Is Classical Music in the “Real World”?

One of the hallmarks of the Classical Music Crisis viewpoint is the idea that Classical Music, as a field, is insular and cut off from what has been variously referred to as the “Wider World,” “Outside World,” or “Real World.” The purpose of this kind of rhetoric is to contrast the Classical Music field with the world-at-large by showing how cut-off and unconcerned it is with issues that loom in the world outside of it.

This is a theme that’s been pushed by Greg Sandow in recent years. While he’d referenced the “Wider World” as far back as 2005, it was in 2014 where the idea of an outside world that is radically different than the Classical Music world solidified as a theme that he would return to often. This corresponded with a talk Sandow gave at the IV Conferencia de Marketing de las Artes and a couple of blog posts (here and here) about his talk which he titled, “Time to Join the Wider World.”

Since then, Sandow has often referenced this concept in blog posts, social media, and in print and interviews. He has sometimes used the other phrases (“Real World” and “Outside World”) more recently, but they essential refer to the same thing. His most recent Facebook status actually gives what amounts to a definition of this “Wider World” (here called the real world).

And so again we see that classical music doesn’t live in the real world. In the real world — aka the culture outside classical music — “gypsy” is an ethnic slur, a term of abuse for the people who call themselves Roma.

This real world is something that Classical Music doesn’t “live in” since, by definition, the “culture outside classical music” is the real world!


What is the “Real World”

So what are these characteristics of the real world that contrasts with the Classical Music World? Sandow gives several examples. Going back to his Facebook post, we see in the real world that

  1. Muslims are made fun of in Rossini’s “L’italiana in Algeri” but “Making fun of Muslims wouldn’t go down well outside the opera house”;
  2. “In the real world […] ‘gypsy’ is an ethnic slur” but acceptable in the Met Opera’s promotion of their production of Bizet’s “Carmen” where the titular character is called a Gypsy Seductress;
  3. Seductress is “a role men assigned to women […] generations ago” not something we’d find “outside Met Opera press releases these days”;
  4. And “performances of The Mikado in the original Japanese setting — in which the Japanese are seen as comical — just aren’t acceptable anymore. Time for that kind of thinking to spread to the Met.”

What these all boil down to are that the negative or stereotypical portrayals of Women, Muslims, Roma, and Japanese exist in the Classical Music World but don’t happen in the real world. Obviously, this is demonstrably false, even setting aside the overgeneralization of using anecdotal examples in one genre (i.e. Opera) of Classical Music to stand in for the whole field. I said as much in one of my responses to Sandow’s post.

There’s plenty of Islamaphobia, Misogyny, Racism, Anti-Roma sentiment in the real world and the popular entertainment world and it make little sense to differentiate the Classical Music World on the basis of something that’s endemic to both.

Sandow’s response to my comment1 moves the goal post:

Life is imperfect, and even, God help us, the “outside world” (as I love to call it) is imperfect. So, yes, it’s full of all kinds of contradictions and complexities. But outside of classical music, almost all institutions with the size and prestige of the Met would be actively aware of these issues. And would bring critical thinking to bear on any blatant stereotypes found in the work they present.

So now the real world is a place where large institutions are “actively aware of these issues” and “bring critical thinking to bear on any blatant stereotypes found in the work they present.”

So we shouldn’t be seeing rampant sexualization of women in large real world institutions; persistent whitewashing and demonization of minorities in large real world institutions; creation of negative stereotypes via cultural appropriation in large real world institutions; or critical thinking on rape culture and brain injuries in large real world institutions, right? It could be argued that anyone not aware of these, and many other issues, in large real world institutions is a bit out of touch with the real world.


Conversely, by limiting the discussion of the Classical Music World to a small minority of large and prestigious institutions, we get to neglect current works which are aware of and actually critically address these issues. To take an example from the Opera world, we can safely ignore Hagen’s “A Woman in Morocco,” Gorb’s “Anya17,” and Paredes/Sierra/Liang/Vázquez “Cuatro Corridos,” all recent operas about Human Trafficking, just because they don’t fit the narrative of being performed by large and prestigious institutions.


How this fits into the Classical Music Crisis Narrative

Creating a sharp distinction between an insular Classical Music World and the “Culture outside Classical Music” is important for the Classical Music Crisis narrative. It creates a discontinuity between the two cultures which is structurally similar and complementary to a narrative which talks about a time “Before the Crisis” which also focuses on a discontinuity. In this case, an historical one.

A timeline of the Classical Music Crisis implies there was time, in the utopic past, that Classical Music was a part of the real world. A time when Classical Music was a form of popular entertainment and was much more prominent in the world than it is now.

Again, this Timeline requires a sharp break between the past, when Classical Music was popular and a part of the real world, and now. So much of it depends on nostalgia bias, e.g. was Classical Music actually popular in the past (evidence shows us that it wasn’t) and was the past culture of Classical Music so great when women and blacks wouldn’t be members of mainstream institutions so had to form their own organizations?

I’ll explore this “Make Classical Music Great Again” theme in a future post.2 Regarding the “Real World,” however, I think a better case needs to be made before we seriously consider things to be so dichotomous.



  1. This is an edited response and far different one than the earlier one Sandow posted which read: You mean you didn’t know I was talking about now, 2017? We all know the stereotyping that went on for generations. One of my uncles wrote songs for some of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road movies, in which Muslims could easily be stereotyped. Etc. Etc. Etc. But in the past year how we view Muslims has become a topic of discussion, and I can’t imagine something that treats Muslims as L’Italiana does showing up at a major museum or theater or ballet company. Or in an HBO show. Or in a TV commercial. from the edit history of this post: <<>>
  2. I’ve been noticing how much of the Crisis Rhetoric parallels some of the current political climate: Threat Inflation, Nostalgia Bias, and Populism have been hallmarks of many sides of the political coin in various ways during this US election cycle.


Top image s Katy Perry in her much criticized AMA performance.

Image in text is a still from Coldplay and Beyonce’s “Hymn for the Weekend” video.

One thought on “Is Classical Music in the “Real World”?

  1. Nice post, Jon, and I’m inclined to agree. One takeaway from your blog that’s stuck with me is the fact that pop music is in just about as much of a crisis as classical music (i.e., that dichotomy is false there). So perhaps it is correct to say that there is no more “real world” any more anyway? The long tail has chopped up any mode of content into a million bits, legacy content takes up lots of mindshare and that will only increase over time, and people are constantly overloaded with information. It’s not as though people are going to get much more excited about a dude with a guitar in a coffee shop than a dude holding a Lieder recital. The “real world” is tough for anyone right now.


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