Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, March 30, 2005


Younger critics tend not to worry over it, but some older rock critics still occasionally protest the prejudice that classical music partisans historically have had against anything-but-classical, the mostly discredited snobbery that characterizes the divide as Art v. Entertainment, or High v. Low Art, or Classic v. Popular.

It’s been a multi-generational, multi-genre effort to topple Classical from its hierarchical castle, and the different genres have employed different strategies. The strategy of jazz discourse was to claim High Art status for jazz on musical grounds of complexity, musical integration, originality, and innovation. Few classical partisans dismiss these claims any more.

The strategy of rock discourse has been more complex. In general (and I ain’t lookin’ nothin’ up at this hour -- lazy sleepy me), the idea has been that the High / Low divide doesn’t exist, that the sociology of mass culture imbues its aesthetic fetish objects with undeniable energy, and that the constant gyrations that popular artists go through to keep themselves in the spotlight of an over-saturated and fickle mass marketplace drive them to heights of creativity and innovation that they would not have otherwise attained. What makes this argument complex is that traditionally, rock critics have re-inscribed the High / Low divide within popular music itself, and claimed for the popular music that the critical consensus has coalesced around a seriousness and emotional and ideational complexity, if not necessarily a musical complexity, fully commensurate with that of classical. The Beatles are the chief example of a pop act whose advocates have claimed high art status for them. By contrast, the Monkees have historically been dissed as Low Pop Entertainment manufactured for pre-teens by cynical image manipulators, not artists.

The post-boomer critics have critiqued this re-inscribed divide as prejudiced and un-aesthetic -- prejudiced against audiences whose sensibilities differ from the critical consensus, and un-aesthetic in that criteria other than aesthetic ones are used to judge artworks. In the Monkees’ case, because most of their hits were written by behind-the-scenes pros, and not the Monkees themselves, the boomer rock critics have tended to dismiss the work as unworthy.

The pro-Monkees crowd invented the epithet “rockist” to hurl at the mostly older crew, and the skirmish has been characterized as rock v. pop. Some pop partisans have claimed the charming term “poptimist” to describe themselves. The poptimists have set the terms of the debate, coined the epithets, and claimed the one they like for themselves -- all sure signs that they are winning. (I consider myself a poptimist and recovering rockist -- and I don’t remember ever having heard anyone call themselves a rockist.) (I’m also -- even worse than “rockist” -- a jazzhead and a folkie.) (And worst of all, a Barry Manilow fan -- a sentimentalist.)

One of my lights in the poptimist world -- the man from whom I first heard word “poptimist” -- has been Carl Wilson, which is why I bum out when I see him inscribe the High / Low line yet again, this time by making “a joke” about not making a joke about placing a bomb at a Smooth Jazz festival. I don’t care if Carl doesn’t like Smooth Jazz. But a cry of “death to that genre” betrays the poptimist cause; it shuts off discourse and attempts to shut ears.

Some people got ears to hear that music. Carl got big ears to hear lots of good music and good words to tell us how & why. That’s the words-about-music game, man, not trumpeting your “deaf spots” and claiming pride in them with no explanation. All that says is, “I can’t relate to that at all; therefore those people must be chumps.”

As it happens, I’ve been listening to Smooth Jazz more and more lately. Had been thinking of posting on it. (I have posted some on Smooth Jazz, but not in depth.) Maybe I still will, but not tonight.

As Barry Goldwater said, Extremism in the defense of Grover Washington Jr. is no vice.
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