Why the Fuss?
I keep hearing all the cries that music is being degraded. Country music isn’t “real” anymore. Bluegrass is being ruined, even insulted, by thrashers, copiers, and those unwilling to pay their dues. Rock and roll isn’t played anymore, having been replaced by other forms of musical expression. There’ll never be another Dylan. It isn’t bluegrass if it doesn’t have a banjo played just like Earl Scruggs played it 70 years ago when he debuted with Bill Monroe on the Grand Ol’ Opry. Today’s Broadway musical has just can’t live up to Oklahoma, South Pacific, or Cabaret. Has there ever been a mass market for excellence? Have artists ever been able to make a reliable and stable living from their art? Is there a place where art and commerce don’t meet?
Has there ever been a market for excellence? Let’s start with Mozart, whose music defines “classical” music for many people. The Vienna of the late 18th century was filled with composers writing music for the people who could afford to commission works and have them produced. While Salieri, because of the much awarded movie Amadeus, is well known and probably falsely accused of Mozart’s murder, a now unheard of composer of piano pieces named Musio Clementi was perhaps more popular. “The hit of 1786 was Una Cosa Rara, composed by Vicente Martin y Soler, libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. Martin y Soler was way more successful in opera, compared to Mozart and Salieri. Mozart simply didn’t count,” according to Sybrand Bakker. Now, Mozart is for the ages, while the others are forgotten except by scholars.
Vincent van Gogh is considered to be one of the greats among Post-Impressionist artists of the 19th century. His paintings, today, sell for millions of dollars. The most ever paid for a van Gogh painting was $82.5 million in 1990. Van Gogh never sold a painting during his lifetime, and his paintings still exist only because his brother Theo preserved them.
While Charles Dickens was wildly popular during his lifetime, his novels were all first sold in serial editions in the day’s popular magazines. In 1841, crowds stood at the dock in Manhattan waiting for the boat to arrive with the latest edition of The Old Curiosity Shop to discover whether Little Nell had survived. I’d hazard a guess that few people today have read this novel, while, because they appear in school anthologies and on teachers’ required reading lists, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and Great Expectations are still widely read. However, Dickens’ best known work is almost certainly A Christmas Carol, perhaps because of Mr. Magoo and various annual broadcasts of a couple of films. However, for Dickens’ bi-centennial, Bleak House, a long, complex and wonderful read, was listed as his greatest, with Great Expectations coming in second. While I used to teach Great Expectations to 10th graders, most of whom eagerly resisted reading it, I wouldn’t ask anyone not an enthusiastic Dickens reader to pick up Bleak House. It demands too much of a reader.
It’s pretty clear, then, that what’s popular now may not be what lasts, what eventually enters the canon of fine art, literature, or music may not be recognized at once, or even make money for its creator. Fashion often dictates as much about what currently prevails as does quality. It’s also pretty clear that some material from given eras will become a part of, at least, Western consciousness and live on, often through reinterpretation, updating and even imitation. In 1959, Ella Fitzgerald recorded The George and Ira Gershwin Songbook backed by the Nelson Riddle orchestra. George Gershwin had died in 1937, more than 20 years earlier, although many of the songs looked further back into the ’20s and early ’30s. Gershwin’s best work was rediscovered and renewed. Frank Sinatra did much the same for other composers from the first half of the 20th century. The Gershwins, along with Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, and many, many others, were part of a thriving publishing industry in the Brill Building in Manhattan called “Tin Pan Alley.” There was huge competition for publishing and recording songs, most of which are today not remembered, but which included great number still being sung and recorded by upcoming artists. For a longer and more exhaustive analysis of this world, the world of songwriters, composers, and the music industry, read Ben Yagoda’s fine book, The B Side.
Not too long ago, I looked up the term “classic country.” Wikipedia tells me that classic country is a radio format, i.e., a category made up to identify music that might draw an audience to stick around from advertisement to advertisement. It can include songs written from the 1920s to the 1990s with special attention to country music recorded from the late 1950s to the late 1980s. The dividing line appears to be what appeals to the 18 – 49 demographic (where the money is) rather than any objective indices of enduring quality. As the older demographic passes, there will be a decreasing demand for this format, and most — but not all — of the material will be largely forgotten, relegated to archives where only music historians and narrow specialists will pay much attention to it. But some of Hank Williams and Merle Haggard will (probably) be remembered, especially if some popular bands in the future decide to re-interpret their music.
Perhaps Van Gogh or Shakespeare (widely forgotten for almost 200 years before his rediscovery) will be smiling down on us as we search for quality. There are, in any era, artists whose work generates enthusiasm, even wide fame and riches. So why should music fans despair at the direction of pop country music? Why must the silliness of the Grammy awards and the CMA awards be hailed with such derision? Why should the (mostly white) fans of country music rain down anathema on hip-hop and rap music (mostly black) while this contemporary music insinuates its way into the mainstream just as soul music influenced all popular music a generaton ago? How powerful has the influence of soul singing been on contemporary singers of bluegrass music? Huge! Why not look and listen for the gems, the real quality amidst the dross, and then celebrate it? After all, the relentless drive for production to fill the hours between advertisements assures that while there are always gems being written, more will be forgettable or worse than will be great. Even the best singers and songwriters aren’t great, or even good, all the time. So I’m listening to alt country and learning more about Bob Dylan from our son and discovering the joys of Mark Knopfler, all of whom I previously ignored due to my own ignorance. I don’t love it all, but there’s plenty there and in dozens (hundreds, thousands of others) to sift through for quality. And it keeps me alive and growing into new, interesting, and, perhaps, timeless music. And what about the Hillbenders recording of the Who’s rock opera Tommy?