ARE POPULAR MUSIC FANS JUST VICTIMS OF BRAINWASHING THEN?! I THINK NOT! by Neil March
One of the most overly used and arguably offensive assertions I have seen made by a certain group of academics is that us fans of popular music are the unwitting victims of brainwashing by the overpowering omnipresence of Anglo-American Capitalist Culture. No it is not 1st April as I write this. Such an argument actually is postulated by a group of people whose command of language [and whose gatekeeping status within music academia] suggests they are no fools.
So what is the premise of this argument? The short version is they believe the relentless force-feeding of the general public with commercially successful popular music primarily performed by Anglo-American artists with lyrics in English has destroyed any prospect of most people being able to make informed choices about the types of music they want to engage with. The theory is that only a small number of [classically] educated musicians and associated members of the intelligentsia are able to see past this corporate brainwashing process because they have been introduced to a variety of alternative musical cultures and systems which have, in turn, enabled them to become enlightened and open-minded about harmonic, rhythmic, metrical (etc.) concepts that the average person would find puzzling, alienating and nonsensical.
Actually a good part of this theory is perfectly acceptable and accurate in its analysis. Without question, most people are not in a position to understand the appeal of, for example, music by composers such as Brian Ferneyhough, Karl-Heinz Stőckhausen, Horatių Radulescu or even Harrison Birtwistle. Equally it is true that, to become accustomed to and able to appreciate music which may broadly be defined as atonal, ametrical, polyrhythmic, microtonal [and much more besides], one needs to spend time familiarising oneself with these less mainstream conventional methods and techniques.
It is also true that many people are content to have their opinions about music and the forms in which they prefer to receive it largely dictated by the mainstream popular media. Unfortunately, trying to uncover meaningful survey information about precisely how people make such choices and what it tells us is a fruitless task. Those surveys I have researched are rendered meaningless by virtue of being based on entirely subjective and indefensible premises that determine how answers are analysed and how their meanings are presented. So I apologise for an uncharacteristic absence of research data to support my arguments
In any case, does it actually matter if most people form their musical tastes in such a fashion? The same group of academics who are so irked by the popularity of commercial music fail to make a comparison between the general public’s ignorance of, say, Stochastic Music and their own ignorance of countless other subjects in which they have no expertise. To use a simple illustrative example, I may be able to derive great fulfillment from listening to composers I admire such as Olivier Messiaen, Gyorgy Ligeti and the aforementioned Radulescu because I am a trained musician with a Doctorate in composition but my appreciation of the finer points of contemporary architectural techniques is no more sophisticated than that of the average person.
Nor am I equipped to recognise the significance of specific new scientific theories, differentiate between classes of wine or to understand why the engineering feat involved in one type of locomotive engine is more impressive than another. But then I know plenty of individuals who can explain the philosophies of Derrida or Kant but cannot explain the offside rule [in football]. In short, we cannot all be experts about everything and music is not the only art [or science] with niche areas of interest that require experience and expertise to appreciate.
So what about those of us who do understand and enjoy complex, unconventional and aurally challenging art music and yet continue to love a large volume of commercial Pop music too? Are we just the poor unsuspecting victims of corporate brainwashing? Have we been duped into believing that there are great House, Hip Hop, R’n’B, Alt-Rock or Pop songs? In reality, are these just worthless insubstantial products of Anglo-American Capitalist Culture which contain no more goodness than a fat-soaked piece of Fried Chicken or an American-style Burger?
Actually no. So let me begin by considering my own introduction to Popular Music. It is an occasion I will never forget. I was nine years old and had been classically trained since I was four. Contrary to the theory about Anglo-American Capitalist brainwashing, the only brainwashing I had arguably been subjected to was that of being repeatedly told that all Pop Music was worthless noise produced by long-haired drug-taking ne’er-do-wells! There was no Pop Music in my world. My home was filled with the sounds of Classical music (i.e. roughly from early Baroque to late Romantic) and a Jazz spectrum in which the most adventurous end included Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Artie Shaw and the least adventurous was dominated by the Big Bands of the nineteen-forties. My father owned one ‘Pop’ record; the quirky and inconsistent (though at times impressive) Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour mini Box Set EP.
So, when my friend insisted that we listened to the BBC Top Twenty on Radio One on a Sunday evening, I protested but, being his guest, was forced to hear this aberration under duress. Yet despite my negativity, when I was introduced to the strains of the Jackson Five’s Lookin’ thru the windows, I could not deny what I was experiencing. The sweet harmonies, the octave slide bassline and the young Michael Jackson’s breathtakingly [emotionally and dynamically] mature lead vocal performance knocked me for six. By the time the programme finished at 7PM and it was time to go home, I had also taken a shine to the unlikeliest of bands and artist, given my previous animosity towards ‘noisy’ Pop music, in this case Slade and Elton John. (Little did I know that Elton John would go on to own and chair the football club I would come to love so dearly.) Moreover my conversion was now complete.
I formed my first band the following day. I knew nothing about bands. But I was a musician and knew other musicians and this Pop Music thing had suddenly become the most important influence in my young life. Not because of corporate brainwashing but because I had ears and a brain and could hear for myself that the disparaging comments I had been force-fed by Pop’s detractors were wrong and I had been misled.
That was December 1972. Four and a half decades later, an awful lot of water has flowed under my bridge. In that time, I have had careers (of some description at least) in popular and ‘classical’ (in the broadest sense) music. I have been both artist and entrepreneur. I have promoted clubs at the height of the late nineties Dancefloor boom. I have written and performed an almost unfeasibly wide spectrum of musical genres and involved myself in an equally diverse range of ‘scenes’. And I continue to have feet in both the contemporary art and popular music worlds as an artist and label.
