Saturday, December 20, 2014

who makes a musical star, riffs on Taylor Swift's slight pivot; actual pop vs sponsored pop; and how establishments made both Miley Cyrus and Elliott Carter stars

There's a sprawling and at times muddled riff on Riley's In C cross-cutting to a discussion of Taylor Swift songs.  Before getting to the actual paragraphs ruminate for a few seconds on an idea, that the artistic crisis some think we're facing may be a crisis not of creativity as such but of patronage.  There's more stuff being made than people can or do pay for and at the risk of making a wildly sweeping claim that possibly can't be backed up any artistic canon ultimately starts as a question not of aesthetics as an end unto itself but aesthetics in the context of patronage.  The canon, whether pop music or concert music, can be measured by what a group of people decided to pay money to keep around. So, with that little idea in mind ...

Those hi-hats might sum up the difference in mood between “Happy” and “Shake It Off”—ineffably laid back vs.insistently upbeat. But, in “Shake It Off,” that slight upward sizzle takes on added significance because of the comparative stasis of the rest of the song. Like “Happy,” “Shake It Off” never modulates; in fact, it goes “Happy” one better by never even changing its harmonic progression. Verse and chorus are a regular tread—ii-IV-I-I, ii-IV-I-I, in sæcula sæculorum. That fillip of hi-hat is the only upward trend in the song. Maybe it can be heard as the equivalent of a safe, prudent investment: the unchanging status quo dotted with a periodic, predictable appreciation of interest.

Is that too much? That last paragraph could well be a parody of the sort of writing that has sprung up in response to Swift and “Shake It Off.” But it says something about the cultural place and purpose of the song that such writing is so easy. Money has been so bound up with the publicity around the song, the commentary about the song, the mere fact of the song, that it is difficult to not hear financial considerations wending their way through the production. Taylor Swift, after all, is the center of a formidable corporate enterprise. The discourse around “Shake It Off” and 1989, the album featuring it, has never been far from industry matters. The album’s completion of Swift’s turn from country-pop to pop? An occasion to analyze the navigation of genre-based and artist-based fan bases. The impressive rate and quantity of the album’s sales? An invitation to make a state-of-the-industry address. Swift’s much-noted decision to pull her music from the streaming service Spotify? An indictment/day of reckoning for streaming services as a whole. And so forth. This is what it means to be located within the cultural establishment, when the values of the establishment are congruent with those of the market.

But in terms of musical forms and textures Taylor Swift switching from country pop to just plain pop might not be a move toward the "mainstream" depending on regional preferences.  Moving from country pop to pop might be the avant garde move. ;)  Ever since the industry tinkered with how to more reliably and accurately measure what the most popular stuff actually is we've been hearing that rock has been on a decline while rap and country have "surged".  Was this surge a rise in actual popularity or perhaps also a belated recognition of the actual popularity of the genres?
Billboard replaced its honor system with hard numbers in 1991, basing its charts on point-of-sale data from cash registers. “This was revolutionary,” says Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard’s current director of charts. “We were finally able to see which records were actually selling.” Around the same time, Billboard switched to monitoring radio airplay through Nielsen.

When that happened, hip-hop and country surged in the rankings and old-fashioned rock slowly began to fade—suggesting that perhaps an industry dominated by white guys on the coasts hadn’t paid enough attention to the music interests of urban minorities and southern whites.

Another sea change came in the mid-2000s, when Billboard started tracking music streaming and downloads. Songs that weren’t label-picked singles, like the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps” in 2005, began outperforming the tracks that executives expected to do well. “Deep cuts”—songs that labels didn’t hype but that fans nonetheless loved—used to fly under the radar. (There is no evidence that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” one of the most famous rock songs of all time, was ever played on the radio in the years immediately after its release, and it never cracked the Hot 100.) But because the industry can now track what people are listening to, any song that catches on can become a hit.

To be sure, it took a massive corporate cultural investment to get the Beatles to eventually shake off the constraints of being yet another boy band to become the most famous rock band in the history of rock n roll ... but if there's some "lesson" in the Beatles in terms of their musical taste, it's that they were ultimately middle-brow in the best possible sense.  They omnivorously ran through every genre of popular music and some concert music, found the stuff they liked, and remixed it all into something that less musically omnivorous listeners misunderstood to be more innovative than it was.  It wasn't exactly innovative for breaking new ground in musical language (i.e. we're not talking Stravinsky, Schoenber, Xenakis, etc) but what was still ultimately innovative was their capacity, both as the four guys and the corporate structure backing them, to consolidate the wider range of what was available.  If Elvis and other early rockers were Haydn then The Beatles were Mozart, refiners and extenders of innovations and inventions brought about by others. 

