Interviewer: So what are you up to with this blog, “Critic’s Corner.”
Kurt Poterack: Thank you for asking this question, because I am not sure if people are clear on what I am up to. Ultimately, I am trying to practice culture criticism by looking at popular music and using music theory as a tool. I have generally been lamenting the loss of involvement in classical music by even educated people. And I still hold to that lament. You see classical music, generally speaking, involves delayed gratification, longer arches of development, and a higher intellectual commitment. Also, I used to be, and still am, quite a jazz maven, however I realize that jazz always has been at best a niche interest for only a small percentage of people.
If you really want to understand people through music, you need to understand the music that most people listen to most of the time – for better or for worse.
Int: But haven’t others done this before?
KP: Well, certainly there has been music criticism in abundance, but criticism of culture through music is much less common. Probably the most famous practitioner of this was the Neo-Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno, founder of the 20th-century discipline of “Music Sociology.” I am certainly not capable of doing this on his level, but I have found his successes and failures to be instructive.
Int: How so?
KP: His views on classical versus popular music were similar to what I expressed (minus his Marxist jargon and superstructure), however he took a much more uncompromising position. He pretty much rejected all modern popular music as worthless – and, remember, this would have been the music of the Great American Song Book as he was a refugee from Nazi Germany writing in America in the 1930’s and 40’s. The problem with his very uncompromising position is that, as with a strict parent who does this, it really tempts those who follow (their children) to simply take the opposite position. What has emerged in the more contemporary Left is the uncritical acceptance of all popular music (Hip-Hop, for example) as necessarily being a bona fide expression of THE people – the proletariat – and therefore beyond any criticism.
And you do see this divide in the contemporary Left: the sociological defenders of the “proletariat” and their music, and then the NPR classical music lovers.
Int: What about the Right?
KP: Hmmm, I have dealt with this for a while.
You do get a position somewhat similar to Adorno’s, except instead of being propped up with Marxism it is undergirded by a weird kind of an Aristotelian-Thomism.
Int: How so?
KP: I will make up a funny two-part name for it. It is a kind of a “Thomistic-Nominalism.” That is, if a piece of music can be named “classical,” it is almost as if this humanly assigned category, this name, confers a nature upon the piece. If a piece is named as “popular” or “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” it is almost as if the name gives it an ontological status that lacks goodness. However, music is a humanly created artifact and, while the terms “classical” and “popular” have a general validity, they are not absolute. There can be borderline cases where, arguably, some pieces of “popular” music are actually better than some pieces of what might be named “classical” music.
Int: Can you give an example?
KP: Of course. In my opinion the Duke Ellington song, “Prelude to a Kiss” has a vastly more sophisticated harmonic progression and solves some more challenging musical problems than does a conventional opera aria, such as Verdi’s “La Donna Mobile” – which is not to deny that it is quite charming, well-written, and appropriate within its own context.
Then there are the “Spenglerians.” These are the earnest young men in bow ties who argue that we have been in irretrievable cultural downfall since the death of Mozart – or some other composer.
Int: But aren’t there periods of desuetude and renewal in the history of music?
KP: Most certainly. However, these young men usually have very parochial, even ‘precious’ tastes – which they expect others to adopt. Plus, I don’t know if they understand the true greatness of the last composer whom they cite. Mozart, for example, was indeed a great composer, but it wasn’t the tinkly, “Music Box Dancer” style in which he wrote that made him great. He was great almost despite that style galant which was very common for his time. He took that (arguably) superficial style and did something great with it. At any rate, what the “Spenglerians” and the “Thomistic-Nominalists” have in common is that they both have little use for popular music.
Int: So, who else are there?
KP: Then there are the “Folkies” – and there were certainly leftists like this, too, – who argue that “folk” music is good because it is the true popular music. “Popular” music, in this view, is an inauthentic commercially produced replacement for folk music. The common formula is that “folk music is of the people, while popular music is created for the people” (by commercial interests). The problem is that ALL folk music today is created by folk stars and groups, who write, perform and record it for audiences in the same way as popular music. These are not songs sung around the hearth by ordinary people and passed down from generation to generation. They have their own “hits” which come and go every year.
Then there are those who are fully and uncritically open to popular music – but given certain conditions. These are the “Verbalists” who gauge everything according to the lyrics and the “Ad Hominists,” who seem to argue things like, “Well, the members of U2 are pro-life, and therefore their music must be good.”
