By Gabe Kanengiser

KanengiserOver the past hundred years, popular music has crossed over into nearly all genres. In the nineteen twenties, pop music was marked by jazz and blues styles, while nearly forty years later it was defined by artists such as Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Marvin Gaye. Despite Michael Jackson’s reign as “The King of Pop” during the eighties and nineties, the emergence of far too many boy bands, meaningless and crass hip-hop artists (this by no means discredits the meaningful and tasteful), and the unfortunate number of “plastic-platinum” pop-singers, it seems that the quality of popular music has declined.

What is popular music? Music is often divided into three categories: popular music, art music, and traditional or folk music. Popular music can be in any genre but must appeal and be distributed to large quantities of people; Art music “requires significantly more work by the listener” in order for it to be fully appreciated. Traditional or folk music is often disseminated through oral traditions, and is centered in cultural of historical events.

However, who is to say that a song cannot be all three of these? Is “Like a Rolling Stone” not an immensely popular song worthy of contemplation about society? Due to genre or stylistic crossover and the nature of composition – the study of past composers, borrowing, and the use of folk and culturally important themes – there is no real reason for categorizing. In theory, popular music does not have to be the antithesis of art music. But current popular music requires no thought from the listener and therein is the problem.

There are always going to be outliers and loopholes. For instance, Michael Jackson would be an outlier while Lady Gaga would find a loophole. Michael Jackson’s music is captivating, groovy, has integrity, and is defended by those who were associated with it: guitarist Eddie Van Halen, jazz-legend N’dugu Chancler, and producer jazz trumpeter/producer Quincy Jones. It is clear that Lady Gaga’s skills as an artist feature a unique voice and image and songwriting skills that are more advanced and developed than many of her contemporaries, but the fact of the matter remains, is it really fair (correct, moral, conscientious, really any sense of the word) to put her in the same group with Sinatra, Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Gaye, and Michael Jackson? The obvious answer: No.

The disappearance of art music from the popular psyche is as important as the decline in quality in popular music. Popular music aficionados fail to recognize art music, the contents of which may as well be listed under avant-garde in the record stores, or rather, in the iTunes music store.

Two hundred years ago popular music and art music were joined at the hip. Beethoven’s works and the birth of the Romantic Era coincided with the rise of the middle classes. Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann composed lieder which could be sung and played in the home by amateur musicians. At the same time that the middle classes expanded they received a more formalized and substantial education and formulated an idea of art and music. The masses were able to sing and play music that did not require the same technical ability as music that one would find in the concert hall, but was more suited for the salon. The music was attainable, and it featured poetic verses with melodies that were relatively easy to sing. Stephen Foster would be a good example of a more popular American equivalent, although his music was far less refined and complex as Schubert’s or Schumann’s.

This begs the following questions: 1) What is considered art music today if art music two hundred years ago bore similarities unique also to popular music? 2) Why aren’t the masses listening to and emulating a modern day equivalent to Schubert? 3) What is it that makes the music of Schubert and Schumann both popular music and art music? 4) Why is James Blake so important to all of this?

1. Today, art music and popular music are not joined at the hip. While classical music and jazz are relevant today, they are not prevalent among most audiences. Other types of art music though, such as electronic music, or even the more “out” styles of rock, are mostly considered avant-garde by a majority of listeners, with the exception of some late Radiohead works.

2. One reason why the masses are not gravitating towards art music is that music in general has expanded. The choice isn’t between a symphonic work, a piece of folk music, or a string quartet anymore, nor is it between Jazz/Blues, Folk/Traditional, or Classical. It’s between a choice of genre, and inside each genre, a choice of subgenre, and inside each subgenre, a choice of thousands of different artists, totaling millions of listening possibilities. The masses are still focused on listening to something that is attainable, and that must be understood by anyone who endeavors to infuse popular music with much needed quality. However, whether or not the music was created with or intended to boast exceptional quality is beside the point to the average modern listener. The tormenting concern that emerges from all of this is what will popular music look like in forty years?

3. The aspect of both Schubert and Schumann’s music that makes them so powerful, requiring deep consideration yet attaining widespread popularity is the poetry. Schubert’s Winterreise is a song cycle that uses Wilhelm Müller’s poems and Schumann’s Dichterliebe sets poetry by Heinrich Heine. Modern composers who work both in art and popular music must share this concern for poetry as well. Bob Dylan was considered to be the “voice of a generation” due to his cutting, politically- and socially-driven lyrics. His music was both appealing to the ear and understandable with contemplation and analysis.

4. James Blake is the reason why I am not worried.

James Blake (age 23) began his career in the genres of electronic music and dub-step (a genre of electronic dance music) less than three years ago. Blake did not follow the normal conventions of growth in attaining popularity. On his first three EP’s, The Bells Sketch, CMYK, and Klavierwerke, he achieved a unique sound, immediately garnering respect and a reputation for forward-thinking in his genre. The young sensation gained fame for elements of dance music and popular music, but he also received much criticism for his self-titled LP, James Blake, and in a later EP, Enough Thunder, because of his stylistic transformation from dub-step oriented to more of a singer-songwriter approach.

His new work has components that are electronically driven, but the abundance of melodious phrases approach the depths of traditional songwriting and composition. Each effect, word, and tone is as carefully planned and well-orchestrated as “Nessun Dorma,” from Puccini’s Turandot. His poignant lyrics are populated by social-commentary and there is no doubt that prolific songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell are at the forefront of his influencers. Blake has already attained widespread popularity, and yet what he is creating is art music.

On the first level, Blake’s work is so sonically pleasing that even the most casual listener won’t find anything in it so repugnant as to declare it worthless; neither would the most erudite listener have contempt for it. On the second level, the music is infused with his background and interest in popular genres such as dub-step and electronic music, which is why he appeals to such a large audience. And on the third level, his music forces and allows the listener to search for intentions, aspirations, and influences, and most of all to share and create connections. His music is as thrilling as it is innovative and as pop-influenced as it is avant-garde.

James Blake is a long overdue reminder that popular music does not mean “void of virtuosity;” that Beethoven and Schubert and Sinatra and Lennon aren’t letting loose disapproving sighs in regard to the current state of music; and that forty years from now, music, and popular music in specific, might even be, well, pretty decent. Art music has not been dead; its popularity has just been dormant.

Gabe Kanengiser, a California-hailing sophomore at the Oberlin College of Arts and Sciences, is working on majors in Creative Writing and Arts Business and Management, a self-designed program of study. Kanengiser began managing bands in his hometown Los Angeles in 2008, and less than a year later co-founded arts management, production, and promotion company Pickup Music. As the head of business and management, Gabe oversaw all projects and acted as manager for all of Pickup Music’s clients. In high school Kanengiser studied jazz and classical saxophone with Lee Secard at the Colburn School of Music. At Oberlin Kanengiser, who writes for the student publications Fearless and Loathing and the Oberlin Review, is working towards opening a shop specializing in instrument repair, an avocation he picked up during a 2011 Winter Term internship with prominent L.A. repairman Jay Work. He is one of ten students selected as Rubin Fellows to participate in the Oberlin Rubin Institute for Music Criticism in January, 2012.

Published on January 17, 2012