I saw this image posted to a music education group on Facebook. The caption was something like, “Typical middle school/high school student.” I’ll leave the poster anonymous, because I’m sure they meant well.
Let me offer a translation of the translation: “I, the maker of this image, think that kids should enjoy music with tempo variation, triple meter, no groove, and long orchestral forms. I loathe pop music and can’t imagine why a person might enjoy it, so I condescendingly presume that the kids are being suckered in by marketing and image, and that they’re too lazy and dumb to pay attention. Furthermore, not only are the kids enjoying the wrong things, their listening preferences are performing sexual violence against the arts.” That’s a lot of anger for an internet meme! Let’s unpack.
I feel some of the meme maker’s pain. I don’t like all of the music that the kids like. If I controlled the universe, everyone would listen to Duke Ellington and nineties hip-hop. I believe that music has some influence over the listener’s emotional state, and I find extremely angry or abrasive music disturbing. But why should any young person care what a middle-aged nerd thinks of their taste?
Let me see if I can list all the assumptions in this meme.
- Listening to music mainly for the beat is dumb and wrong.
- Social dance is not a valid reason for music to exist.
- If you only listen to the music of your own time and place, you are hurting the entire art form.
- Current pop music is intrinsically worse than the music enjoyed by the Western European aristocracy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
- Metronomic dance grooves and pop song structures are fundamentally incompatible with legitimate musical expression.
- The point of lyrics is to provoke intellectual effort.
- Preferring contemporary pop to other kinds of music is lazy, ignorant, and infantile.
- Good music has to be longer than four minutes.
- It’s wrong to care about what musicians look like.
- Listening to music on iPods is dumb.
- When you see a kid expressing enthusiasm about music, the appropriate response is outrage.
One of those assumptions does actually make sense to me. The pop world favors attractive people, especially women. It’s unfair, since being good-looking has nothing to do with musical ability. Though it’s worth pointing out we’ve preferred attractive performers to unattractive ones since the dawn of history. Also, some subcultures (hip-hop, metal, EDM) gladly embrace ugly performers, at least if they’re male.
The rest of the assumptions are dubious at best and silly at worst. Also, there’s a not-too-subtle undercurrent of distaste at the increasing Afrocentrism of pop, at the expense of “traditional” Eurocentrism. You don’t need to be racist to be categorically contemptuous of groove-based music, but you are not in good world-historical company.
But even if the meme maker is totally correct, what’s the imagined outcome here? We, the music teachers, mock the unsophisticated tastes of fifteen-year-olds until they suddenly realize that they like the wrong things? And then they delete their iTunes libraries and Spotify playlists, and replace them with Beethoven, or Coltrane, or Stockhausen, or whatever? Has that method of changing someone’s tastes ever worked? We can do better, music nerds.