James Brown

Art Song/Pop Song (part 1)

It seems I have more to say about that Krugman blog post. So much so, in fact, that you'll note the "part 1" in my title here - there's no way I can fit it all in one post. I mean I could - but I'm told blog posts really aren't meant to be endless, as I like to make them be.

Let me jump in with this quote from Krugman:

And don’t let the trappings of pop performance fool you: many of these musicians are deeply sophisticated. Some commenters mentioned the passing of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who brought lieder to a wide audience (and my mother was a Fischer-Dieskau fanatic!); listen to Feist for a while, and you’ll realize that what she’s writing are art songs, in some sense very much in the same tradition.

This question comes up often in my life: are pop songs, or rather can pop songs be art songs? In that Rorem article I referred to last time, he argues that the Beatles were essentially writing lieder (which is German for "songs," - but generally refers specifically to art songs when spoken in English (whether they be German art songs is another matter)). They were just Schuberts with moppy hair.

Joni Mitchell (a topic on which I have some cred) defiantly claimed, early in her career, that the critics who had her pegged as a folkie were all wrong, and that she was in fact writing art songs. And her songs certainly were extremely complex (though some art songs are extremely simple).

In each of these cases, Krugman on Feist, Rorem on the Beatles, and Mitchell on herself, the appeal to  "art song" status is an appeal for legitimacy, as if somehow an art song were more valuable than a pop song. In fact, I think many may take that as a near truism, and many others (pop fans) may take it as absurd (because art songs are unlistenable).

For my first entry on the matter, I simply want to argue that the difference between "pop song" and "art song" is one of style, and not one of quality. With a little thought this should be obvious. There are many bad art songs, and many good pop songs. And vise versa. There are probably relatively few art songs that are better than, say, "Hey Jude," but that doesn't necessarily make "Hey Jude" an art song. (And I'm not trying to be polemical by saying there are few art songs better than "Hey Jude." Fact is, 99% of all music written in every genre is bad. Take a great exemplar of any style, and it is better than, in relative terms, most other stuff in all styles, because most stuff is bad. It just is. Even most late 18th-century symphonies were bad.)

By saying that any pop song that is sophisticated ascends to the rank of art song, we risk completely missing many of the points of pop, and risk making some extreme euro-centric value judgments. Is "Sex Machine" a hopeless contender for "art song" status because it stays on I for a hundred-and-change bars (before crashing through to the subdominant when the maestro beckons "take it to the bridge!")? Are the song's brilliant polyrhythmic play, its incessant appeal to the body, its singer's gutteral and acrobatic wordplay (which makes any attempt to separate words and music impossible) all incapable of being elements of art? Or can we acknowledge that there is art here, if not necessarily art song?

And what of "Hey Jude" anyway? It flows on like a lied for its first half, I suppose, with essentially a piano-vocal texture and some elegantly functional chord progressions, but is it then disqualified in its anthemic closing section - as designed for mantra-like slavish repetition by hypnotized stadium-dwelling fans as any three-minute patch of sound ever was? Is there a similar passage of repetition in any art song? One that appeals so thoroughly to our innate need for the endless repetition of catchy melody as to bypass the intellect altogether? Or is the genius in the nah-nah-nah-nahs a wonderstroke of proportion in composition? Does it make "Hey Jude" a late Beethovensque symphonic movement? Even I am guilty of such appeals to legitimacy in my previous blog post (see my comment on Abbey Road).

I think this way lies madness. I think pop songs can be art, and art songs can be mindless, but pop songs are almost never art songs and vise versa. The question is, what separates these genres?

That's a question I'd like to think and blog on over the next little while, so I hope you'll stay tuned!