When I was little, the music I liked best was TV show themes. "Entertainment Tonight," that was a good one. Also, "Ripley's Believe It Or Not," "The A Team," "LA Law," "MacGyver," "Cheers"... these were the core of my repertoire at the piano. There were some movie soundtracks I liked too -- St. Elmo's Fire (though I wasn't allowed to see the actual movie) and Ghostbusters especially. The first tape I really got deeply into was a dub of a Henry Mancini record my grandfather made for me.
As may be quickly becoming apparent, I did not listen to any of the popular music that would have been normal for a kid my age. Unlike my classmates, I didn't flip out over Michael Jackson's Thriller or Prince's Purple Rain or the Police's Synchronicity or the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill -- while they were an inescapable part of the general musical landscape, I didn't own 'em and (at best) the music just didn't make much of an impression. One of my best friends was really into the Ramones, the Talking Heads, the Violent Femmes, etc, but I thought he had terrible taste in music, and I kept going back to my beloved Mancini tape.
It was the summer of 1987 when finally I decided I might get beat up less, escape constant ridicule, etc, if I tried to engage with the popular culture of my peer group. I made it my mission to listen to the radio constantly. Rick Dees Weekly Top 40 became a sacrament not to be missed. I forced myself to listen to everything with an open mind -- it didn't matter if I loved it or hated it, it was just important that I know about it. I still know all the words to almost every hit song from 1987.
My next step was to try to persuade my parents to let me sign up for the Columbia House Music Club -- in that initial, glorious batch of twelve tapes, the one I was most excited about was Huey Lewis and the News' Small World -- which, for some reason, was never as popular with my peers as it was with me. Ditto with Steve Winwood's Roll With It, Richard Marx's self-titled debut and Rick Astley's Whenever You Need Somebody. But like everyone else, I got way into INXS' Kick, George Michael's Faith, Michael Jackson's Bad, and U2's Rattle and Hum. I never did buy a copy of GNR's Appetite for Destruction, but I (somewhat surprisingly) found myself loving all the radio hits, especially "Paradise City."
Following that, like all good suburban white boys, I started getting into rap -- especially It Takes A Nation of Millions and Ice-T's Power -- but what I really loved around that time, more than anything, was Living Colour's Vivid. I think that's the first record (well, er, tape... ) I listened to that clicked for me as something more than just a collection of tunes. It was heavy but it was smart, the playing was badass and it was incredibly varied -- it drew on all these genres and styles I knew absolutely nothing about, and every listen gave the thrill of fresh discovery. The angry and anguished tunes felt far more real to me than anything else I'd ever heard -- "Cult of Personality" (of course) but also "Middle Man," "Desperate People," "Open Letter To A Landlord," "Memories Can't Wait," (I'd never heard the original) -- damn. This music did things to me I'd had no idea music could even do.
As it turns out, my fling with popular music lasted just three years -- in the summer of 1990, I abruptly stopped listening to anything at all except jazz. (I would allow myself a little blues, occasionally, and I also made an exception for Living Colour's Time's Up, but that was about it.) I had started playing piano in the school jazz band and discovered I had some talent for it, so I started taking lessons and going to workshops, and it seemed like everyone was broadcasting the same Wyntonite message to us budding jazz nerds: "Popular music is an evil and corrupting influence, and jazz -- and, uh, classical -- are the only True Musical Arts. If you want to play jazz, you have to listen to jazz exclusively. Anything else will fuck up your playing."
So I obediently purged almost my entire collection and started over with Kind of Blue (and, um, the soundtrack to Siesta -- those were the two Miles tapes they had in stock at the mall), Clark Terry's In Orbit (with Thelonious Monk), and an Italian import of dubious legality that had some of the Charlie Parker Dial sessions.
Because of this, I missed out on what's supposed to be the transformative musical moment of my generation, which had been brewing practically in my own backyard. I never got Nevermind or In Utero or Ten or Ritual de lo Habitual or Badmotorfinger or Superunknown or Dirt. I lost track of hip-hop as well -- I completely missed out on De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr... What was the point? They weren't captial-A Art -- not like "Watermelon Man" or "The Sidewinder." Kurt Cobain couldn't possibly have anything of any value to communicate to an obsessive, depressed, antisocial teenager like myself -- unlike, say, Sammy Cahn or Johnny Mercer. What good would it do to stay in touch with the musical culture I was growing up in? All that was current and popular was necessarily coarse and unclean, and needed to be sacrificed in the name of Art. At least, that's what anyone who knew anything about jazz seemed to be telling me, and who was I to argue?