What all these groups have in common is that they fail to judge music by musical standards. The only conservative commentator who seems to be doing this well is the philosopher Roger Scruton. He argues (among other things) that, while Adorno’s position about classical versus popular music is basically correct, you have to start with where people are at – which is popular music. And then from there you can build taste in people by getting them to realize, for example, that there are real musical reasons why Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” is on a higher level than Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.”
Int: Ok, so let’s clarify our terms. What do you mean by “popular music.”
KP: To me it basically means the Top 40 – what would be the first forty songs of what is known as the “Billboard Hot 100.” That means “mainstream” popular music. So, I am not focusing so much on such genres as Jazz, Country, Folk, or Rap – which themselves can be more niche-type genres – however all of these can be relevant.
Int: How so?
KP: I guess I knew this deep down but, after looking at the top ten songs for one week in June, I realized that five of these songs were clearly influenced by Rap. That’s 50%. And if I recall correctly, three of these featured actual Rap artists. Now Rap has a separate category in the Billboard rankings – yet it is so influential that it left its mark on half of the mainstream Top 10.
Int: So, what is the biggest change in popular music in the past 50 years?
KP: From a music theory perspective, what I have noticed most is the shift from an emphasis on melody to beat. It used to be that people seemed to demand a beautiful, or at least coherent, melody. This continues past the era of the Great American Song Book and into the Rock ‘n’ Roll era . . .
Int: Excuse me, could you please explain what you mean by the “Great American Song Book?”
KP: Basically, popular songs composed between about 1920 and 1960 by such songwriters as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, etc. These often were originally written for musicals and movie musicals.
Int: So, is this why you make a distinction on your blog between “pre and post “ 1960 popular music?
KP: Well, that is certainly a big part of it, but there is a more specific reason. You see, during the Great American Song Book era (pre-1960) there was a kind of a “division of labor.” You either wrote songs or you performed them, but the phenomenon of the singer/songwriter was exceedingly rare. In fact, if you were a songwriter you often only composed the music and someone else wrote the lyrics. That is why there were often songwriting teams like Lerner and Lowe, Rodgers and Hammerstein, etc., but they certainly were not known for performing their own music. On the other hand singers (famous and not-so-famous) performed these songs in special arrangements that were written for them. But the point is that someone like a Frank Sinatra, for example, did not write his own songs. This was very much the norm.
In fact, the only exception I can think of off the top of my head is Peggy Lee – someone who wrote and performed her own songs, although not exclusively. Oh, and I think Mel Torme would be another example. At any rate, after about 1960 the phenomenon of the singer/songwriter starts to become more common and fairly quickly becomes standard.
Int. Why is this so?
KP: I think this has something to do with the success of Lennon and McCartney and Bob Dylan in the early 1960’s. I also think that there is this social emphasis on “authenticity” that emerges at about that time (late 1950’s/1960’s) and that it begins to be considered somehow “inauthentic” to perform music that you yourself have not written. After all, is not the writer of a song the best interpreter of it? A theory that sounds good superficially but is highly dubious in my opinion – for example, it assumes that someone who is a good performer also has a great talent for composition. Anyway, this is very much the norm that we have inherited over the past 50 years to the point that a new word is invented to describe the old arrangement. Today, when a performer or a group performs someone else’s music, they are said to “cover” the song.
There was no word for this 50 years ago, because there was no need for one. It was just the norm. As a performer, you used to perform the music that others – professional songwriters – wrote.
Int: Wow, back up! Did you just say that to assume that “someone who is a good performer also has a great talent for composition” is a dubious assumption? Are you implying that the popular songs of today are not as good as that of the first half of the 20th century?
KP: Well, at least that there aren’t as many good songs now as there were in the past – and that certainly is the argument of the jazz critic Will Friedwald. I am not sure if it is quite that simple, but this could be a major factor. Anyway, what is certain to me is that, while there were certainly some great melodies written after the Great American Song Book era – well into the 1960’s and 1970’s – great melodies definitely decline after that – at least as far as I can tell.
Int: Could you expound a little more on Will Friedwald’s argument?
KP: Certainly. He argues that you have more well-written songs when you have people who specialize in writing music and lyrics writing songs. He also argues that, with already existing great material, this frees performers up to do what they do best – interpret the material. After all, do we expect all actors to be able to write plays, movies, etc.?
Int: But in music it is different. Why is this so?
