More Popular than Jesus: The Hubris of the Music Industry

The tenor Ian Bostridge and the historian Tim Blanning discuss popular and classical music with Standpoint editor Daniel Johnson

Dialogue Music

Daniel Johnson: Ian, is it possible to combine celebrity with musical integrity? Your face is visible on the London Underground and everywhere we look. Is it possible for a musician nowadays to become a household name and yet still be serious about his work?

Ian Bostridge: Well, in classical music it’s a very minor form of celebrity, so it’s not particularly undermining in a way that I think it can be when you’re doing something and you’re very famous. I think being commented on has an effect – and it’s true for writers as much probably as for performers, except that performers, if they read their reviews, have to put up with it all the time. It’s this endless commentary, and it makes you aware of what you’re doing. You talked about integrity, and I suppose it’s about trying to stay true to what you think you should do, for yourself, while at the same time absorbing outside influences. Being open to criticism, but at the same time sticking to your guns if people hate what you do.

DJ: Tim, your new book is about the triumph of music. How far do you think that triumph has turned into triumphalism, that in a sense music has changed as a result of becoming such an enormously important force in the world?

Tim Blanning: Well, that’s a very good question. I suppose that the fact that I’ve written a book called The Triumph of Music is a triumphalist statement in its own right. But looking at the practitioners of music, I think that there certainly is a triumphalist air about, in that musicians now do take themselves really very seriously indeed – especially at the popular end of the spectrum.

Classic cases would be Bono and Bob Geldof – both of them Knights of the British Empire incidentally – who, when they speak to the President of the United States or the President of the World Bank or the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, expect to be listened to. A great example is the G8 concerts that they organised in 2006. These were accompanied by marches and demonstrations, and the concerts were there to put pressure on governments to make a pledge to do something about Third World debt. And it had an effect.

So they do take themselves very seriously and they expect to be listened to, and they are listened to.

For example, Bono made an offer to the former German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, which he couldn’t refuse: he was facing an extremely difficult election which, as you know, he ultimately lost, and Bono made the offer that if Schroeder came up with the necessary pledge then, during the course of the upcoming U2 concert in Germany, he would proclaim the Chancellor’s virtues from the stage, which he did. And so a kind of deal was struck. So these people have real power, and they are listened to by billions of people.

DJ: At the intellectual level too we take them seriously in a way in which perhaps we didn’t used to. The December issue of Standpoint is an example of this – it’s got David Bowie on the cover. And yet, Ian, you have your doubts about how far popular music deserves this sort of accolade, taken from a musical point of view.

IB: It deserves to be taken seriously because it seems to have become so important, but what I find difficult about it is its level of false consciousness. It’s pre-eminently a youth culture – the change in it today, I suppose, is that 50 is the new 30, and people can now continue to listen to pop music and be influenced by it at an older age – but musically it’s not very interesting. And it’s odd that we should take so seriously something that as music per se is not really being pursued at a high level. I mean, the whole thing about art is its increasing complexity and reflexivity and the thing about pop music as music – not necessarily as social commentary or even as art in a more general sense, but just as music – is that it’s not really reflecting upon itself very much.

TB: I have a great deal of sympathy with that, especially about certain forms of pop music, and I think that’s where the problems start. If you lump it all together in one single category like “pop music” then one is going from something which anyone can see is primitive to a degree, like the “The Smurf Song” – I can’t think of anything more awful than that, can you? – to, on the other hand, some very ambitious musical creations: I suppose the classic case would be Sergeant Pepper, or more recently the kind of things that someone like Elvis Costello does. In the house of “pop music” there are many mansions, and some of them are small and very squalid and can be seen in a matter of the blink of an eye, and some of them are really very grand indeed. Pretentious in some cases, yes.

But I think that this is where Ian and I fall out probably – one criterion I quite like is durability. And if popular music which was being played in the 1960s is still being played in 2008, then it must have something if it can say something to each succeeding generation. Some of it has endured, and that suggests to me that it has a quality which must be musical in some way, even if the actual structure of the notes on the score – if there were a score, which in many cases there wasn’t – is very simple.

IB: I think that I’ve been pushed slightly into a corner. I don’t want to say that all pop music is rubbish and unworthy of being listened to. There is some music that I listen to that I like from various periods of the 20th century. But what I find a lot at the moment is this pressure to have to like it, a cultural sine qua non, and the centrality of it. Other music isn’t taken seriously, and people think that classical music is something stuffy and not worthy of respect, and the chattering classes, as it were, are not prepared to learn or know about it. It’s lost its authority.

In some ways, it’s dreadful that someone has to like something because it makes them a cultured person, but it does represent a fracturing of the culture, compared to the 19th century when people felt that in order to be cultured people they had to know about the latest music.

DJ: But didn’t previous periods have similar debates? Lots of people hated Wagner for example, and didn’t regard his work as legitimate, instead thinking that it was a terrible wrong turning. And even people who adored Wagner, like Nietzsche, eventually turned against him, deciding that this was something really rather corrupting. And if you go back further, then you could argue that there were similar debates at the time of the Reformation between the new, very simple, Protestant style and the old Catholic polyphonic style. But this is more than just an argument about musical styles, isn’t it? It’s about the whole status of music.

