Thanksgiving Is Ruined
July 08, 2003
"a hammer to keep you pegs in your holes"
An entire book on the history of American popular music can be found on-line here. Donald Clarke wrote it.
The book provided me with extra fodder to think for a couple more hours about a cluster of questions that intrigued me last month, about comparing vaudeville to more current pop music commodoties: The ways in which culture that we swallow or reject correlates to our perceived class position in society. How art can seem to fail when it borrows from and attempts to graft onto itself genres or mediums that we feel are somehow "inappropriate." The extent to which the popular tastes of bygone eras may have been broader and more tolerant in some ways than those of our own more "advanced" age.
I read these paragraphs, about popular music in early 19th century America:
Public entertainment began to separate into several genres, each with its own audience, moving away from the pastiches of songs and melodrama which had been common until then; and art in America began to develop into highbrow and lowbrow, absurd terms from nineteenth-century anthropology. This anti-élitism has had a more ominous cultural effect in more recent times.
Yet there still was not the gulf between classical and popular music that there is today. The French-born conductor Louis Jullien was promoted by P. T. Barnum in America; a showman, he used a baton six feet long, wore white gloves and kept a plush chair on the podium, into which he sank, exhausted, at the end of his labours. But he was a thoughtful musician, who wrote an opera as well as dance music, and conducted both music by contemporary American composers and movements from Beethoven’s symphonies.
Why do today's pop singers and rock groups steal so often from "low art" like hip-hop or 70s AM radio hits and so rarely from "high art" like ballet, art songs or opera? Why do I never play my copy of Elvis Costello's The Juliet Letters?
(Title above taken from an XTC song.)