Music isn’t music anymore

The other day I ran across a quote from someone named Pete Waterman. Since it appeared in a music column, I realised he was some sort of pop celebrity, which concept is defined as ‘someone I’ve never heard of’.

One of course doesn’t expect intellectual depth from a pop star, but Waterman’s words struck me for the refreshing cretinism going beyond even the demands of his field: ‘Music isn’t art,’ he said, ‘it’s for enjoyment… Music has always been written for a purpose, be it a wedding, a funeral or a birth, and people have always got paid for it. Mozart, Beethoven and Handel all got paid.’

Point made. Anything enjoyable produced for a fee isn’t art. In other words, art in general, not just music, doesn’t exist: after all, Velasquez got paid for those portraits of Philip IV, Tolstoy got a large fee for War and Peace and Bach raised his 20-odd children on the proceeds of his work.

So if art doesn’t exist, what does? Why, the music business of course. It has always been so, and Bach and Mozart working for subsistence wages are no different from the tattooed plankton paid millions for belching their I’ll-slash-you-up-bitch nihilism into microphones the world over.

Underneath the obvious symptoms of the speaker’s mental retardation, one detects something more pernicious: egalitarianism run riot. That the likes of Waterman can’t understand one iota of the divine inspiration behind, say, St Matthew’s Passion goes without saying. But, like a savage trying to eat a Stradivarius, they actively wish to destroy what they don’t understand. And they are encouraged in this gruesome endeavour by the whole ethos of modernity, devoid as it is of any conception of hierarchies. I like Amy Winehouse, you like Maria Callas — what’s the difference? We’re all equal, innit? None of it is art anyway, djahmean? It’s all cult personages earning a crust.

The cult aspect was already evident in jazz, the precursor of pop. Jazzmen could also attain cult status and, as the quasi-biblical figures they had become, they were identified either by their Christian names or nicknames: Oscar, Miles, Dizzy, Bird, King, Count, Duke. So, had pop not come along, jazz would have tried to take up the slack. But it would have failed.

The trouble with jazz is that it still requires some musical attainment from its practitioners. The best of them, such as Art (‘Tatum’) or Bird (‘Parker’), were first-rate talents. As far as modernity was concerned, this was a disqualifying circumstance. That sort of thing smacked of élitism, one of today’s most frightening bogeymen. Musically, however, jazz influenced pop quite a bit. Traces of swing or rhythm-and-blues are prominent in the output of the early pop stars, such as Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry. But even in those salad days of rock ‘n roll, music played second fiddle to the cult. Presley in particular became a Christ-like figure, even acquiring aspects of resurrection after his death.

This cult aspect of pop became particularly prominent with the Beatles, who started out as singers of cute little songs and ended up as false prophets, cult leaders of modernity. Somewhere along the way they acquired the help of musically trained assistants, so their later records display competent harmonies and even direct quotes from real composers, including Bach and Beethoven.

Paradoxically, it is precisely in their late albums that music, even at its most primitive, no longer mattered. No one listened to it any longer anyway. Instead, hysterical audiences of youngsters were hanging on to every garbled word of the semiotic message they discerned behind the expertly harmonised pulse. Unlike real music, the Beatles’ had no spiritual content as such. Theirs was a cult appeal, the marching orders screamed by a victorious modernity. In some extreme cases, the orders were literally understood and faithfully followed. For example, Charlie Manson and his ‘family’ went on a rampage of horrific murders partly as a result of the message they had perceived in the songs of The White Album.

While the Beatles still tried to preserve a semblance of musicality, their followers have abandoned any such attempts. More and more, pop began to acquire overtly satanist characteristics. More and more, it began to appeal not just to the darker side of human nature but to the sulphuric swamp concealed underneath it. The appeal continued to be quasi-religious, in the same sense in which the antichrist is the negative image of Christ. While Jesus redeemed his followers by dying on the cross, the messengers of the new god would commit suicide or else die of alcoholism, drug overdose or in due course of AIDS. Improbably, they were all portrayed as innocent victims of some unidentified enemy who, contextually, could only be the conservative establishment. So all those hideous Freddie Mercuries and Amy Winehouses gave their lives for a good cause. They are martyrs at the altar of hatred.

