November 13, 2008

The Eternal Struggle Between Geek and Pop

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For several years now, the Cornell Concert Com-mission has attempt-ed to balance between a demand for two very different kinds of musical acts on campus. It would be silly of me to try to come up with names to categorize these two genres, but suffice it to say that they can be represented by the opposing cultures of the Decemberists and Yo La Tengo at one end and on the the other, T-Pain and Twista.
While certainly many people go to both kinds of concerts, we are looking for something different each time. With T-Pain, it’s obvious why people go. With bands like the Decemberists, the Walkmen, Yo La Tengo and the National, I think it is less clear. Why do people flock to the Decemberists? Do we want catchy sing-alongs? Intellectual stimulation? Something else?
Many different writers have tried to account for the sudden popularity of “smart” bands like the Decemberists, as well as bands that came from “smart” private schools like Vampire Weekend and MGMT. Do we like literary references and bookish fantasies of sailors and peasants because, as university students, we spend most of our time reading?
Or is it just that the songs are catchy?
On Monday night, a very different kind of concert, one in which I participated, took place in Barnes Auditorium. It was the concert that occurs every semester, wherein undergraduate composers — under the name Contrapunkt! — come together to premiere pieces they have composed. Of course, the whole affair felt pretty academic and the music reflected the entire spectrum from atonal to tonal and serious to light. As “bookish” as they are, the Decemberists’ music wouldn’t have fit in, but is that because they are too “poppy,” too loud, too kitschy?
What the Decemberists are doing — and I think it is quite brilliant — is making fun of the academy, which includes academic classical music, by using markers of academic pretension (esoteric references, archaic and exotic story material), while conceding to the fact that everyone in their elite fan base really still just prefers catchy hooks. It is a great irony that this band became popular by, paradoxically, singing about things that only unpopular, or “nerdy,” people care about. They have commodified “nerdiness,” appearing in every magazine with corduroy blazers, bookish glasses and Victorian dresses. They are highbrow musicians using lowbrow methods to satisfy highbrow fans’ penchant for the lowbrow.
Why do they succeed? Because the music that is actually composed in academic environments is indeed too esoteric for mass appeal, even among the student crowd. I think, fundamentally, we like bands like the Decemberists because we are not interested in the music that comes out of actual university music departments, full of complex atonality, references to composers we don’t spend a lot of time with, like Bach and Beethoven, and impenetrable musical ideas.
Indeed, much of the overly academic music composed in these departments is impossibly esoteric for the non-music major, and it is usually performed for meager audiences of fellow music students. No one pretends that a big crowd would be interested in coming. The Contrapunkt! Concert Monday night could have been an exception, but really it was the exception that proves the rule.
Is the under-attendance at music department concerts the fault of their composers for being too esoteric, or is it our own for not being intellectually up to snuff?
There is a huge debate between those who think music should be “art for art’s sake” and those who think that Classical Music is dying because it alienates everyone. The composers say “you should learn how to appreciate my art” and the audience says “you should learn how to entertain me.”
The Decemberists get around the argument by making fun of both sides. With their “literary” aura, they show us the very irony and absurdity of academic pretension, while making a mostly simple and exuberant pop music that entertains the educated elite with a wink and a nod.