Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Let Mozart Be Dead Already

As part of reading the book Technopoly, I'm listening to the old author interview from Booknotes on C-SPAN. Because Neil Postman (before his death in 2003) provided a convenient anti-thesis to Ray Kurzweil's Snoopy-like dance of technological elation, I am sympathetic, looking for things to agree with, stretching to find common ground. But then he had to go and bring up Mozart.

Poor dead Mozart gets dragged into more cultural battles than just about anybody except Jesus and the Founding Fathers. In 1998, the governor of Georgia would send out copies of Mozart for pregnant mothers to listen to (and hopefully take their minds off of Georgia's third-world level health care for neonates). Postman argued no less than that when children hear Mozart, they can't help but feel that there is order in the universe, whereas when they listen to rock'n'roll they feel that life is just one damn thing after another. OK, it's a 1992 interview, but I really thought all this musical snobbery by intellectuals was reasonably passé by the time the Beatles broke up.

If structure makes you feel there's order in the universe, surely a simpler structure makes more people feel more order more... um, better? How about "My Sharona"? Plenty of variation (guitar break in the middle, pregnant pauses, time changes, etc.), but plenty of structure and order. Light that up around some kids the right age (before others teach them to be snobs about what they are willing to listen to) and soon you'll see them all shout "Wooo!" right on cue -- if that's not evidence they hear "order", then what is?

We've been through all this rock-doesn't-have-this-or-that sniping decades ago, right? Yeah, the Beatles used three chords a lot on the Red/Blue albums, so what? Modern musical historians aren't that impressed with young Mozart (and more than a few think his Dad was helping ol' Amadeus out with his homework!). The Beatles learned a lot more chords and a lot more techniques, just like the Beach Boys with their journey from barbershop to complex tonal progressions. And do you think you can tap out all the time changes in Zeppelin's "Black Dog"? OK, in all fairness, Zeppelin couldn't really do "Black Dog" that well themselves live, but still, they got it on tape at least once.

Of course, since Postman rejected the notion that psychology is a "science", it would have been no use pointing out that psychology supports what common experience tells us -- your view of music is strongly influenced by what you listen to in your youth. Fortunately, I was blessed with a large palette of music in my youth: Gospel, country (old-time country, before it became just rock with a twang), bluegrass, rock, classical, swing, jazz -- and that was well before technology made it easy to tune into any type of music you wanted at any time. I presume Postman was not so blessed, and his formal education did nothing to make up for it. I recall that my overtly liberal public education included instruction on defending ourselves against media manipulation, and one class in particular showed how the same song could be recast as rock, country, or R&B to sell the same product to different audiences. I suppose that sort of useful relativism has since been outlawed by the Texas Board of Education.

I do agree with Postman that you can't appreciate Mozart if you don't have the necessary training. It's unfortunate he didn't see that the same is true for most any music of any complexity -- and all genres offer complexity. What you hear if you try to listen to Led Zeppelin without ever having heard Delta blues or read Tolkien, I have no idea, but it will be something short of what is actually present in the music. It's just plain sad that someone who decried "the surrender of culture to technology" didn't have the necessary training to appreciate the large body of culture represented by modern music.

No doubt the deeper underlying myth here is the familiar pining for a "simpler time". It is undeniable that there were some simpler and happier times (with more "order") in this country -- for some. But when Lead Belly sang "The Midnight Special",  he was not celebrating the special kind of "order" African Americans could expect in Houston. It's always hard to separate this brand of nostalgia from one implicit -ism (racism, sexism, rankism) or another. And technology is making that even harder.

As technology accelerates, the conservative desire for "simpler times" is made both more acute and more contradictory. For people are rarely willing to give up anything to get back to simpler times -- they only want undesirable things taken away. Note that at its peak, conservatism in America did absolutely nothing to swell the ranks of the Amish. The folks most deeply concerned about retaining "traditional" gun rights are still pretty much eating corn-fed meat that was killed in a pen with a steel slug coming out of a compressed air hose, friendo.

Here, then, is my common ground with Neil Postman. For he was clear that technology always gets used, and it always brings both advantages and drawbacks. His call was for a discussion on how to minimize those drawbacks before a new technology (like electronic voting machines) takes over and has its way. Unfortunately, such a discussion is virtually impossible. America has a highly optimized machine for taking any national topic of discussion and turning it immediately into a red-vs.-blue search for advantage or slander. There just ain't nearly enough of us watching C-SPAN, I'm afraid, instead of the daily news frenzy shows.

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