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Rock vs. Non-Rock


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In the CT Music thread, I noticed a little anti-rock/anti-pop -ism. It got my dander up, but I'm not sure how I could defend rock, either. Some posters on said thread seemed to see rock/pop as something of a low art vs. the high art of other forms (classical, jazz, etc.). At first I wanted to be all sanctimonious and make some comment about the crass commercialism of movies, but I thought better of it.

Anyone know of any books/articles that broach the topic of the inherent quality of varying types of music? I can't bring myself to believe that "rock" is inferior just because it uses electric guitars and drum sets.

Would those with strong opinions about the worthiness of popular music care to share them?

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Well, if it's me you're talking about, I would agree that pop & rock are low art forms compared to jazz or classical, but that's not why I dislike them. I don't think there's anything wrong with low art. I love Blind Willie Johnson, Joseph Spence, and Dock Boggs, all of whom produced very primitive-sounding music. I love "American Routes." (I might just be the Jean Dubuffet of musical expression.)

I can dislike most rock without arguing that it's inferior. It's a matter of taste. And my dislike doesn't have anything to do with electric guitars and drum sets. I could listen to those all day if I happen to like the music that's being played on them.

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I guess it was you a bit, mrmando*. I have no beef with preferring one thing over another, but I bristled at the implication that rock is naturally more commercial than some other genres you mentioned.

Also, I'm not sure that, for example, Sigur Ros makes 'lower' music than someone like Aaron Copland.

(*are you the mrmando that used to post on the forum of a certain SPU publication?)

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joel (and others), have you read bill romanowski's book pop culture wars? it's a decent (and heavily academic) treatment of this high culture vs. low culture issue.

by the way, joel, i am loving your blog. when's your piece due to appear in the pages of Image? and can i work for your future music-only rag? smile.gif

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Oooh, let's talk about Sigur Ros....

What about the big high brow/low brow divide within rock! Sigur Ros make music for university graduates to 'appreciate' while sat down on cushions, probably with a few candles*. There a million miles from, say The White Stripes. You could say they're 'higher', but what's the point? Entirely different, obviously. So in that sense, I guess, most rock and pop is 'lower' than most classical music, or jazz. Lower in the sense that the musicianship does not need to be so technically accomplished in order for it to work ('Wild Thing'), it may take less of an effort to listen to, and that there may well be less detail in the music - you won't keep hearing new things after 20 listens. But I would have thought the high/low divide extends beyond genres. There's low and high punk.

I don't get why the terms 'high' or 'low' are necessary - the differences they refer to are obvious, but why drag height into it!

*and I love them!

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joel (and others), have you read bill romanowski's book pop culture wars?

No, but I've met him. Does that count?

The book seems to be more about questions of content and morality in the arts, which is different from the high vs. low question. There's an awful lot of sex in opera, for example.

Let's Carl the whole thing Orff!

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So maybe the music is commercial, maybe it isn't, but I strive not to pay attention to that aspect of it.

I concur. We're more on the same page than I thought. Oh, the Falcon...

Kebbie -- I think that Image comes out at the end of June. If I ever start my elitist music mag, you're in ... as long as you, like me, long to be sincere and joyful about loving music but more often than not come across as a complete jerk about it. Also that book looks very cool; I'll have to check it out. (Literally. At the library.)

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mrmando wrote:

: The book seems to be more about questions of content and morality in the arts,

: which is different from the high vs. low question.

Actually, the high vs. low question is fundamental to Romanowski's thesis. Hence he begins one chapter by talking about the Rocky statue outside the Philadelphia library or museum or whatever, and he begins another by talking about a Jay Leno joke regarding the recruitment of Catholic priests on MTV, and he goes on to talk about how magazines like George are trying to deal with politics in a "popular" way, etc.

And since we're name-dropping, I reviewed that book when it first came out, and I got a letter from Romanowski thanking me and expressing a kindredness of spirit! This was several years ago, possibly back when I was still just a student-newspaper editor, so that was rather gratifying.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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The book seems to be more about questions of content and morality in the arts, which is different from the high vs. low question.

yeah, it's about that, but it's also about how the labels "high art" and "low art" evolved in this culture, and why they pretty much suck. (that's a paraphrase, by the way.)

If I ever start my elitist music mag, you're in ... as long as you, like me, long to be sincere and joyful about loving music but more often than not come across as a complete jerk about it.

sweet. i can do that. i also disdain regular office hours and want to wear jeans to work. if you can deal with that, i will be the best music-loving complete jerk i can be.

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ah, i see peter beat me to the punch on the PCW question. but i can one up him when it comes to name-dropping: bill romanowski is my colleague.

...ok, not EXACTLY, me being a lowly first-year staff member and him being tenured and all, but we do work for the same fine institution of higher education.