Nevertheless, it might seem reasonable to assume that such a diverse and all-encompassing experience taking in different areas of musical invention and experimentalism might ‘cure’ me of my love of conventional Pop Music and push me in the direction of the avant-garde. Not so. All these musical strands and schools of thought have their merits but, for all that Prince and Stevie Wonder may not offer the degree of rhythmic and harmonic adventurousness I find in the works of Messiaen or Ligeti, they are a good sight funkier and have other unique qualities.
As a Pop historian with a detailed knowledge of many specialist areas of popular music construction and culture, I have highly developed opinions and preferences which betray no evidence of undue influence from the corporate machine.
We must also question the position of a group of almost exclusively white European intellectuals believing they have the right to declare their areas of interest to be superior and of more importance to the evolution of our art than anyone else’s. Not only is this possibly very arrogant. It is also quite historically inaccurate. They may believe that their model of ‘new music’ represents a more noble form of radicalism but others see it as an outmoded model based on an academic school of thought from over forty years ago which briefly offered an alternative to the conservatism then prevalent in music departments and conservatoires.
It seems that this group of academics has forgotten the importance of music [indeed of any art] being able to speak to and for people. It was a piece of Anglo-American Pop with incredibly simple structures and harmonic language entitled Free Nelson Mandela that first introduced the dancing Pop-loving masses to the name Nelson Mandela and did more to internationalise the campaign for his release from Apartheid Prison than a hundred New Complexity pieces. When the Vietnam War was in full swing and young African Americans were being sent to their death in their droves while unemployment, police brutality, drug addiction and environmental destruction were rising to unprecedented levels, it was Marvin Gaye’s What’s going on album that captured the zeitgeist while the contemporary classical world was busy naval-gazing.
Wind the clock forward to 2016. Whose music speaks to or for the increasingly ethnically diverse and socially complex generations of young people in our inner cities? Kendrick Lamarr? Kojey Radical? Or Helmut Lachenmann? The language in academia may be quasi-Marxian and anti-establishment but its impact is to ensure that the vast majority of talented young musicians from minority ethnic backgrounds and socially disadvantaged situations will not give a second thought to studying formal composition in higher education.
The reality is that this uber-classical school of thought in which a fetishistic obsession with form and structure and an almost exclusive reliance on writing for standard classical instrumentation and ensemble-types prevails has itself become increasingly conservative and its followers have, probably unwittingly, formed their own elite which now guards the doorways into academia with the same self-serving exclusion of new interests and ideas that they rebelled against in their younger days. For all their leftist rhetoric, it is easier and more comfortable for them to deal with a student base that is largely white, middle class and happy to be guided towards the same assumptions as their tutors.
Then there is the matter of another quite arrogant assumption about the abilities of students. I have, on a number of occasions, read comments to the effect that, whilst most popular music students would not be capable of composing art music, most composition students could easily compose popular music. Again, this is not supported by evidence. In my experience, the majority of students who have spent their lives immersed in their narrow classical and art music world often prove surprisingly inept when attempting not only to write but even to understand how to interpret and play pop music. Of course there are always some who can do both. But then there are always some musicians from a predominantly Pop or Jazz background who find it easy to make the transition to composing and performing art music.
I recall studying at one institution alongside a young Iranian student who had a degree in music from the University of Tehran but who had never previously so much as heard any Western art music. Watching her determinedly getting to grips with these new concepts that, to the rest of us, were so familiar really impressed me and I will always be touched by how much she cherished a compilation of Messiaen’s works which I made for her on request and which, even though his music must have sounded like the product of a different universe, she loved so dearly.
So once again it is a theory based on an assumption about the talent shortfall amongst ordinary people raised on non-classical music genres. Instead of sneering at Popular Music students for their inability to study more complex styles, these Academics would do well to research the real reasons why so many talented youngsters would rather shun the opportunity to study formal composition and instead choose Pop or other areas of music which they perceive to be less stuffy.
Far from representing the most relevant and ‘radical’ musical interests upon which the evolution of ‘serious’ music depends, the academic elitists are clinging to an increasingly irrelevant relic of the last century. The world outside has moved on with a whole other (German and Japanese-led) electronic music tradition continuing to influence change; exciting new concepts of sound manipulation, digital synthesis and other modern techniques pointing to a more obvious way forward which, like all great art, reflects the changing world in which its artists live and operate.
One change that should not be under-estimated is the extent to which even most talented young classical musicians are interested in popular music these days. And that interest goes beyond merely listening for pleasure with a greater number either seeking to incorporate elements of Pop into their repertoires or to actively collaborate with Pop perfomers.
If anything, this development points to the most important potential benefit from the way in which subsequent generations of musicians and artists have come to view music. Namely the convergence of interests coupled with the ever-expanding and easily accessible means to create new forms of sound and music which make the long overdue breaking down of barriers between different musical cultures a distinct reality.
Yes people, it may finally be acceptable for Pop and Art [and other areas of] sound to coexist, collaborate, combine to make music more interesting and progressive again. In 2016 you really can enjoy Berio and Beyonce, Carter and Coldplay, Lachenmann and Ludacris in equal measure even if for entirely different reasons! And that, far from being the terrible consequence of Anglo-American Capitalist Brainwashing, is something we should all want to celebrate.
Neil March has a PhD and Masters Degree in Composition from Goldsmiths, University of London and is Head of Demerara Records & DemPopTunez.