Special isn’t Better

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I can trace my love of classical music from the moment, aged 11, I attended my first musical appreciation lesson and the needle of a badly battered record player dropped with a loud thump onto a scratchy recording of Holst's The Planets. Then I heard sounds that excited me in a way that somehow the recordings of Deep Purple and King Crimson my brothers played never did.

— Armando Iannucci, “Classical Music, the Love of My Life” (The Guardian, 13 May, 2006)

This is an old article (at least by internet standards), but it’s been making the rounds again recently, and it always gives me a lot of feelings. It’s an excellent speech, and there’s so much that could be said about it, from the importance of early music education to the non-judgemental openness of people who don’t know what they’re not “supposed” to like, from the sacredness of the paradoxically private experience of going to a live concert to not being moved by Mozart and so much more. But today I want to zoom in on that one quote, because it touches on an attitude that’s pretty common among classical musicians, and it’s one that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Classical music* is different than other musics. I mean this in the most trivial, tautological sense: Any musical genre (or meta-genre, or whatever the appropriate level is here) that can be differentiated from other musical genres must, definitionally, be different from them in some way(s), different enough to be marked out as a category of its own. There are certainly blurry, borderline cases (genres are made, not discovered, after all), but I think it should be a pretty uncontroversial statement that Ludwig van Beethoven’s thirty-first piano sonata is a different kind of music than Nicki Minaj’s “Starships”, which is in turn a different kind of music than the English folk song “Rufford Park Poachers”.

To continue with the banal: Different people like different things. Many people, of course, myself included, like more than one genre of music, but often it’s not a totally even preference. To continue to take myself as an example: I like and enjoy many different genres of music, but the vast bulk of my listening (and pretty much all of my playing) falls into the classical camp, broadly construed. I’m something of a minority in this. Next to more popular genres like hip-hop or, well, pop, classical music is the “top genre” for a pretty small percentage of the population.

Which means that there’s a lot of effort to justify its continued existence. I don’t mean this in the way that other, popular musics often have their legitimacy questioned, usually with racist, sexist, and/or classist undertones — think of the endless and endlessly tiring hand-wringing over how rap is corrupting our youth, or the equally predictable and interchangeable columns about how the “simple” lyrics of this week’s top hit is a sign of the inevitable decline of American intellectual prowess (bonus points for comparisons to lyrics from songs popular in the 50’s!) — no one is worried that listening to Schubert will lead to an uptick in premarital sex**.

Instead, classical music faces funding hurtles. Beyoncé does not need to apply for a government grant to record her next album; she does not rely on charitable philanthropic donations to cover her basic operating costs. Classical institutions, by and large, do. And as the unfeeling logic of austerity tightens its hold, the question of why they deserve this kind of support is always hovering somewhere in the background. Why should something that can’t make its own ends meet get taxpayer support? What are the arts good for, anyway?

In pushing back against this, there’s been an admirable and desperately needed push back against the logic at play, a staunch affirmation that markets and money can’t capture everything of value, that some things that matter to us as human beings are worth more than ticket sales would suggest. And doing that often involves digging down and celebrating the things that make classical music special, the things that make it different, the things that give it value in specific ways that are not the same as the values that come from other musics. (This usually involves rhapsodic language and slightly purple prose, of the sort that can seem almost embarrassingly earnest in this day and age. Writing about feeling spiritual transcendence is hard; such deeply subjective and irrational things resist being pinned down to logical chains of cause and consequence.)

And this is where the ice starts to thin alarmingly. It’s a very small step from extolling the goodness of one thing to putting down other things for not having that goodness. If we value, as Iannucci does, the transcendent aspects of classical music, the aspects that draw us out of ourselves and connect us to a larger community of feeling beings around us, it’s very easy to slip into saying, either implicitly or explicitly, that other musics, because they don’t provide this specific thing (at least to the writer in question), are therefore worse than classical music. Classical music, in other words, is not just special in the generic way that all things that are different from other things are special, it’s special by dint of being uniquely good, of being on a different level that’s somehow above all other domains of musical activity. (You can see this mentality at work in the recent asinine comments from Robert Blocker, the Dean of the Yale School of Music, dismissing the notion that YSM should teach jazz. Michael Lewanski’s takedown is excellent, and the second part in particular is something I want to plaster across pretty much the entire classical-music internet.)

