- Cultural theorists who reduce the workings of society to economic interactions (Marx) or power relations (Foucault)
- Scientistic thinkers who reduce the workings of the universe to the interactions of its physical components (the so-called "eliminative materialists") or the workings of the human mind to psychological and evolutionary factors (Pinker, Dennett)
- Historiography that attempts to reduce messy periods of history to neatly organized categories and lists of characteristics (Peter Gay's Modernism, see also sidebar) or that imposes upon it a Whig History perspective
- Theories of musical meaning which needlessly constrain the possible meanings of a musical work by prescribing a particular analytic technique (Schenker) or a particular narrative reading (much of the "new musicology")
- Postmodernists who claim that the failures of the above projects are evidence of something called "the death of the metanarrative," and that we should therefore accept an equally dogmatic relativist worldview in which all truths are socially contingent.
- describes the workings of society with reference to a variety of factors, none of which is individually predictive
- acknowledges the findings of science while recognizing its ultimate limitations
- treats past historical periods on their own terms, recognizing that they are just as complex and conflicted as our own era
- offers real insight into works of art without claiming that a single interpretation can capture the many valid ways of listening to a piece
- appreciates the fact that some truths are contingent, while holding to the necessary corollary that other truths are objective.
A bit of a stir has been created recently by the appearance of musoc.org, a newly-founded website that argues for the superiority of classical music over all forms of pop music. These arguments are nothing new (A. C. Douglas has made similar statements for years*), but the new website, whose anonymous editing and ambitious goals suggest the workings of a secretive cabal, has attracted fire from prominent journalists, including the Guardian's Tom Service and the Washington Post's Anne Midgette. Unsurprisingly, Service and Midgette respond with the usual party line: pop music can be just as good as classical music; arguing for the superiority of one type of music over another is snobbish and insulting; there should be room for a variety of contrasting musical expressions in our society, et cetera, et cetera.
What we have here is precisely a Neon Arrow situation.
The proprietors of musoc.org are attempting to resurrect the conventional wisdom of a previous era: that classical music is innately and by definition superior to popular music. In the opposite corner, we have Midgette and Service, defending today's conventional wisdom: that all musical styles have equal value, and that any attempt to promote one style over the other is "ignorant", "snobbish", and "indefensible cultural demagoguery". There is something in both arguments that seems fundamentally ill-conceived: the musoc.org definition of "good music" would exclude not only pop music, but folk music and all non-Western musical styles (one of their most valued criteria being a literate tradition of transmission in musical notation). Yet there's also something counterintuitive about claiming that all genres are a priori equal: surely no-one would seriously maintain that a classical-music listener is "missing out" by not listening to an equal amount of death metal?
What we need here is a third option, one which avoids asserting the absolute superiority of any one musical style without sliding into relativism. John Gray's idea of incommensurability is useful here: in Enlightenment's Wake, he argues that the competing belief systems of different societies are ultimately irreconcilable, not because all values are relative but simply because different societies have different visions of the good. (Gray's best example contrasts the liberal individualism of the West with the community-driven, consensus-based cultures of many East Asian cultures.) Accepting the incommensurability of different cultural ideals does not mean that the cultures involved cannot agree on many issues (the undesirability of murder, for example), but does mean that they can never be fully integrated. It seems reasonable to suppose that classical and pop music might be in a similar situation. While they share many musical ideals in common (rhythm and melody, a tonal centre, the attempt to express new ideas in an original manner), they are ultimately incommensurable because of their different methods of composition and transmission. (Classical music is by definition a literate tradition, in which music is composed in notated form for later performance; this separates it from folk music, which is transmitted orally, and pop music, which is transmitted electrically.)
Musoc.org's claim of the superiority of classical music, therefore, is not "ignorant" or "cultural demagoguery" or anything else: it's just tautological. Because their arguments begin by specifying the musical values they consider most important (ie: acoustic production, single authorship, and literate transmission), the conclusion that classical music fits these criteria best is hardly surprising. This sort of argument is equivalent to saying that "classical music is better than pop music at being classical music", which is not the most insightful observation ever. One can certainly say, however, that classical music occupies a special place as a unique example of a highly developed literate tradition in music, and deserves preferment to other musics on that basis. It exemplifies musical values ultimately different from those expressed in any popular or folk tradition, and its current cultural invisibility is depriving our society of a compelling and unique voice.
I've tried to develop a position different from both the anti-pop trumpetings of musoc.org and the fashionable relativism that opposes it. Because both are neon-arrow arguments, neither is ultimately very helpful. We need instead a third position, not some bland milquetoast compromise or, heaven forbid, a Hegelian synthesis, but an entirely different option. I've attempted to outline what that might look like, but until this third position is fully developed, the classical-pop debate will continue to operate at a very low intellectual level.
None of this, by the way, is to denigrate the work of Midgette or Service, who I respect - nor to devalue the very real value of the articles on musoc.org. Indeed, I am largely in sympathy with much of their project: their desire for a higher profile for classical music, their opposition to schizophonic pop music in public places, and their attribution of the problem to neoliberalism, globalization and cultural relativism (among other things). I will follow their future postings with much interest, even if I think their basic arguments are somewhat poorly situated.
* Addendum (5 July 2009): ACD points out that his argument for the special status of classical music is distinct from that of musoc.org; his actual position is similar to my "incommensurability" argument, although he reaches a slightly different conclusion than I do. For more details, see the comment thread.