I don’t know that there is any question raised here, but I have a few thoughts.
Firstly, I agree that the comparison of classical and pop music doesn’t make much sense. Some people will feel that their favorite performers are equal to classical composers, but often this is because the listener is not perceiving everything in the classical piece. The study of Schkenerian analysis changed the way I hear and understand music. It is quite stunning to discover that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc. created music based on fractal patterns. There is no way they could have consciously done this – this approach to analysis was not even in use at the time. Melodic/harmonic patterns created from the larger structural divisions in the piece occur at the phrase level, and the motivic and ornamental level. Bartok used a great deal of symmetry in his structures and the atonalists used set theory to create pattern and unity. A classical musical structure unifies the surface details and structural elements. This unity creates a foundation that can be subjected to a maximum degree of tension resulting in a deeper level of expression. Tension is created through the development and manipulation of the underlying patterns of the piece.
There are elements of artistry within the pop music scene, but there are fundamental forces that tend to break these down. For instance, a pop music form is often generated from the first measure. Instead of using the surface details to generate form, it is repeated without development. There are instances where a pop musical form contains an overarching crescendo effect, which is very effective because the loud dynamic levels lose expressive force when left static throughout. More often dynamics are static. It is difficult to place all “pop” music in the same category subject to the same criticism, because it is all about degrees. There are some that have more development than others. It is pretty useless, though, to make comparisons with classical music because the differences are so fundamental.
I have a little theory that pop music is influenced by car engines. If you listen to the distortion of an electric guitar in comparison with a reving engine – there’s an interesting similarity. Also, the static dynamic levels are a perfect match for driving with engine noise. The motoristic approach to rhythm is noticeable as well.
What exactly is pop music? Is it a kind of music, or what you hear on the top 40 station? Does Pink Floyd and The Beatles count as pop music? What about Metallica? Is Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett pop music?
I like certain rock bands, hip hop bands, and classic jazz singers, but generally I understand what you are saying about the performers being more important than the music. If that is one of the definitions of pop music, then the above list of bands and singers certainly shouldn’t count as pop music, since the music they made has stood the test of time. The rock bands and hip hop bands I listen to are bands that most of you have probably never heard of, and bands that i’ve never heard on the radio. However, in no way am I comparing them to Chopin and Bach.
I agree with the totem nature of the pop star. I think this is best shown by shows like ‘Idol’ where the artist is chosen as much from personality as talent.
I do think, though, that you should be careful when using Nirvana as an example of bad songwriting. Nirvana, and many other bands, didn’t strive to make the best composition. Instead they were expressing their emotions and many of the songs were written in a very short period of time. If you want to critisize a band for their composition you should look at someone like Franz Ferdinand, who have stated that their music is written with specific purposes (even if the purpose is ‘to write a song that girls can dance to’)
Look for the string quartet tribute bands like Fourplay. There has also been a strong tradition for alternative folk artists to take a Brittney Spears or Backstreet Boys tune and rework it (most famous probably being Travis’ rendition of ‘Baby One More Time’).
The market in pop culture is by its nature very fickle, and hard to predict. As far as the value of pop culture relative to other “high” culture, maybe, but I think you should give the public a little more credit than you have. I agree that the biggest sellers are for the most part mindless crap that panders to the lowest common denominator, but I would not make a sweeping generalizations.
I don’t want to labour these point too much, but I do want to add some perspective to this discussion.
In regards to the ‘pop star’ phenomena, consider Liszt. The fact that he could compose well was secondary (during his life) to his virtuosity with the piano, the scandal that surrounded him and his sex appeal. Is there a direct line to be drawn between him and Justin Timberlake? I doubt it. This shouldn’t be surprising though, because times change. So we haven’t moved from a time of serious appreciation of music to a time of idol worship. There was always idol worship. there has always been people adored for their abilities and appearences.
As far as the painting of the prototypical popstar goes, I think there is a little confusion. Brittany Spears and the Backstreet Boys are not examples of people who are adored as songwriters. They are performers. They all sing and dance quite exceptionally, and if one believes that this sort of performance is important (I don’t) then they deserve much of the credit they get. I would be happy to see a broadway musical that was filled with people of their talent. If you want examples of pop music composers, look at Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Tom York (from radiohead), or Tori Amos. These composers I think compare quite nicely (all things considered) to many classical composers. They also do what many classical composers didn’t do; they regularly fit together their own lyrics seamlessly to the music they compose. Pop musicians today are both composers and poets. This isn’t a light task, but pop poetry is no more.
I sincerely doubt that historians will look back on the second half of the 20th century and say “this was the low point of music”. Remember, we don’t know about all the crap music that was being composed and played in 1762. We only know what stood the test of time. I doubt if Britney Spears will get much attention from historians, but I suspect Paul Simon will.
Popular music can be defined based on the function it plays in society and on musical processes that are generally present. The issue of idolization is one factor that has been explored already. Also, the role of music as entertainment. The performance settings being primarily concert halls, entertainment establishments, and radio/recordings. From a musical standpoint the formal structures are sectional primarily based on standard verse-chorus formulas. The melody is derived from speech. The lyrics generally precede the creation of melody and the phrases and melodic shape result from a delivery of text. The pitch language tends to be rather consonant focusing on pentatonic and diatonic scales with triadic harmony (or open fifths). Tension is created more through dynamics and distortion effects than harmony. The baseline is emphasized, but is not linearly conceived. The rhythm is metrical, preferring common time, with beats clearly accented and/or with syncopated ostinati. As JHBowden mentioned the overall texture is not linearly conceived. The result tends to create a more static musical delivery, with less forward motion. Although those examples that use a crescendo effect in the form and use other devices to create forward momentum are some of the most effective examples in this genre.
The classical composer Milton Babbitt made a statement that has always stuck with me..”music should be evaluated for what it is, not for what it is not.” There is a second issue in artistic expression that is relavent to both classical and popular genres. This is the most difficult aspect of art to define. It has to do with the ability to communicate in a way that creates a deep impact. To be able to convey human emotion in such an honest, primal, unfettered manner that it cuts into the marrow of your bones. The howl of a wolf has this quality. The greatest performers are able to convey this. Michael, the gorilla who learned sign language from Koko, loved to listen to Pavarotti, I believe for this very reason. This is one element of art that is valued and sometimes achieved in “popular” music.
This issue of idolization and obsession with youth is something worth exploring. As a direct result of marketing issues, the classical world is now being influenced by these same critera. Browse the classical section next time you’re in Barnes and Noble. The most successful performers are generally more attractive, young, and are marketing themselves with more sensuality. The sociological results of individual idolization in the arts are, in my opinion, rather dire. It fosters narcissism and the assumption that musical talent entitles individuals to social attention and glory. It creates a fundamental conflict in artistic expression because art is about communicating truth and idolization is about creating a false image.