s and 1960s. In 1968 she wrote The Crisis In Culture and as crystal ball gazing goes, then the clarity with which she saw the future was scary. Her argument was that market forces would eventually lead to the displacement of culture by the dictates of entertainment. If you substitute jazz for culture — as in “the displacement of jazz by the dictates of entertainment” — you’ll see she had a point. 

It goes without saying that pop music is the music of choice for the majority; nothing new there. The problem is that over the last couple of years broadcasters, arts editors of the print media and other gatekeepers of culture have stood back and allowed the dictates of majority taste to banish any interest in, or perceived need for, any other kind of music: the BBC, for example, the largest public sector broadcaster in the world, did away with its long standing distinction between Radio 1 (pop) and Radio 2 (easy listening) three years ago by eliding Radio 1 into Radio 2 to produce two pop stations that aggressively compete with each other and the commercial sector for ratings. Sadly, the ideology of consumer choice means that the only acceptable indication of value is ratings, which seems to be behind this narrowing of musical choice by the BBC. But when all we ask of music is to provide us with what we already know and like, it denies our imaginations the emotional and intellectual stimulation other realms of music can bring, like jazz.

There’s now a bland assumption that’s what is good for the majority is good for us all. As far as majority taste is concerned, Adele is a good example since her album 25 sold 3.38 copies in the U.S.A. in its first week of release (the week ending  26 November 2015). Until then, no album had ever sold more than a million copies in one week. It then went on to exceed a million copies in its second week of release. Adele is the most visible of the pop stars pedalling “one-note melodies” with simple hooks and minimal harmonic movement — Lady Gaga’s another: “Poker Face” stays on one note for most part of the song, for example.

This lack of complexity lends itself to easy assimilation — especially useful when consuming music “on the go” on a mobile since music that doesn’t demand a high level of concentration tends not to distract you while you’re doing something else — like crossing a busy road, getting on and off public transport, working out or reading a book and so on. Adele’s repertoire avoids anything too complicated; “Hometown Glory,” for example, her debut single from her first album 19, has little harmonic movement, little melodic movement and is remarkably close to the operatic technique of sprechgesang, a recitative manner of singing in which pitches are sung, but the articulation is loose, like speech and is a dirge in all but name — a dirge is a somber lament that expresses grief appropriate for a funeral, indeed, Adele’s accompaniment is based around a repeated descending figure that is a characteristic of funeral marches. 

This trend towards simplification in pop music begs the question of whether the  commercially constructed taste of the majority for pop music makes other realms of music, such as jazz, appear remote and inaccessible in comparison. Pop music is intended to be popular and so is easily digestible but the pop and rock press, radio DJ’s and the BBC take this as evidence that other areas of music that might need a bit of effort to “get into”  — like jazz or classical music, for example — must be too demanding to be popular and thus alien and aloof from the preferences of the man in the street and so elitist. Their argument usually follows the line that if pop music can create its effect without any mediation or explanation, then why bother with music that does? It’s a view that seems unique to music since in most other leisure-time pursuits, a little prior knowledge is not only tolerated, it is expected, especially in sports fandom involving games with a ball.  Here, the main route to better understanding is learning from  informed peers, television punditry or the sports pages of the daily press. Although these sources may represent an informal means of knowledge acquisition, they nevertheless constitute “homework.”

This flip-flop of values when it comes to music — that it’s fine to mug up on football, but not on music — may be a manifestation of our instant gratification culture, the desire to experience pleasure or fulfilment without delay or deferment, but it simply means engaging with music at a superficial level. It overlooks the fact that some music may initially take a while to get into and besides, if you “get it” right away it’s unlikely it will withstand the scrutiny of repeated listening. Yet with the easy availability of music today via music streaming services, music as a thing in itself is becoming devalued and regarded as a disposable item. Simplified for easy consumption, it’s increasingly fulfilling the role of what Eric Satie called “furniture music,” an undemanding background ambience streamed to provide a pleasant and comforting  mood modifier meant to enhance our daily lives whatever we’re doing. It is so changing the role and function of music in contemporary society today that Arendt’s forward looking words that “culture is destroyed to yield entertainment” echoes down the decades to haunt the gatekeepers of culture, happy to stand on the sidelines cheering the increasing dominance of pop culture.