“what is art today? […] the decent impotence of those who scorn to cloak the general sickness under colour of a dignified mummery.”
all art and patrons of art, throughout history, have faced an ongoing challenge: why do we like what we like? more importantly, whose opinion really matters? does my “like” trump your “like”? and, of course, do we like things because they are good?
what is good?
as someone who does a fair amount of study & reading on the philosophies and aesthetics of music, i come across this fairly often. i got hit with the reality, very bluntly, of what happens when you start asking these questions at a later age. there is no turning back once you realize that your concept of music, what it is and what it does, can be challenged. it can shake your entire foundation. this was tested last week in one of my classes. we devoted a whole class to postmodern aesthetics of music (with a little dash of Adorno) and i found myself in the position of preaching to the deaf. i could cite Pluto, Adorno, Derrida, and Lyotard till the cows came home but they were not having it. words like “good”, “undefinable”, and “beautiful” keep appearing and i kept cringing.
and what saddens me the most about all of this is that it’s not the fault of my peers. they’ve been indoctrinated and they don’t even know it. many of us come out of our musical academic experience thinking the only composers who have ever mattered are Bach, Mozart, (maybe) Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner and Mahler. god help you if you don’t like those composers because you are obviously not a real classical musician. how have we let it get to this point? this is canon formation in overdrive. are you really gonna like Beethoven because someone told you to and pointed out in all of his works what a genius he was? why wouldn’t you?
i had this experience with Bach. Bach was in my life from a very early age for, you see, he and i have the same birthday. not only that, but i was born 299 years to the day after the Master himself. (yes, if you can do math, i have just dated myself. whatever…) growing up, my favorite classical radio station would play nothing but Bach all day on my birthday and it drove me crazy! this led to a most likely irrational hatred of Bach and his music. but how could anyone hate Bach? did i not understand his genius? well, after years of rejecting common thought, i decided to really check Bach out on my own. and, amazingly, i had a moment. i liked Bach. from that moment on Bach and i have had an increasingly personal relationship. Bach became important to me because i found something relevant, relatable. Does common academic study tend to bolster those feelings? possibly, which, of course, i hate. but i never let myself take any composer at face value — if someone is going to tell me that someone is “great”, i need to know why.
as we all know, schools are intent on teaching the Austro-German Classical/Romantic legacy. it’s just easier. but in doing so, we produce a generation of musicians who are content with not taking risks, whether in programming or education, and it has real effects. in the Northeast, where i was educated, the “orchestra” was the only relevant and important music-making body. the wind band genre, which i grew up with was “less than”, “undesirable”, and not real art music. says who? says those who were educated within this system.
this reeks of bad things to come and i feel it’s my duty to curb it as much as possible. i will admit, i get a little overzealous (i know many people who are German Romanticists and it’s just my general feeling to loathe them, which is not fair — there’s just so damn many of them!) but i believe what i’ve subscribed myself to. don’t like Mozart? fine. but if you’re going to rebel against the institutionalized canon, be educated about it. and stay away from “good”, “better”, “best”. that trap is lethal — unless you’re Plato.
i saw this again on a much smaller scale (and i mean MUCH smaller) with the release of Christina Aguilera’s new video, “Not Myself Tonight” — there’s a lot of vitriol out there about what’s “good” and what”s not and i found myself asking the above questions in regards to this…and feeling badly that the same sort of institutionalized aesthetics happens on every level, from pop music to art music and everywhere else. i think part of the reason why it can be more inflammatory in music as opposed to other arts is because of the very deep connections we make with artists and their work. i’ll be the first person to admit it — to me, Bach’s Goldberg Variations feels like a warm breeze blowing through my hair and sounds like the silence of unconquered lands. and if you come up to me and tell me that Bach is shit, i’ll punch you in the mouth. but then i have to take a step back and analyze all of those feelings.
i’m not saying that we can’t like music just because and place value judgements because, let’s face it, that’s impossible. but if you haven’t before, take a look at why you like the things you do and think the way you do about certain musics. is it because of your own personal decisions or because you haven’t heard otherwise?
side notes: 1) i’ve decided to get my Britten tattoo & a new Bach tattoo to complement it on my right arm. i’m totally swagga jacking the lovely Ms. Lindsey Falbo, but let’s face it, Bach was a fucking baller who designed his own family crest. you can find the Britten here: http://drp.ly/V9Ifu (which i designed myself) and the Bach here: http://drp.ly/V9K1 (however the Bach will not be filled in but only outlines that i will design)
2) i’m sorry Christina, and i mean no disrespect but go away, again, figure out the artist you want to be, and then come back. when you do that, i will be happy. don’t pander to the lowest denominator with this video/song…you don’t need to be Madonna or Gaga, trust me.