07 May 2007

Returning With a "Pop" Instead of a "Bang"

Per normal blog etiquette, this is where I'm supposed to apologize for my protracted absence from cyberspace the last couple of weeks. In reality, the person I owe the apology to is myself, for the tenuous readership this blog enjoys is proof that I need you more than you need me. In any case, here's your damn article, saps.

In an attempt to return with a bang/stir up controversy/see if anyone is actually reading, here's an idea I had recently that is sure to get some undies in a bundle. Like many of my ilk, I don't see most pop music as being worthy of academic attention. Unlike many of my ilk, however, I say this not because it is too easy to listen to*, but because it is too easy to play.

It is not uncommon to hear complaints about academia's seemingly exclusive focus on the classical and jazz traditions. The word "elitist" is thrown around with some frequency when this topic comes up. I have three questions for people who level these complaints:

•"What specifically, then, ought to be covered in such a curriculum?"

•"Are these college level academic topics?"

•"Be careful what you wish for. Don't you see what they've done to classical and jazz music?"

If you've spent any appreciable portion of your teenage years playing music, yet upon arrival to college you need someone to hold your hand while you explore the mystical worlds of power chords, backbeats, and modulations of an ascending minor third, you are not functioning on a post-secondary level in this particular subject area (music) in the first place and should not be admitted to college as a music major anyway. There are plenty of fine musicians who play by ear and may struggle with the "theory" behind these concepts in written form, but if these devices are beyond one's technical capacity as an instrumentalist or vocalist, college is not the place to address this deficiency. At most schools, the admissions bar is already much higher than that, and in reality probably ought to be higher yet anyway.

Please don't jump to conclusions about what I'm saying. I wish that colleges would involve many more students in their music programs than they currently do by expanding their offerings to non-majors. (Have I plugged this lately? Please feel free to read it if you haven't already) These offerings, however, need to be consistent with the level of coursework done in every other department at the school.

It's no surprise that pop music has made the most inroads in the musicology area of the curriculum, and that many schools offer classes like "History of Rock and Roll" as token gestures of goodwill towards the other liberal arts departments. As long as they jump at every opportunity to make connections to sociology, cultural studies, or whatever, there's plenty of fodder there for a college level class. Musicology and pop is a match made in heaven as long as both groups are so perversely content to wallow in concerns that have absolutely NOTHING to do with the actual creation of music. Conversely, colleges are understandably unwilling to approach pop music in the applied, ensemble, and theory areas because the curriculum would then fall well short of what could reasonably be deemed "college level" coursework.

There is no college arithmetic, nor do English literature students read Dr. Seuss, and to teach the performance of pop music as a specialization in post-secondary education would come close to crossing this line. You could say I'm biased, but this is something of a style-neutral issue anyway: a 4-year degree is a 4-year degree, and it had better signify a certain level of accomplishment at something. Like it or not, in a field where almost everything else is entirely subjective, raw technique is one of the few legitimate objective standards one can apply. In trying to precisely locate the cause of the problems so many people have with academia, the general emphasis on technique should not be confused with how it is approached. I would argue that the former is correct while the latter, in my limited experience, leaves quite a bit to be desired.

In any case, schools should not be granting music degrees of any kind to people who can't play their instruments (actually, they already do, which means that adding a pop music specialization would be compounding rather than solving the problem). That the techniques required by pop music would be inappropriate for college level coursework should also betray the fact that one does not need a degree to play pop (actually, any) music in the first place. Of course, all of us look forward to those precious few opportunities to get credit for something we would be doing anyway. That, however, is not what post-secondary education is about. Post-secondary education is about being dragged kicking and screaming out of our comfort zones and experiencing unforeseen and unprecedented personal growth as a result. You could call me, as a degree holder myself, a hypocrite, but in truth, "what I did during college" was nothing like "what I would have been doing anyway", and as ungrateful and irreverent as I get about much of my experience as a lowly undergrad, the truth is that it undoubtedly had a sizable impact on my musicianship. Just because someone is earlier in the process and/or interested in different music doesn't mean they don't deserve instruction and encouragement. I don't believe, however, that post-secondary educational institutions are obligated to provide it when the subject matter falls outside their scope.

So far as "nurture" (as opposed to "nature") is concerned, it's not too difficult to objectively evaluate different kinds of music for suitability for academic study (which is not to say I endorse their thought process on this 100% of the time, but academics are the way they are for a reason, and there's an upside to this as well as a downside). As for nature, academic musicians are reluctant to acknowledge it at all, content instead on pretending that they can work miracles with any student. This is a prudent business decision, but it doesn't always yield the greatest pedagogy. Anti-elitists beware: you ought to be careful what you wish for. Two ways academics ruin music are when they, (1) have delusions of controlling "nature", and (2) institutionalize certain biases as objective standards for lack of any other beyond the technique example given earlier.

It's not my place to say whether pop music is worthwhile on its own merit; that's up to individual preference. The requisite abilities (that is, those that can be taught at all) are so basic that they are not worthy of being taught at the post-secondary level. I say this, of course, taking for granted that there would be highly functional music programs in our K-12 schools, which is largely not true at this point. However, in a perfect world, these skills would be part of middle and high school curricula, and those who did not possess them as prospective college freshmen would be appropriately nudged towards remedial instruction, just as in every other academic discipline. I have been known to insist that, "Anything is difficult to do well." I still believe that. The path to doing something well, however, may or may not be worthy of college credit depending on the destination.

*It goes without saying, of course, that I find pop music incredibly difficult to listen to, and therein lies the problem with the all-too-handy convention of using "easy" and "difficult" as euphemisms for other things. I would argue that such labels always tell us much more about the person who made the statement in the first place than they do about the actual music that person is referring to. I promise to produce a treatise on this sometime in the next 40 years. For now, the readership can surely forgive me on the grounds that the cleverness of this particular turn of phrase outweighs the hackneyed semantic transgression I was forced to employ in its service.

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