Everyone’s a critic! “Popera,” Rebecca Black, and Simon Cowell

In case anyone hasn’t heard already, Rebecca Black is a 13-year old from Orange County who posted a music video called “Friday” on YouTube with the help of an outfit called Ark Music Factory.  (Like something out of Orwell.  More on this here.)  After a few pop culture commentators tweeted and blogged that this was the worst music video ever, the thing went viral, with millions of haters slamming Black in sometimes violent terms, breathless news reports on what other pop stars think, accusations of cyber-bullying, etc.   (No links here; if you really must see it, it’s easy enough to find.)

We’re not saying the song is any good, but what’s with the hate?  Some kid got her parents to pay $2Gs so she could sing a song she didn’t write, and it didn’t turn out very well.  Is anyone surprised?  Is Rebecca Black all that much worse than what the culture industry normally regurgitates for young audiences?  The song lyrics are certainly stupefying, and poor Rebecca can’t seem to lip-sync fast enough.  But the machine-made vocalisms (cf. Auto-Tune–brought to you by a former Exxon engineer!) and the barely slicked-up production values are par for the course.  This level of awfulness isn’t the least bit unusual these days.  So why are millions suddenly getting on a high horse to slam Rebecca Black’s awfulness in particular?

We think it’s because that it gives all of us the chance to be critics—to be elitists—even though this hate-on has very little to do with the actual music.

A common refrain among those of us worried about classical music’s future is that it’s too elitist, too exclusionary, too snobby, and that we need to make the concert experience more welcoming, more diverse, less intimidating, less like the classroom.  We agree.  But this episode shows that pop culture can be just as snobby as high culture.  There most certainly is a language of connoisseurship in pop culture.

The difference is that instead of classical music’s snob standards, mainstream pop culture substitutes a more amorphous set of criteria having to do with the projection of personality.  Instead of the likes of Donald Francis Tovey or Ernest Newman teaching us new ways to listen, we have Miley Cyrus saying “It should be harder to be an artist” (not too hard, apparently) and Simon Cowell (not a critic, but he plays one on TV) playing the pomo pundit’s favorite game: I’m so sophisticated that I get the irony, and all you haters don’t.

Pop culture’s brand of connoisseurship is as much a personal pose, as it is an artistic evaluation.  The pop culture critics are really judging personalities, and offering their own to be judged; the music is just a medium for this sort of “cooler than thou” status quest.  We suspect that a lot of Rebecca Black’s haters are teens trying to show the tweens who’s boss.  Or tween boys who want to trash what the girls like, just like they trash Justin Bieber.  (Or, according to our parents, just like how boys trashed the Beatles in an earlier, better time; boys don’t like the competition for the girls.)

The haters get egged on by a media and culture industry which treats this sort of high-school-hallway buzz at face value.  And these industries also treat Rebecca Black’s post-viral rehabilitation/monetization at face value, playing along with the strategy of turning those 15 minutes of fame into a cash cow for as long as possible.  Sales are brisk on iTunes (figures here), Black is apparently contemplating a lawsuit against Ark Music Factory, there’s rumors of a record deal–everything’s falling into place.  In spite of her detractors–rather, because of them–Rebecca Black is becoming a marketable cultural phenomenon.  The hate-filled buzz facilitated by the internet has turned the song into a saleable commodity, and the culture industry is lining up to get the dollars flowing.  (We’ll see if it works out.)

This is the logic of culture in the age of Twitter: notoriety, not quality, creates profitability.  Whether the song is any good or not, hardly matters.  No–it’s better if some people think the song is bad, so that the haters and the boosters can face off; the boosters can self-righteously plea for inclusion, tolerance, and open-mindedness; and innocent bystanders (this writer included) will have to log in and see what the fuss is all about.  This little kabuki enables people to continue displaying their personalities as more-sophisticated-than-thou consumers of mass culture–in other words, to be pop culture critics.  Hating on Rebecca Black turns all of us into a cultural elite, not a cultural democracy.   Clicking on “Friday,” or buying it, gives us all the reward of showing how superior we supposedly are to those hordes of tween-bots—as music-lovers, perhaps, but more as people.  Cheap at any price.

Why is this any better than classical music snobbery?  The problem with classical music isn’t elitism per se, because everyone wants to be an elitist–everyone wants to be a critic.  (Why else would we be writing this blog?)  The paradox is that all these armchair pop culture critics are just the vox populi, whereas classical music is the only one stuck with the “elitist” label.

Some think that the solution for classical music is to treat any taint of elitism as poison, and try to appear as anti-elitist as possible.  But the result wouldn’t be recognizable as classical music.  Consider the phenomenon of “popera.”  This was pioneered by the crossover quartet (or opera boy band) Il Divo, created by none other than the aforementioned Simon Cowell.  They rarely sing any opera–they just sing pop tunes with a lot of vibrato.  (Sometimes in Italian translation–nothing like a lot of rolled Rs for a touch of class.)  Reviewers usually dismiss them, prompting Cowell to voice the age-old lament over the snobbishness of classical music and repeat the old line that this stuff is a gateway to the real thing.  (As if he gives a damn about audience statistics at the Met.)  Former Il Divo member Vittorio Grigolo may become the next great hope of real Italian opera, but inconveniently for Il Divo, he conscientiously studies the standard repertory and isn’t under any illusions about the comparative worth of Covent Garden vs. Katherine Jenkins.   But Cowell doesn’t care, because his boys have just snagged the Classic Brit “Artists of the Decade” award.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course; many pop and classical musicians have much healthier ways of reaching their audiences. Certainly, composers and performers have found genuinely creative ways to bridge the pop-classical divide, away from the glare and glitz of mass media.  But the Rebecca Black episode suggests that the mainstream world of commercialized pop–the world most Americans know–can sometimes have an elitism of its own, an elitism much uglier than the stuffed shirts of the concert hall.   Classical music shouldn’t rush to enter this world, because it will gain little, and perhaps lose its own identity, so that Il Divo isn’t any different from La divina.

–Amanda and Michael

About thousandfoldecho

Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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