KP: Well, it is easier to write a song than a play or a movie script in that a song is shorter, relatively speaking. In a culture that is big on self-expression, very few people can do that with a symphony. However, even in regard to the shorter genre of the song, many fewer people are really good at it than you would suppose.
Int: And yet you don’t fully agree with Will Friedwald’s thesis – you don’t think that it is “quite so simple”?
KP: Popular music is a business, after all. Ordinary people will pay for what they want to hear. I do think that the market responds to what people want to hear – at least, if people were terribly opposed to what they heard, the market would in some way respond. This is where culture criticism comes into play.
Int: So, does this tie into what you were saying about the shift from melody to beat?
KP: Most definitely. There is a reason that Rap is the predominant influence on mainstream popular music today – a music that has no melody, but involves a chanting of words against a strong beat, and an absolutely unyielding, if syncopated, rhythmic ostinato. Rap could have remained some sort of niche performance art in the black ghetto, but there is a reason that it is so influential on mainstream popular music. I mean there are Country and Western rappers now.
Int: And the reason for Rap’s influence is?
KP: Well, let me tell you. In reflecting upon the absolutely heavy, unyielding beat of Rap, I thought that there might be an analogy to be drawn with March music. So, I listened to some Sousa marches after listening to a lot of Rap. I quickly realized that the analogy didn’t hold at all. March music, with its soaring melodies and forward harmonic motion says, “onward and upward to victory!” Rap music, with its heavy, loud, constant beat and rhythmic ostinati says, “Victory, defeat – these are irrelevant. What matters is that we are, and always will be, in a constant state of warfare.” Rap is the music of aggressive, uncivilized, testosterone hopped-up, young males.
Let me put it this way: in the first half of the 20th-Century, popular music at its worst could be overly sentimental, excessively sweet, shall we say “too feminine.” (I stress, at its worst.) Popular music today definitely tends very strongly in the direction of “excessively masculine.”
Int: So, you are saying that popular music reflects cultural trends – including relations between the sexes?
KP: Absolutely. To cite titles and lyrics, we went from perhaps over-sentimentalizing romantic love in the 1950’s (“Love Is A Many Splendored Thing”) to the overtly (albeit democratic) sexual gambits of the 1970’s (“If you want my body and you think I’m sexy” – Rod Stewart) to the downright misogynistic “Yo, you my b*tch!” of Rap. This is clearly reflected in the musical structure. I am not saying that popular music went from feminine to masculine so much as that it has progressed to an uncivilized, unformed, brutal masculinity. And young women, at least many of them – from what I can see – have uncritically accepted it.
Int: But why is this so? Are you blaming men? Are you blaming feminism?
KP: Read your Plato and Aristotle. One of the biggest tasks of any society is to form its young men – to take their raw masculine power and civilize it – but to do so by forming them as men. Any society that refuses to do this, for whatever reason, will have to face the consequences. I know that there are intellectual, political and cultural forces that would either laugh at this as “old-fashioned” or see it as offensive and “sexist,” but Nature takes no notice of their views.
Ladies (and politically correct men), if you think you can engineer a better society by emasculating or ignoring men, you won’t. You will only get cruder men – and women. And worse things as well.
Int: But haven’t there always been brutal men who did terrible things? Hasn’t there always been a criminal element? Hasn’t there even always been a fascination with criminals and their milieu?
KP: You mean like Mickey Spillane detective novels and people following the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde in the 1920’s?
Int: Something like that.
KP: True, but when a society at large rewards the lyrical expression of such a lifestyle to the extent to which we do – when it seems to recognize itself in that mirror – I think that really says something. I am stunned, for example, by the number of women who now sport tattoos. Body painting was, not that long ago, something which only very rough men did – bikers, gang members, convicts. Now, quite a few young women bask in that iconic expression – and apparently, also see themselves in Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” (aka ‘Watch Out For Me, I’m A Mean B*tch’) and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” (aka ‘Look at Me, I’m A Silly Materialistic B*tch’) – both recent Top Ten Rap-Influenced Mainstream hits.
Int: But aren’t you being a little harsh on Rap?
KP: As I said in one of my blog posts, some rappers are more talented than others. There can be some real skill in the sort of rhythmic patterns that they chant against the beat. I also think that cause and effect are involved here. The shift to a heavy beat had been occurring in some ways as early as the 1960’s with Acid Rock, then Heavy Metal, then Techno, etc. However Rap, in my opinion, completes the trend by totally dispensing with melody and emphasizing beat. Rap is both the fag end of a certain development in popular music and also the newly put-forward model for how to make popular music.
