Classical composers, Bowie and Björk

This post originally took the form of a couple of Twitter threads, which I’ve collected and edited here for easier reading.

Greg Sandow asks two very interesting and provocative questions of classical music:

When the Museum of Modern Art did its first retrospective of a seminal musical artist, no surprise it was Björk who reached past music into the larger cultural world. Some day, couldn’t somebody from classical music do that? When a major musical artist died and the New York Times did more than 20 stories tracing his influence on our culture and on people’s lives, well, of course it was David Bowie. Couldn’t it someday be someone from classical music?

My answer: Probably not.

Björk in 1993 by Jean-Baptiste Mondino David Bowie

It’s not a coincidence that Björk and Bowie worked their way to highbrow institutional approval via the pop world. They earned their cultural stature by making authentic emotional connections to young people, and they substantially did it with music you can dance to. We, their fans, were attracted by fun hooks and beats, and we showed our gratitude by following them out into more artsy territory. Without “Changes” and “Ziggy Stardust,” no one would know about “Blackstar.” Without “Human Behaviour” and “It’s Oh So Quiet,” no one would care about Biophilia.

I’m sure the classical world is producing plenty of work that’s better and more interesting than Biophilia. But the classical world shows no signs of coming up with a dance floor filler like “Human Behaviour” and its many remixes. And I’m sure contemporary composers are capable of producing a banger like “Ziggy Stardust,” but they certainly aren’t trying to.

In his article, Sandow talks about measuring classical music’s impact in ticket sales. Sure, why not? But that’s a shallow measure, even for a poptimist like me. The deep measure is the emotional relationship Björk and Bowie make with listeners. That relationship is possible because Bowie and Björk are fun, cool and accessible (at least some of the time.) They engage with club culture, with fashion, with sex and drugs. They express feelings that the rest of us can relate directly to, in a musical language that makes sense to us.

If it seems like classical audiences are stuck on Mozart and Beethoven and unwilling to try anything new, there’s a good reason for that. The canonical masterpieces are full of memorable hooks. My toddler loves Beethoven because there are parts he can sing along with. We all might be more up for trying new things if there was more honey in there with the vinegar. If there were some hooks. Some tunes. A mainstream paying audience will happily subject itself to all kinds of avant-garde weirdness if you offer them strong, singable choruses. The Grateful Dead sold out stadiums for decades with atonal, arhythmic improvisation, because it came wrapped in hooks and grooves. And Andy Rivkin points out that “Revolution 9” is on one of the top-ten selling albums in history.

Composers: we the Björk and Bowie fans are your natural constituency. We like being challenged! We like adventure! What we don’t like is boredom, and impenetrable obscurity, and music that focuses on process while neglecting product. We like to scratch our chins, but we also like to dance. Most humans regard booty-shaking as an essential social vitamin. Any composer willing to meet a listener’s emotional needs as broadly as Bowie or Björk can easily build a comparably sized audience.

Taking the long view, music really does become a meritocracy. People stay popular and relevant over multiple decades because they’re great. I hear a lot of new music in my academic life, and I hear a lot that’s “interesting,” but I don’t hear a lot that’s, like, good. Better, more emotionally substantive music really does find an audience. Maybe slowly, but it always does.

In a since-deleted tweet, a music school commented on my thread by asking whether classical composers should “sell out” to reach more people. That tweet made me sad. Making music that more people feel an intense emotional connection to isn’t “selling out,” even if it does happen to result in money. Let’s be careful not to equate “having a large and devoted following” with “making inauthentic art.” The two are orthogonal. You can be popular and deep, popular and shallow, unpopular and deep, or unpopular and shallow. Being unpopular does not mean you’re deep. For Bowie and Björk, popularity is part of the depth of their art’s meaning, because it shows us, their weirdo/loner fans, that we aren’t alone.

Later on the thread, the same music school asked whether composers are naturally inclined to produce more popular styles of music, the implication being that we’d have to force them to write in a more accessible way. But why assume that composers would need to have their arms twisted to write music the rest of us would enjoy? Who even knows what composition students are naturally inclined to produce? I don’t think music schools are fostering much organic expression at the moment. It takes a lot of strong pressure to force people write 12-tone serialism or species counterpoint. Who knows what young composers might write in the absence of such pressure? I’d be inclined to find out.

3 thoughts on “Classical composers, Bowie and Björk

  1. I understand your point. However, whilst Björk is mostly known for her alt-dance-pop, she is turning more and more into a composer herself. Biophilia? Atonal music, intricate choir pieces, atypical rhythms. Vulnicura? She composed the sheet music for a string orchestra herself, along with beats and vocals.

    My point is that she is not just a musician that makes you dance. She is a modern composer who loves to experiment!

    • Björk absolutely is a contemporary composer. She was trained in a conservatory, and she has increasingly drawn on that training as her career has progressed. However, my point is that she has this enormous cultural impact compared to any other living composer, for example meriting a MoMA retrospective. She attained her broad reach by making dance music. It was still odd and experimental dance music, but it was unquestionably fun and relatable. As a result, people like me will eagerly go to see her concerts and buy her albums, no matter how weird and artsy they get. If other composers want her level of cultural status, they would be wise to build a fan base on the dance floor first.

  2. THANK YOU for this post, Ethan! Boldly expressed and spot-on! The “Let’s be careful…” part is stated brilliantly! I grew up with classical snobs who got grumpy over lack of funding compared to local other-genre bands — well no wonder, they weren’t being relatable! I place no value in “guilty pleasures”, for you like what you like… and if you can make some thing accessible AND experimental, with catchy melodies AND advanced sound design… well, that’s some of my favorite stuff!

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