We'd be remiss to ignore the corporate/collective decision-making power that could decide Taylor Swift would be a star but we might also do well to recognize two things.  First, there's a limit to this power.  Witness that that annoying ubiquitous Zeppelin song may not have been played on the radio in the years after its release and yet it ended up played to death anyway! 

Second, it'd be foolhardy to imagine that the corporate mandate model of deciding what's worth paying attention to is restricted to pop music.  Let's take this amusing little anecdote by Kyle Gann

I played the first several minutes of Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto.

Student #1: Who decided that this work was one of the great pieces of 20th-century music?

Student #2: It’s just like what happens in popular music.

Student #1: But no, popular music becomes popular because people like it.

Student #2: No, popular music is made popular by the industry. Somebody decided that Miley Cyrus could be popular, and so they poured a ton of money and publicity into her. Her career was completely orchestrated.

Me: Between the two of you, you have just arrived at the insight that Elliott Carter and Miley Cyrus are mirror images of each other.

[General laughter]

UPDATE: Let me be clear – other examples besides Carter and Miley Cyrus (whoever she is) could have served. I’m trying to teach the class that the canon is an artificial construct, and that it is indeed created by people in power making decisions. Musical academia has its collective narrative, critics tend toward a different narrative, the classical-music performance world has yet another narrative, and the corporate world makes decisions on a different set of criteria. All of these narratives are contaminated by self-serving premises, and none should be misunderstood as resembling any kind of pure meritocracy. And thus every student needs to judge every piece on its own merits as they appear to him or her, and such decisions should not be made on the first listening, or necessarily the second or third. It took me listening to the Double Concerto about a hundred times before I decided there just wasn’t anything there for me. It’s part of what Bard calls “Critical Thinking,” and I’m really into it lately.

Wenatchee The Hatchet hasn't heard a whole lot of Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus (given how profoundly annoying Wenatchee found Billy Ray Cyrus decades ago, Cyrus is probably never going to be heard). 

But let Wenatchee float an idea here, that the boundaries between musical styles may reside in the boundaries of the thoughts that give rise to musical languages.  The barrier between country pop and pop might not be as big or as small as some might imagine it to be.  We've had a century in Western music of styles exploding into various different directions and while it may be annoying that legions of pop songs all sort of start sounding the same perhaps this is the kind of correcting balancing movement we might anticipate humans as a whole embracing after Rite of Spring blew so many things up a century ago. The Baroque era was an era in which there were two dominant styles and the Baroque masters composed music informed by elements of the old Renaissance approach as well as the emerging major/minor key system with associated steps toward equal temperament and other moves toward a more just intonation.

What if the problem with a Miley Cyrus or an Elliott Carter is that the endorsement of both by establishments indicate the dead ends embraced by those establishments?  What if one possible path "forward" is going back and consolidating a musical taxonomy in which the boundaries across styles can be recognized as permeable and demonstrate that by cross back and forth?  "If", to be purely speculative on a weekend before Christmas, is a possibility then a way forward might not be in a Miley Cyrus or a Carter, it might be a Taylor Swift.  And perhaps a Terry Riley or a Steve Reich ... what if the nexus of "classical" and "pop" may be a path forward?  Or the old Third Stream proposal about fusion between classical and jazz.  It may well be that fusion IS a way forward but one that will be fraught with a lot of trial and error but forward to what?

Fusion will be a way "forward" for people who may not be particularly concerned that purity in and of itself is as important as sustainability.  White music can be white music and black music can be black music but if the end goal is affirming a racial or cultural purity that's not something Wenatchee feels like signing on for, ever.  If it weren't for an interracial marriage Wenatchee The Hatchet wouldn't exist. 

If Taylor swift crossed from country pop to pop odds seem pretty good her approach to subdominant substitutions wasn't what signaled the change in musical terms.  We can't exactly say the patronage system backing her has changed but perhaps the shift, such as it is, signals a belief that Swift has graduated from the possibly safer confines of country pop to more general pop?  I wouldn't know, I'm just playing with an idea on a weekend.  If the boundary between the two kinds of pop is imagined to exist at all that might just be in the minds of people who imagine there's an actual boundary there in terms of musical form and the structure of music as an expression of thought rather than the distinction between Fender or Gibson guitars or between Marshall and Pignose amps.  Nobody gets to say the banjo is only a country instrument, for instance--it's been used to play jazz and Telemann and if Elliott Carter decided to compose something for banjo ... Wenatchee The Hatchet would be curious to hear it.

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