This brings me to a couple of recent posts at New Music Box by a young composer named Colin Holter, who is just finishing up his first year of an MM in comp at the University of Illinois. Colin is... somewhat conflicted:
Are my colleagues and I at a disadvantage because pop, rather than Western classical music, is the music in which we were socialized? In other words, wouldn't it be better to know the Beethoven piano sonatas forwards and backwards than the second Weezer album? Were we listening to the wrong music in our formative years?
Those of us who are preparing for doctoral prelims in the next couple of years would probably agree that we were. I certainly wish I had familiarized myself with the standard rep rather than Gang Starr's "Just to Get a Rep," and not just for the prelims' sake either. My respect for the "classical" literature is enormous, having heard and performed quite a bit of it, but my knowledge of it is peppered with holes—holes that are not only embarrassing but also potentially detrimental to my compositional awareness. More importantly, I wonder how years of pop have shaped my perception of music as a listener. Has my familiarity with the conventions of rock weakened my ability to make sense of large-scale formal shapes, for example? Why is it that even my favorite new music masterpieces don't elicit an emotional reaction from me, but the right band playing the right song at the right time can reduce me to tears?
In answer to that last question, composer and WWE afficionado Seth Gordon helpfully observes: "Well, seems kinda simple - you just don't like classical music as much."
Leaving that possibility aside for the moment, though, the idea that a composer who didn't cut themselves off from popular music during their formative years -- as I mostly did, much to my regret -- now lamenting that they wish they'd O.D.'d on Haydn string quartets back in junior high makes me want grab Colin by the shoulders and shake him very hard. Despite what his teachers may be telling him, the idea that there's actual virtue in being disconnected from the musical culture at large is completely insane. Insane, Colin. The idea that you, as a composer of contemporary music, will write better music if you purge the stuff that has the deepest emotional resonance for you is also, I'm afraid, bugfuck insane. If this is what the your teachers are feeding you, Colin, flee. Either that, or tell them to go screw, and crank that Gang Starr record you loved so much. Revel in it, swim in it, but also: take notes. Because when you figure out how to draw out what attracted you to that record in the first place and make it yours, you'll be much further ahead than if you'd gone back in time and force-fed your 11-year old self more Haydn.
Undaunted, Colin returned the following week with a related post:
A former teacher of mine whose opinion I respect enormously once compared pop culture to a giant amoeba: It's tempting to believe that we can sever a pseudopod or two for our own use, but the integrity of our music will ultimately be enveloped and digested by it. He was referring in part to the ideal of immanence, a goal easily compromised by appropriation from other styles or works, and implying, I think, his conviction (which I share) that a project based on the recontextualization and manipulation of preexisting elements rather than on the difficult but utterly necessary search for new elements is doomed to produce incestuous and shallow music.
To be clear, Colin's appetite and affection for pop culture and popular music are (apparently) undiminished -- it's just that now, he feels much more guilty about it. I won't spoil Seth's priceless response by excerpting it here -- just go read the thread (scroll down to "incest, peppermints, color of time... ").
[Seth has promised to start his own blog soon, which I will gleefuly link to once it's up and running. The blogoshpere needs him.]
I will only point out that my captial-A Art has always been about appropriation. Early jazz musicians started by appropriating blues, ragtime, marches, impressionism, etc, and continued on merrily appropriating Tin Pan Alley and Broadway and gospel and soul and atonality and so on, right on down the line. Was the integrity of Miles Davis's music enveloped and digested by "Bye Bye Blackbird" or "Someday My Prince Will Come"? Are John Coltrane's recordings of "Chim Chim Cheree" and "The Inch Worm" incestuous and shallow?
And if the monstrous amoeba of popular culture is so all-consuming, what makes you think you can escape it even if you want to?