The subtle subversion of classical music

Here’s an interesting article from Ian Bostridge in Standpoint Online. I think his choice and use of examples to support his argument is somewhat erratic (prime example: “Classical music reeks of class while at the same time classic rock rears its populist head. Politicians construct their cultural image around popular music – rubbing shoulders with Bono and filling their imaginary desert islands with the noises, sounds and sweet airs of gangsta rap and heavy metal.”), but there are some provocative points in here:

Rock and roll is the art form of late capitalism. It is not a utopian alternative to it or a protest against it.


[C]lassical music has often challenged, disturbed and subverted. But I would argue that even today, in a subtle way, in the face of commodified popular music that sells itself as rebellion, the inner-­directed seriousness of the classical tradition, compromised though it can be by hype and glitz, still presents a challenge to the way we live now.

Incidentally, Bostridge’s Beatles remark has some support elsewhere in the news:

John Lennon controversially declared they were bigger than Jesus, and the levels of fan hysteria and devotion they engendered made them synonymous with the youth culture of the swinging 60s. But a Cambridge University historian today argues that the Beatles were not heroes of the counter-culture but capitalists who cynically exploited youth culture for commercial gain. David Fowler claims: “They did about as much to represent the interests of the nation’s young people as the Spice Girls did in the 1990s.”

Update: Several days after I posted this, the Guardian drew the same two articles together in a blog post of their own: ‘Pop’s real revolutionaries were rooted in history‘. That itself has drawn some flack, with John Harris (‘Help! Save music from academe‘) insisting that Fowler is way off the mark. And he’s read 50 pages of the book so he should know. (Note: I’ve not read any of it, so I know even less – I’m just reporting here.)

As Ian points out in the comments below, however, this whole argument is now 70 years old.


One thought on “The subtle subversion of classical music

  1. Re Bostridge’s comment ‘Rock and roll is the art form of late capitalism. It is not a utopian alternative to it or a protest against it’; Adorno put it better, I feel, right back in the 1930s, a time in which rock and roll did not exist but earlier forms of commercial mass culture certainly did: in a letter to Walter Benjamin, he described the high modernist art of his time, together with mass culture as both bearing ‘the stigmata of capitalism’ as well as containing ‘elements of change’; both were ‘torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up’. I don’t really see how Bostridge’s comment really adds much to that formulation from 70 years previously.

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