I remember driving in my car once and having a stack of classical CDs that I’d been wanting to listen to, but in that moment, I really wanted to listen to Pearl Jam. I ended up listening to them, belting all the lines of “Even Flow,” but for a second, I felt a tinge of guilt for choosing rock over classical. Immediately this feeling passed, and I scoffed at the idea of one genre being the one I “should have” listened to.
This feeling must have come from somewhere, however, and I think almost every classical musician can agree where: the stereotypical bashing on pop, rock, hip-hop, and many other genres from classically trained musicians. This arcane opinion is, well, arcane, but despite all the genre-mixing in the last couple of years and the obvious talent of many non-classical musicians, there are still people who believe all pop music is evil.
(DISCLAIMER: I have a couple of friends who I recently bantered with about some indie musicians—this does not count as “all pop music.”).
Now, don’t get me wrong—there are definitely artists who gain success simply out of dying their blue hair, speaking party-oriented word over and over (and over) again, or playing G, D, E minor, and C on their guitars. But finding quality, complex music in non-classical genres is about as easy as playing this four-chord music.
Many aspects of incredible, popular music are easily heard. Part of the problem, I think, is the will to listen.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw Genghis Barbie in concert. The French horn quartet from New York City plays arrangements of classic pop songs from the past decades, ranging from Queen to Toto. All of the members are masters of the instrument and have 26 combined years of conservatory training, but the word “pop” still causes people to say things like “Sorry ladies; all flash, no substance” or “the horn will never be a disco/party instrument!” in comments under their videos. The reason I can speculate that it is only the word “pop” that’s doing this is, well… just have a listen:
Though Seal might is classified under R&B, his music is still in the popular genre. Inside of his song is the guide for this arrangement, one that wanders, resolves, and still has the infectious quality of an R&B song. At their concert, Genghis Barbie played Queen, Lady Gaga, Toto, Leonard Cohen, and Sisqo. But they also played Schumann’s “Ausgewählte,” and it blended in with the rest of the program seamlessly. I wasn’t pulled into a different world of sound; in fact, it was almost indistinguishable from the other pieces.
Despite the obvious talent of both Genghis Barbie itself, the arrangers, and some of the artists they play arrangement of, they still receive comments like the ones above. Some of them have to do with the clothes they wear (but who wouldn’t want an excuse to wear orange spandex? Really?), but many have to do with the conversion of an instrument so comfortable in the concert hall to one that emits melodies people hear on the radio.
The Reason for the Problem
“Quality” as an independent entity is one of the most abstract ideas. The definition of “quality” for purely classical or pop musicians is very different. Oftentimes, a classical performer is dubbed as a quality performer if they have good technique. The ability to rip through arpeggios and effortlessly land on the resolving note is something that would constitute someone as a “good” musician. Of course, there are countless other factors to the quality of a classical musician, but the aspects seem much more definable because of two distinct reasons:
1) Classical music focuses on the abilities of the instrument or performer, even if this means the voice.
2) It is most common for a musician to either be the composer or the performer at one specific time, not both.
These factors put more focus on the actual playing itself and the specific roles of the people involved, making the “quality,” we like to believe, easier to detect. If quality is easier to detect, shouldn’t classical music be of higher quality because we are able to weed out the low quality music? Well…
However, pop music (encompassing all non-classical genres) seems to measure quality in a different way. Quality is more subjective for pop music because:
1) The vocals, one of the largest pillars of pop music, are more conversational and emotion inducing through describing situations (rather than through poetry or the specific tones of the voice)
2) The music of pop music (stereotypically) is meant to create an atmosphere rather than be the direct guide through the story, as in classical.
Therefore, the determination of quality is more up to the individual—this makes deciding who is a good musician more difficult (unless we follow the criteria more often followed in classical). As a result, pop music is more easily insulted and harder to defend. A pop musician could use one chord progression throughout an entire song, but the song could be called great because of the successful construction of passion. Does this make the song bad? Certainly not. Does it make it good? Who knows?
The Solution, or Rather What Everyone Should Realize
Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which you should read if you truly want to find a way to understand quality for yourself), wrote something that, if understood, could make everyone’s mind open to all music:
“Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions.
If everyone removed their prior perception of quality, or even their judgments of pop or classical music, the true essence of all music could be brought out. Quality will always be impossible to define wholly. Sometimes, pop musicians will be virtuosos at their craft, and sometimes contemporary classical music will call for one, continuous note from a performer.
The 21st century is the prime time for genre crossing as well. As Stephen Gosling and John Schaefer said in the SONICFestival’s video, composers of “classical” (those quotes don’t prove my point enough) music are incorporating Indie music vibes, Indie musicians are using orchestral, complicated arrangements, rappers are performing with philharmonics, and some of the most popular artists out there (Adele, anyone?) are remarkably talented. The point is, there is simply no way of determining whether or not a genre is good or bad, and most definitely no way of knowing that a song is bad because of the genre it has been assigned to.
America, Your Moment of Zen
“It is a puzzling thing. The truth knocks on the door and you say, "Go away, I'm looking for the truth," and so it goes away. Puzzling.”
And Finally, Some Suggestions for Good, Popular Music