On Hating Popular Music

You might read this blog and assume that I really, really hate popular music. I don’t. That’s not the case at all. In fact, the only reason that I started studying music in the first place was because of popular music. When I started playing piano at the age of 13, it was because I wanted to “be good enough to play Bohemian Rhapsody on the piano.” I wasn’t even all that fond of piano at first, not taking it entirely seriously until one summer when I took a break from lessons and learned the entire three-book volume of the score to Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings. (Nerd alert.)

The fact of the matter is, I love popular music – and I’m thrilled that it’s become a part of the field of musicology. For one thing, popular music studies has been particularly amazing for feminism. Where my ladies at?? Seriously – the amount of women being studied in music has increased astonishingly, which is incredible. Additionally, culture has changed. There are far fewer classical music audiences than there had been previously, and as a result, the scope in which culture can be viewed is much, much smaller due to a more stereotyped audience. The goal within the last twenty or so years has been to keep classical music studies “relevant” in an ever-changing society of pop culture.

So, the field changed. We’ve made the field of musicology more “inclusionary,” which basically means that we’ve included more types of music to please plebeians like you. In its wake has come many surprising things that I’ve seen in the field, including but not limited to: academic papers about Taylor Swift, scholarly presentations about marching band configurations in the form of a Nelly song, reviews stating that Rufus Wainwright “is the new Beethoven.” It has also made great strides in progress, marking hip-hop as a true art form, discussing Radiohead’s inclusion of classical structure and minimalist techniques, and discovering Arvo Pärt’s influence on experimental pop musicians.

Why, then, has the inclusion of popular music studies in musicology been such a wide variety of successful, scholarly research and music, as my first composition professor called it, “to take to the beach?”

Earlier this year, I attended a musicological conference in the Boston/Cambridge area. I won’t say which university it was affiliated with, or who spoke, but what I will say is that there was a lot of talk about how us millennials can’t function now without social media and lots of positive guidance. I know that it kind of defeats the purpose of starting a blog to “knock” social media, but I vehemently disagreed with this thought process. I’ve never really felt the need for social media in order to succeed in music. In fact, I’ve pretty much always seen it as a distraction from my work. Professors who contacted me directly over Facebook rather than email, call, or text were usually seen as an annoyance to me. The entire conference felt like a baby boomer’s attempt to understand, accept, and “help along” millennials who clearly did not understand things in the same way that they did when they were in school.

But you know what? That’s actually awful. Over the years, I learned WAY more from professors who told me that I needed to bury myself in the practice room for the rest of the week, that they weren’t sure that my argument was valid, that I was a disappointment. Professors who didn’t fight me on my ideas didn’t stick as well. I think that’s the case for everyone, too; if you’re not killing yourself for your art, maybe you’re not doing it right. And I think that this was definitely the case for these professors and how they learned in college, too.

Because professors have felt the need to “fix” the system to become a more supportive, nurturing environment for all that doesn’t always weed out weaker candidates and leaves stronger candidates to wonder what the hell to do next, music is at a crossroads. Does a four-year degree mean anything if everyone is being nurtured? Students who bury themselves in scores and wake up early to read source readings in the library have worked hard to gain an understanding of music. Students who put in their four hours of practice and then go home for the day are, many times, set at different standards. Why?

There is no spectrum on which to base or judge popular music because there is only the open, unassuming challenge to even study popular music. The fact of the matter is, popular music is not always “serious” or “scholarly.” It’s not meant to be, either, but we as musicologists and theorists insist upon ripping everything apart. And that’s GREAT, but this should be taken with a grain of salt. Just because Taylor Swift used text painting in one of her music videos, doesn’t make her music as sophisticated or as structured as the art song of Josef Haydn.

There is a spectrum on which scholarly music should be based.

This blog is an experiment. I will be picking apart different types of music – popular, classical, Boston/Cambridge local – and analyzing them, unbiased as I can, on a structural level. I will also be offering reviews of concerts in the area of these varieties, as well. It is up to you as a reader to consider what you’d consider to be “serious” music. I may give my two cents at times, but the goal of this blog is to match popular music and classical music on common, structural levels and be able to see both sides within a context, on the most basic level of music. I will be including the five elements of music (melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, timbre) as well as analyzing its structural elements, to understand the complexity and thoughtfulness of the composition.

I’ll attempt to put different pieces and songs on a “spectrum” or a “scale,” based on how many sophisticated elements a piece of work includes.

Some of you will hate me for this. And that’s great. Argue with me, fact check me, find as much structure to make your case as you possibly can. This isn’t an attack on popular music. This blog is meant to be inclusionary of those who would like to be educated, rather than belittled and babied, about their knowledge of music. This is a serious, scholarly attempt at understanding music as a whole.


One thought on “On Hating Popular Music

  1. I like where you’re going with this. It’s pursuit of knowledge and truth and not a piece of paper for validation.


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