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The book seems to be more about questions of content and morality in the arts, which is different from the high vs. low question.

yeah, it's about that, but it's also about how the labels "high art" and "low art" evolved in this culture, and why they pretty much suck. (that's a paraphrase, by the way.)

And don't forget Romanowski's EYES WIDE OPEN which is a good intro, though I believe it was written AFTER "Pop Culture Wars."

yeah, it's about that, but it's also about how the labels "high art" and "low art" evolved in this culture, and why they pretty much suck.

Exactly.

When I spoke of classical in the other thread I was thinking in terms of innovation and complexity (we just won't be seeing that again). Not that it is necessarily a "high art."

Edited by BBBCanada

Brandon

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mrmando wrote:

: The book seems to be more about questions of content and morality in the arts,

: which is different from the high vs. low question.

Actually, the high vs. low question is fundamental to Romanowski's thesis.

Betrayed yet again by Amazon's descriptive copy! Leave it to people who've actually read the book to tell you what it's about.

Sounds interesting. I shall have to make the pilgrimage to the new Seattle library and see if it's there...

Let's Carl the whole thing Orff!

Do you know the deep dark secret of the avatars?

It's big. It's fat. It's Greek.

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and I don't care if it's hip, or if Jeffrey likes it too,

In these parts, isn't that the same thing?

I don't know if "high" v "low" sucks, so to speak. What sucks is assigning arbitrary moral or aesthetic value, sum-zero-wise to one or the other, rather than the piece on its own terms. One can find transcendent low art and high crap. We all know of plenty of rock that is crap, but a lot of Bruckner should also be so labeled. The whole point of Amadeus was that next to Mozart, Salieri was crap. The more sanctimonious aesthetes forget that crap gets plowed under after 100 years or so. Also, many of the classical pantheon mined "low" folk songs for themes and motiefs for their high sonatas and symphonies. Oh, and jazz was always considered low art before rock came along.

"During the contest trial, the Coleman team presented evidence of a further 6500 absentees that it felt deserved to be included under the process that had produced the prior 933 [submitted by Franken, rk]. The three judges finally defined what constituted a 'legal' absentee ballot. Countable ballots, for instance, had to contain the signature of the voter, complete registration information, and proper witness credentials.

But the panel only applied the standards going forward, severely reducing the universe of additional basentees the Coleman team could hope to have included. In the end, the three judges allowed about 350 additional absentees to be counted. The panel also did nothing about the hundreds, possibly thousands, of absentees that have already been legally included, yet are now 'illegal' according to the panel's own ex-post definition."

The Wall Street Journal editorial, April 18, 2009 concerning the Franken Coleman decision in the Minnesota U.S. Senate race of 2008.

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mrmando wrote:

: Betrayed yet again by Amazon's descriptive copy! Leave it to people who've actually

: read the book to tell you what it's about.

Heh. Well, basically, as I recall, Romanowski's main thesis is that the problem Christians have with popular culture stems back to the fact that we have bought into two iffy dichotomies -- high culture vs. low culture, and sacred vs. secular -- and we have then CONFUSED these two dichotomies so that elite high culture equals sacred while popular low culture equals secular. I can recall reading an anti-rock'n'roll book in the '80s that actually said Christian teens should be weaned off rock and given more godly forms of music to listen to, like Beethoven(!). That's a more extreme and absurd example of this sort of thinking, but it reflects a larger, and more pervasive, pattern, I think.

Romanowski's book was partly intended as a rebuttal to Michael Medved's Hollywood Vs. America, I believe, and his criticism of Medved is especially intriguing, in this context -- basically, he says Medved uses populist arguments to defend elitist views. So the high vs. low aspect of his book is very crucial to his point, indeed.

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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I'd have to agree with Romanowski's thesis. I think the high/low dichotomy is useful for dividing certain arts into categories of complexity or sophistication, but that's all. No inferences about the merit of any piece of art can be made solely on the basis of whether it's "high" or "low."

One does hope that kids' tastes will "mature" somewhat as they age -- it would be embarrassing to have a 27-year-old sister who still papers her bedroom walls with Backstreet Boys posters. And I do think rock'n'roll kids should give Beethoven a chance, although it doesn't seem very wise to try to force it on them.

Unless, of course, it's Christian rock they're listening to -- that stuff shouldn't exist anyway, so of course it's OK to take it away from them and blast 'em with the Prometheus Overture, right? tongue.gif

Let's Carl the whole thing Orff!

Do you know the deep dark secret of the avatars?

It's big. It's fat. It's Greek.

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mrmando wrote:

: And I do think rock'n'roll kids should give Beethoven a chance, although it doesn't

: seem very wise to try to force it on them.

Heh. Just reading this makes me want to listen to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack again. 'A Fifth of Beethoven' is pretty cool. (Actually, I like 'Night on Disco Mountain' even more!)

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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