In the process, pop has become a big business, perhaps the biggest of all. Illiterate, tone-deaf adolescents can become billionaires overnight, provided they can tickle the naughty bits of their mass audiences in a particularly effective way. They belch their anti-capitalist invective all the way to the capitalist bank, and many critics sneer at the alleged paradox. There is none, as Waterman unwittingly confirms.

For modern people, including ‘musicians’, don’t make products. They create markets and sell brands. They slap together sub-cultures. They fuse the markets and the sub-cultures into a uniform whole. In this case, pop music is only a part, although the most important one, of what passes for modern culture. It’s the heart of the new Leviathan whose tentacles are numerous and ever-reaching. Pornography, fashion, show business, a great part of the publishing and record industries, electronic media including the Internet, drugs – all reach for the immature hearts and minds of our young.

As in any other area of life, the dominant system affects all others. So classical music too has become a business, rather than art. Musicians have always been paid, Waterman is right about that. But in the past they were Rachmaninov and Glenn Gould. Today they mainly fall into two groups best exemplified by Lang Lang and Imogen Cooper — with the first displaying talents more appropriate for a circus ring than a concert platform, and the second playing with all the verve of your average schoolgirl. Doesn’t matter — they are not artists. They are brands. And we, ladies and gentlemen, aren’t listeners any longer. We are punters. So perhaps Waterman isn’t so stupid after all.




2 thoughts on “Music isn’t music anymore”

  1. Alexander,

    I would like to share a general comment and question.

    I think that the most deplorable misunderstanding that seems to accompany all systematic and disciplinary attempts to interpret art (and music in particular) is a failure to grasp that the truly defining feature of all art is its built-in resistance to interpretation. Pierre Boulez, speaking as a composer, has said that there is an “impenetrable kernel of darkness” (un noyau infracassable de nuit) at the heart of the activity of composition, and I suggest that this also characterizes our experience of music as listeners.

    The most difficult thing to grasp about music (and indeed about any artwork) is that there always remains something that resists our attempt to comprehend it fully, if by the word ‘comprehend’ you mean to discover the correct answer, or the solution to a problem. We might think we’ve understood all there is to understand about a piece, especially as musicologists or philosophers, or indeed even as performers and interpreters, but if we’re honest, when we turn back to the piece we realize with some trepidation that we have not really understood or explained anything substantial about it at all. The piece appears before us as if we had never really heard it before. It seems to me that ‘musical understanding’ (as opposed to ‘understanding music’) is a constantly expanding process through an accumulation of experience (which is, of course, partly cultural, but also partly an accumulation of personal experiences). In a very real sense, therefore, we ‘learn’ how to listen to music as an open-ended and continuing process.

    If our experience remains open to change, how can we ever feel that we have fully comprehended a piece of music?


    1. The short answer is, we can’t. A lower system can’t fully comprehend a higher one, and not just in music. For a performer, and especially a listener, to get into a composer’s mind, he has to be equal to the composer in talent and intellect. I know of only one instrumentalist, Glenn Gould, who approached that level, but ‘approached’ is the operative word. However, that’s what makes listening to a great performance so fascinating. What we hear isn’t truth found, but truth sought (provided of course, and this is an increasingly rare proviso, that the performer is actually seeking truth, rather than just fame and money). And, since the objective truth, that of every nuance of the composer’s intent, is unattainable, we are treated to so many subjective truths, those perceived as such by the player. And both a player and his audience are even more a product of his time than a composer was. That’s why, for example, I despise all those ‘authentic’ ensembles: we listen — are supposed to listen — to 18th-century music with 21st-century ears. An attempt to override this natural process is just a commercial gimmick. I don’t know if this is any help, and I apologise if it isn’t.

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