Myth of the Monolithic Pop Culture

One of the many ideas that Crisis folks rely on is what we could call a Monolithic Pop Culture trope. The whole idea of Classical Music culture being rooted in the past (and therefore needing to “catch up” to contemporary culture) relies on this myth that culture has “evolved” (nevermind the problematic aspects of a type of Social Darwinism which implied in claim) to the point where Classical Music culture is no longer relevant.

Obviously, much of what I blog about here focuses on heterogeneous culture(s) and how privileged cultures (in so far as they are treated as dominant homogeneous cultures) interact with, and often harm, marginalized ones. So I think it can be taken as a given that I view a disconnect between how power structures get propagated due to dominant cultural ideologies and how marginalized cultures become suppressed (and in some cases, obliterated). This trope as dominant culture ideology has informed researchers to see how the so-called Anglo-American Pop Music Culture has harmed global music cultures. That Cultural Imperialism Hypothesis was shown to be premature and overstated (the results of that study showed that Anglo-American Pop Music is hardly as popular as the researchers initially feared).

But what that Cultural Imperialism Hypothesis shows is that there’s this unquestioned assumption that a culture, namely the Anglo-American Pop Music Culture, is the dominant cultural form in the US, if not in the Western World (and in some cases the whole world).

When I first started this blog, I was much more active as a comics blogger and often dealt with issues of interpretation of comics and the great diversity of comic books worldwide.  I usually centered on techniques which relied on Post-Colonialism criticism (Poco crit for short) from which things like the Cultural Imperialism Hypothesis emerged. Poco crit and other diasporans and critics from colonized countries sought to unmask the asymmetry in power relationships between Western Countries and non-Western Countries (which were often colonized at some point by Western Countries). By showing how privilege works for the Western Nations and how this privilege harms the populations of marginalized Nations the hope is that some of this asymmetry could become more balanced through knowledge, activism, and legislation.

Part of how that power of privilege gets unmasked can be by showing the falsity of the structure–as in the case with the Cultural Imperialism Hypothesis.  This is not to say that there never was an asymmetric level of power, so much as to say that as long as we continue to give it force, events will happen as if that asymmetry existed in any true sense. One of the ways to do this is to dominate the discourse–and that’s something that the Classical Music Crisis folks excel at doing, and one of the ways they do this is by propagating this Monolithic Pop Culture world in which Classical Music Culture must adapt to–or die. In other words, Social Darwinism.

What often gets left out in these naive views of what was initially a social theory used to promote a number of racial superiority ideologies is the nuance of how evolutionary theory actually works. Social Darwinism was premised on a linear concept of evolution which stated that there was an ultimate winner in a zero sum game. There was no talk about fitness landscapes, ecological niches, population dynamics, and heterogeneous populations because there was no need to see anything other than a winner on top with losers at the bottom of a linear scale–hence the misuse of “survival of the fittest” (which doesn’t come from Darwin but was actually coined by Herbert Spencer, who is a figure that’s practically synonymous with Social Darwinism) in Social Darwinism and related ideologies.

A Monolithic Pop Culture* is a necessary trope to the debate when we’re working with a linear model with winners on top and losers at the bottom–a zero sum game. Having a linear model that eliminates all the noise (i.e. “outlying data”) allows us to create simple solutions to what are characterized as simple problems (obviously the practical implementation of such problems might be incredibly complex). As I’ve mentioned in this blog in the past, this manner of black/white thinking is intimately tied to classes of biases (e.g. Straw Men, Cherry Picking, Sampling and Selection, Negativity) which are used in the service of this oversimplified view and can also lead to systemic biases in how we look at larger bodies of data. Add in how we actually define the terms selectively to allow us only to consider data that “matters” to our viewpoints and we have a nice recipe for promoting an ideological agenda rather than knowledge.

What’s more damaging, however, is that by pushing for this Monolithic Pop Culture as a model for New Classical Music Culture, we might simply be reinforcing previous existing power structures which are already shared, to an extent, with the Old Classical Music Culture. Adding more film composers like Philip Glass and John Williams to orchestra concerts, or more Steven Tylers, Dave Mustaines, and Kurt Cobains** just turns the content of the Old Classical Music Culture from the Dead/White/European/Male to the content of Living/White/Euro-American/Male. There’s little mention of the fragmentation and specialization that’s happening in the Pop Music Culture, much less Classical Music Culture.

When talk comes up of minorities, we get discussions about how different they are from the Old Classical Music Culture (and thus more aligned to the dominant Monolithic Pop Culture) without examination of the fact that these populations have developed their own art and entertainment forms which have no problems borrowing conventions from the maligned culture (such as Standard Concert Time) as well as the from Pop Culture. This says nothing about how women are often treated in Pop Music Culture.

In other words, the Monolithic Pop Culture isn’t nearly as dominant as the Crises folks would like us to believe–something that the Cultural Imperialism Hypothesis researchers discovered back in the 80s when American Pop Music was at the height of its economic and cultural power. Here we are thirty years later and still debating the relative merits of the Monolithic Pop Culture which wasn’t even so monolithic in its heyday while underneath the debate on both sides the older and dominant power structures are simply being reinforced whether or not we accept the Monolithic Pop Culture as the new model for Classical Music Culture.

pop-music

The Monolithic Pop Culture trope also does a disservice to the fragmented and specialized varieties of Popular Music, and the latter term itself leads to a sort of ethnocentrism as it’s usually just applied to the American (or European and American) Pop Music Industries. I would wager a guess that Lata Mangeshkar’s songs have been heard by far more people (simply due to the sheer number of songs she’s recorded over her multiple decade career to an audience of several generations of a country which has the second largest population in the world at nearly double the population of the US and Europe combined) than anyone else in the world. However, she’s hardly considered a “Pop Musician” in that colloquial and Euro-American-centric sense–perspective, right? Really, we’re living in a Post-Pop world now anyway.

Since there are so many interesting tropes such as the Monolithic Pop Culture trope that pop up during these debates and discussions, I’ve started a wikia page (which I’ll link to in the future once there’s more content) which will focus on common tropes as well as being a factchecker (think Snopes for the Classical Music Crisis claims) that is inspired by one of my favorite websites, tvtropes.org. Interestingly, its entry for Classical Music states (under “Common Misconception”):

One thing to remember is that Classical Music isn’t ‘dead‘. It’s alive and kicking with many great living composers and plenty of orchestras ready to perform the old standards. Recording media and the internet have made access to classical music more prevalent than ever before. If anything, classical music is more alive than it’s ever been.

In truth, Classical has never been a popular style, contrary to the myth that classical was pop of its day; it’s always been the domain of the well-to-do, or highly educated. That isn’t the case any more. Classical Music is easily accessible for anyone who wants to hear it now. So go out and listen to it. If anyone says it’s dying, or that it’s too ‘pretentious’, just nod your head — they’re the dying ones, the last of the real pretentiousness who claim pop culture killed classical, or that classical musicians are too stuffy, and hate pop culture. It didn’t, it never will, and no, they don’t.

 

_______________________

* Here we’re not just talking about the music and artists who create content but also how the audience consumes it and how industries, governmental bodies, and society support it.

**Yes, I know that Cobain is dead, and that he was very much a rights activist in his own way. Being an ally doesn’t necessarily make you an effective ally.

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