Int: Could you give another example?
KP: Billy Joel.
Int: Billy Joel?
KP: I have been listening to a lot of Billy Joel lately and, in my opinion, there is a real conflict in him. He is kind of an interim figure. Although still alive, his songwriting career lasted twenty years (1973-1993). He is probably one of the last Rock songwriters to consistently write some very tuneful melodies. The man had an excellent harmonic sense and was quite a good lyricist, too, but in a number of his songs there is that obsessive heavy Rock beat of which I complain (THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP). I even read that at one point he felt insulted when someone referred to him as a “balladeer” and after that was determined to “rock [even] harder.” I suppose if we are to have head-banging Rock ‘n’ Roll, then “I Go To Extremes” is the way to do it, but I do wonder sometimes. There seems to be an excessively macho “chest-thumping” element to some of his music that I feel distracts from his real talent.
Int: But aren’t you making too much of this? Doesn’t all music have a beat?
KP: Actually, no. All music has rhythm, although much music (and all Western popular music) has a beat. Now, I don’t want to overstate my case. Most popular music doubles as dance music and, as such, tends to have a clear beat. However, you only have to listen to early Rock ‘n’ Roll (Bill Haley, Elvis) and compare to Heavy Metal or Rap and you will hear that, while the first has a beat, it is not the externalized “THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP” beat of the latter.
In fact, I remember as a teenager in the 1970’s that we used to mock a drummer in a local jazz band who would use the bass drum on every beat. That just wasn’t cool. It was way too heavy. Besides, the drum set wasn’t supposed to keep the beat – only add rhythmic ornamentation. If any instrument kept the beat, in jazz at any rate, it was the string bass that, even when amplified, has a rather gentle timbre. The bass drum was to be used more sparingly – for accents. However, in much Rock music not only is the bass drum used a lot – I think it is not uncommon for it to be miked and made even louder through amplification.
Int: But is this ‘Dionysian element’ really so new? Haven’t teenagers always been a bit wild and crazy? What about the Lindy Hoppers in the 1930’s doing all of those acrobatics while swing dancing? And what about all those young women fainting over “Frankie” Sinatra in the 1940’s?
KP: Well, certainly young people have always had a lot of energy and have responded to energetic music – and done wild things. I am not saying that there is no place for teen-oriented “peppy” music. Remember, however, that Sinatra was really at his best (IMHO) in the 1950’s/1960’s when he was middle-aged and doing the Capital Records sessions with those wonderful Nelson Riddle arrangements (“Music for Swinging Lovers,” etc.). His fans were his age – and younger. The point is, there was always room for ballads with beautiful melodies back then.
Int: So are you saying that popular music has gotten rougher and less beautiful and that this reflects something about society?
KP: Oh yes, absolutely. It is not simply that I am being a grumpy middle-aged man complaining about teenagers and their wild music. As a Music Theorist, I see this as a general, but unmistakable trend of the past half-century.
Think about where we were fifty years ago. Certainly you had Rock ‘n’ Roll and even the beginnings of Hard Rock – what you also had was the emergence of one of the gentlest, subtlest forms of popular music – The Bossa Nova – out of a Third-World country, Brazil. The future is not always so easy to predict. However, the fact that the Bossa Nova ended up not being a part of the future is instructive. For all of the talk about inclusivity and diversity, this music – a music of a “dark-skinned, Third World” people – was implicitly rejected and had no serious influence on the direction of mainstream popular music by the end of the sixties.
Although I think he can be a bit of a conspiracy theorist at times, I do have to admit that E. Michael Jones is on to something when he argues, in so many words, that – whatever the origin of a trend – it only gets the green light when upper-middle class, white intellectuals in North America and Western Europe can pick it up and see their reflection in it – their current fascinations and sometimes dark desires.
Int: So are you talking about that phenomenon of the “White Negro” as enunciated by Norman Mailer years ago?
KP: Yes, although let’s be clear that Norman Mailer was a promoter of that phenomenon, not a critic of it. In other words, secular, white liberal elites cherry pick what they want out of Third-World cultures when they want to go Dionysian and Antinomian. They ignore that which doesn’t fit. For example, today, the fierce moral conservatism of most Africans when it comes to homosexuality would shock most First-World liberals.
Int: Any other current musical trends worth mentioning?