This is a disastrous argument. I can understand the temptation; if you get vastly more out of classical music than you do any other genre, it’s so easy to think that that’s because classical music really is better than every other genre, that there’s some inherent quality of this kind of music that sets it apart from the rest, not as one example in a set of rough equals, but as something rarer, purer, more inherently worthwhile.

It isn’t. It simply isn’t. There are times when I want to listen to Higdon’s concerto for orchestra, but there are also times when I want to listen to “Shut Up and Dance” on repeat for an entire week and nothing else will do. Just as classical music has unique virtues that are worth celebrating, so do other genres. Classical music can’t do everything, it’s not unlimited, any more than any other genre can be all things to all people. (Fully parsing out even what the different genres I like mean to me is too large a topic to squeeze in here, let alone trying to speak more generally. Suffice it to say that I know people who only made it thru certain semesters because of the existence of One Direction, and that’s not something to sneeze at.)(This also isn’t even getting into debunking the pernicious tendency to claim that the Universal Human Experience has been best and most frequently and authoritatively captured by dead white European men. Humanity is more interesting than that.)

When you add in historical context, things get even worse. Contemporary classical music education in the United States, in my experience, is pretty bad at elucidating the relationship between artistic trends and political power, but that doesn’t mean that any of this has happened in a vacuum. From “elevating” folk songs by arranging them for orchestra (because folk songs, in this thinking, exist on a “lower” musical level than classical music) to forcibly eradicating indigenous musical practices and insisting that Western compositional techniques are the One True Way to make music (as part of historic and ongoing attempted or completed cultural genocides), there is a long and sordid history of classical music elevating itself above other musical traditions in ways that are deeply troubling and abhorrent.

(It’s not all tied to imperialism abroad either. See, for example, the baldly anti-Semitic complaints that Gustav Mahler was somehow “tainting” the German classical music tradition by including elements associated with Jewish culture. A subtler example can be found in the use of jazz music by the Parisian Neoclassicists. On its face it can already seem pretty appropriative and questionable, but other artistic trends of the time can cast it in an even darker light. So much of the artistic zeitgeist involved taking things formerly seen as ugly, as worthless trash, and putting them center stage in realms formerly reserved for things deemed refined and beautiful. Is putting a foxtrot in your opera somehow the same as Duchamp putting a urinal in an art museum? What does that imply about a music strongly coded as a black tradition? I don’t mean to argue that this is the only interpretive possibility, but it certainly seems like one that’s at least worth being well aware of.)

I don’t think that everyone making this argument has this history actively in mind, and I certainly don’t think that everyone doing  so has fully thought thru the implications of what they’re saying. But that’s just my point. If we want to defend classical music, we can’t keep falling back on tired tropes that position this music as a ne plus ultra below which all other musics fall. We have to do better than that. Classical music is worth defending, but not at the expense of furthering discredited notions of European cultural supremacy, notions that should be thoroly anathema to anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of the pertinent history.

Holst gives you something Deep Purple can’t, but Deep Purple also gives you something that is out of Holst’s power. Classical music is great. Other genres are too. These statements aren’t in tension; they don’t contradict one another. Let’s keep them that way.

*Or whatever you want to call it. I’m pretty ambivalent about this term, but it’s what Iannucci uses, and I’d like to at least strive for local consistency on the scale of a blog post.

**Not that premarital sex is inherently a bad thing, but it does tend to be something that the people fretting about what the youngfolk are listening to tend to be unhappy with. See also secularism, bad manners, and The Gays™.