23 November 2009

Pop State of Mind

I have a student, an unusually talented student in fact, who's involved in equal parts classical and pop. We got into a conversation recently about the difference between the two worlds. I told her the things I've observed about pop musicians over the years, most of which are negative, and asked her if any of that resonated with her experience.

Not only did it resonate, in fact, but she told me something that trumps all of my curmudgeonly bellyaching on the subject. She said that her pop music friends make fun of her for having a teacher, because the only people who have to take lessons are people who are too dumb to figure it out for themselves.

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, we continued talking and I realized that this bothered me a lot more than it bothered her. She's both unusually mature and profoundly gifted, and so the sheer absurdity of such a statement is as obvious to her as it is to me. Needless to say, though, that this experience did nothing to ingratiate me to the pop music world that many of my peers seem to view as the savior of "serious" music.

I have more firsthand experience with classical music and jazz, and certainly those worlds are no strangers to a variety of equally specious assumptions and social ills, though they couldn't be more different in nature. Even so, the militant ignorance of pop musicians has always struck me as a high crime among misdemeanors. If I found the results compelling, I would feel differently.


Anonymous said...

You're saying the Beatles do nothing for you? They have no emotional impact whatsoever?


Stefan Kac said...


I had a feeling you'd chime in on this one. I'm not a Beatles expert, and there's plenty of music of theirs I haven't heard yet, but to answer your question, no, I've never heard anything by them that compelled me to take another listen, let alone moved me on an emotional level. I actually place the Beatles a close second only to Christmas music in the category of "music I've been forced to play too many times, wish I never had to play again, but know I will." Maybe that has ruined them for me. I'm not sure. I've made a couple of efforts; they were unsuccessful, and so I moved on. Their appeal does seem to be nearly universal, and many people around me (including my mom, who was one of those screaming girls when they arrived) are huge fans of theirs, so I generally keep this to myself. But since you asked, there it is. To put things in perspective, I have never seen any of the Star Wars movies. People seem to find that fact even more appalling.

A former collaborator of mine who shall remain nameless once opined that because the Beatles couldn't read music, neither would he. First of all, from what little I've heard about them, I'm not sure that's entirely true, but even if it is (actually, especially if it is), here is another prime example of what I called "militant ignorance." Mind you that this conversation took place in the midst of a musical situation which dictated (to me at least, and I'm equally comfortable learning by ear) that charts would have been a more efficient way to go. As you know, I'm not simply allergic to instrumental autodidacts and people who refuse to read music. Both free jazz and dixieland jazz are full of those kinds of musicians. I just happen to enjoy the results quite a bit more in those idioms than I do in pop. It's worth mentioning that many such people I work with are among the most thorough and committed students of the music that I've ever met, more thorough and committed than quite a few conservatory trained dimwits. I can't say that about the pop people I've known, though I'm undoubtedly overgeneralizing and going on too little experience.

Anonymous said...

The length of your answer says as much as its content. :)


Stefan Kac said...


Stefan Kac said...

Okay Dan, accept my apologies if it's appropriate, but I just can't resist diving into this, and since I'm an underemployed freelance musician, I've had all afternoon to putz around on my blog instead of doing anything that threatens to pay the bills. So here goes nothing.

What does it say about me that my response was a healthy two paragraphs instead of a simple yes or no answer? A simple "no" would not have been inaccurate, so I could have gone that route for sure. If you're implying that, because I didn't, that therefore I must not be 100% secure saying something like that, something that sounds so patently absurd to most anyone who's not a sociopathic new music kook like me, then you're half right, but not for the reason you think. It's not because I'm posing, or because I'm trying too hard to be controversial, but because, indeed, I wonder what people will think of me if I fess up (especially other musicians that I work with, LOL). It's embarrassing, but it's the truth. It makes me feel like an outcast or a freak, and sometimes I'm more comfortable in that role than others (I am a tuba player after all). It always feels better to be honest, though, and nothing I said in my original answer was dishonest.

It's external and not internal factors that make me apprehensive about stating such an opinion. The length of my response is a mere coincidence. I'm not hiding anything, just trying to be thorough. A simple yes or no isn't worth anything without an explanation. It's impossible to reason our way into aesthetic judgments, and I'm not here to do that. We can more readily debate my observations about the world surrounding pop music and the particular behavior and attitudes of people I've encountered who live in that world. It's a debate I'd love to have because I would surely emerge from it with a richer perspective than I have now. When it comes to the actual music and the experience of listening to it, though, you and I ultimately will have to agree to disagree and go on as friends and collaborators. That's not an unusual relationship to have. We have a lot of respect for each other as players, which is good, because, apparently, we're splitting a Clown Lounge bill in a couple of weeks! There's no one you or I work with who has precisely the same taste in music as we do, and that's fine.

The Beatles being what they are, I understand why you'd bring them into this conversation. I've been gallingly general in my references to "pop music," which encompasses a hell of a lot in absence of any further reference to a time, place or style, let alone to particular artists. Truth be told, I'm more than interested in a few remote corners of that world, most specifically early acoustic blues music, a select few prog rock bands, and, believe it or not, a few very specific strains of rap and hip-hop that you'd never hear on the radio. But that's it. That accounts for almost nothing in the grand scheme of things. Most people wouldn't even be willing to put those last two items in the pop music category at all since they're seen as highly intellectual, not all that popular statistically, and require technique of the type that "real" pop musicians like to dismiss as needless virtuosity.

Stefan Kac said...

...continued from previous comment due to Blogger's length restrictions...grrr...

- - - - - - - -

In any case, I'm not entirely without a soul, and truth be told, I don't hate listening to the Beatles. It's not torture, I just have better things to do. I tried, harder in fact than I tried to like Lutoslawski, Kernis, Coltrane, Monk or Ives. I try to give things that have historical significance a particularly worthy effort before deciding they're not for me, more effort than I would the random artist who I've never heard of. Being who I am, I also generally believe in giving things multiple chances to sink it, since some of my very favorite music required multiple hearings before it attained that status in my mind, sometimes even including a dismissal, hiatus, and accidental rediscovery. To that end, it's not unfathomable that the Beatles could still grow on me. I promise to do nothing to deny or evade that if it happens, but it would rather severely surprise me at this point. It's worth noting that this approach could not be more different from the pop music approach, which (and yes, this has been said not only copiously online, but also to me in person by sentient human beings, though again I have to protect their identity and my ass both by not saying who) tends towards the opinion that if you don't like something the first time you hear it, it's no good. Well, the first time I heard "My Favorite Things," the "Concord Sonata," "Ruby My Dear," and the "Mi-Parti," I fell out of my chair. That didn't happen with the Beatles. It's not good or a bad thing, for me, them or you. It's just a fact.

As for whether that fact is worth the time and bandwidth it has now received from me, that depends on how much you care about...me. I generally try not to make this blog about me. I like to relate personal experiences and stories only when I feel they have the potential to be informative to others. Obviously, I've (purposely) abandoned that stricture (not that it never happens anyway) as part of the Blog Month event, but even so, I'd like to think that ultimately this discussion will help us get to the bottom of something or other that's bigger than either of us. That can't happen, though, if we only ever give one word answers, and so I am genuinely curious what you meant by that comment. You're not exactly the anti-intellectual type, to put it mildly, but its hard not to see that comment as coming from that direction. You couldn't be that kind of pop person, could you? : )

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