KP: Well, there is something that is of more recent vintage (meaning only about 20 years old) that I call “Four-Chord Hypnotism.” I think it emerges with the so-called Indie Rock Groups, but I still haven’t tracked its origin down for sure. We used to joke about “three-chord rock guitarists,” but at least these fellows spread those chords out over 12 measures – typically in a blues progression. The trend now is to run through four chords in four measures (sometimes only two) and then to repeat them – over and over. You hear it in hard rockers (U2), and also in gentler songstresses (Adele). I suppose that, as with the decline of melody, I am tempted to ascribe this to compositional incompetence. That probably is true, but I also think that there is something more behind it.
KP: I guess the desire to be either beaten (U2) or gently rocked (Adele) back into some sort of pre-rational state of consciousness. At any rate it is an unmistakable and interesting trend to puzzle over. I mean, I have heard longer-breathed harmonic ideas in Ozzie Osborne’s music.
Int: I want to finish by going back to your term “Ad Hominists,” because I have heard some cultural conservatives make arguments along the lines, “Composer X lived a degenerate life, he cheated on his wife regularly, he did this, he did that. His life was disordered. Therefore, out of such a disordered soul could only come disordered music.” I have heard this argument made about classical composers as well as popular composers. Now, do you . . .
KP: Let me stop you right there. I have heard this line of reasoning and find it very unhelpful, mainly because it can lead to some embarrassing conclusions. [i.e claiming that a composer’s music is bad – when it sounds fine to everyone else (including professional musicians) – because the composer had some moral vice.] You always have to start with the composer’s music and judge it by musical standards. If the man wrote beautiful music, then he wrote beautiful music. And this proves that he had at least that much beauty and goodness in him – even if the rest of his life is to be judged (quite rightly) as morally corrupt.
In order to compose well, there needs to be two things: the ability and the desire to do so. If you don’t have the ability (the talent and training) you can be saintlier than Mother Teresa, but not compose anything worthwhile. However, it is in the desire that I think resides the real connection between morality and music. You see, at a certain point, people no longer desire beautiful things – or they are just less interested in beauty. And this, indeed, can have something to do with moral decline in a society or an individual. But you will recognize it in the music when that point is reached. Let’s not set up a priori conditions and then be embarrassed when they are proven wrong – and I can assure you, as a composer who is familiar with the lives of many other composers, you will be proven wrong.
Int: Let me play devil’s advocate. What makes you different from one of those “earnest young men in bow ties” who argue that music has declined since a particular composer? Perhaps you don’t mention a particular composer, but you do mention a date – 1960 – after which good melodies decline.
KP: Well, aside from not being a young man anymore (and rarely wearing bow ties), I will tell you what makes me different. I don’t deny that good songs can still be written. I do argue that they decline in number for at least one indisputable reason: the decline of songwriting as a specialty and the rise of the ideology that a performer has to be true and authentic to himself – because, after all, everyone can and should express themselves that way!
However, tying this into my previous answer, I think that there is a definite decline in the desire for beauty. Certainly, the ability to write beautiful melodies was there in many post-1960 songwriters. I had mentioned the Beatles, Lennon and McCartney – but also George Harrison who wrote “Something” which had quite a nice melody and chord progression. There was also Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach, Marvin Hamlisch, Carole King, the Frenchman Michel Legrand, the Brazilian Antonio Carlos Jobim, etc. I also mentioned Billy Joel. Now, no one is going to mistake “Just the Way You Are” for a Cole Porter tune, but that is precisely my point.
The technique of writing melodies and connecting them in a harmonious relationship with the bass line (out of which comes the chord progression) in what used to be called “figured bass” is something that goes all the way back to the early 17th century and, arguably, has its roots in still earlier centuries. These things, along with basic voice-leading principles, are part of the grand tradition of Western music that are inherited and taken up by the best of popular song composers in the 20th-century. However, these basic principles can be deployed and varied in a number of different ways. In other words, post-1960 songwriters didn’t have to write songs that sounded like Cole Porter’s – as, indeed, they didn’t. The tradition was quite capable of renewing itself.
What I think happened is that people lost interest in that tradition of beauty because they didn’t see themselves or their aspirations in it anymore.
Int: Any reasons for hope?
KP: Absolutely – the most important one: The human heart was made to sing, not to pound and grunt obscenities. Sooner or later, something has got to give, but I think that this may have to go hand-in-hand with a renewal of society.