TB: It is, and it’s also in large measure a debate about what music written in the classical tradition actually is. It’s a relatively recent invention – the idea that there was a classical convention and that works written in the past should be played reverentially. That is a late 18th-century development. Until then, all music was regarded as music there to be played once or twice and then forgotten. A lot of Mozart’s music was written in that way, and he wasn’t writing for posterity. He was writing for an immediate audience. Looking at the example of Italian opera in the early to middle years of the 19th century, the idea was that Donizetti or Bellini would write an opera, it would be performed that season and then it would be forgotten. They’d then write another one for the next season.

What we think of as classical music, whether it’s Mozart, Bellini or whatever, wasn’t regarded by its consumers as being classical music. It was regarded as being music which they enjoyed and which they responded to immediately. That is a real difference. And then, increasingly, in the 19th century with the sacralisation of music, it was plucked out of its recreational and representational context and elevated into being something which should be or could be worshipped for itself, and the idea of a classical canon develops. Then I think the divide between music which is consumed for the moment and then discarded, and music which is approached reverentially in the concert hall or opera house, does develop, and continues to the present day.

IB: I wonder if the 19th-century Romantic attitude towards classical music which develops has migrated into pop music. The thing about popular music is that it’s seen as the music of the people and is somehow seen as authentic, but at the same time it’s been commodified and turned into big business. A lot of people became rich out of music in the 18th and 19th centuries by writing for rich patrons and having big middle-class audiences, while popular music was generally, until the 20th century, at a lower level where vast fortunes weren’t made.

TB: I’m sure you’re right. And Handel I suppose was the first musical millionaire, making the equivalent of a million through pleasing aristocratic patrons and pleasing middle-class patrons through oratorio. What happens to popular music, and what transforms the situation, is recording. Until recording came along, popular music came and went, disappearing without the possibility of being revived. But as soon as recording arrived on the scene, pop music became frozen in time, and could have that subsequent effect. So I think that there’s a real change in the early 20th-century as a result.

But going back to that very interesting point that you made about popular musicians having ambitions, that takes us back to the
issue which we started with at the very beginning – integrity. And I think that you’re right. It does come from the way in which the whole Romantic aesthetic is viewed, in that the premium is now placed on expressiveness. Music, or indeed any other form of cultural activity, doesn’t have a value unless it comes from “inside”, and is infused with the “inner light”. And popular musicians today are just as inclined to articulate that Romantic aesthetic of being true to themselves as Beethoven was.

DJ: But hasn’t music gone beyond Romanticism now, in that it’s become almost escapist and narcotic in its ambitions? It’s trying to be almost an alternative to reality rather than simply providing a special access to reality. And that brings us to the role of sex in music, which is already beginning in the Romantic era – in Wagner you have the musical representation of sex in Tristan and Isolde – but in present-day popular music it is almost all about that, and there’s no separation between the performer and the music. This is why the pop tradition has a real problem when the new generation performs the old works again, because it’s so clearly linked to the personality and sex appeal of the original performer.

TB: Yes, and it’s very important that pop musicians today who wish to be taken seriously have to create their own material, otherwise they’re dismissed and derided as cover bands.

IB: Does Amy Winehouse write her own stuff, for example? Because she has a sort of Romantic aesthetic about her: she’s being destroyed by drugs and so on.

TB: Actually, you’ve raised something very important with that question, and that’s the role of the producer. Once the multitrack tape recorder had been invented, the producer became absolutely central.

I quoted a producer in my book who said that he gets the pop musicians into the studio, he records all day, they go home, and then he changes absolutely everything that they’ve done.

DJ: So they’re really just providing raw material?

TB: That’s right. In certain kinds of music, the person who mixes the music is absolutely crucial.

DJ: That’s the real artist, in a sense?

TB: Yes.

IB: If you think about Handel, who famously pilfered an almost unidentifiable number of musical ideas from other people, this seems like a similar thing, but maybe with pop music we’re locating the musical genius in the wrong place. Maybe we’re using the language of classical music or Romantic music to describe pop music, and maybe it’s the wrong model.

TB: Well, the language of Romantic music does actually work quite well. A lot of the kind of things that you find Bono saying for example, could have come straight from a Romantic musician. Some of what he has said about the creative process could have been said by Franz Liszt.

IB: But if you look at the Beatles’ music, it’s a very unfamiliar model for a classical musician. Lennon and McCartney were definitely most successful as composers when they were working together, and I don’t think that they produced anything as individuals that’s as interesting as what they produced when they were bound together with their producer. And that’s not a model that we really find with classical music. We have the lone genius instead.

TB: That’s a very good point, and brings the producer back in again, because every account of the Beatles’ recordings of the 1960s – especially after they’d made that turn towards much more ambitious music, having met Bob Dylan – shows that George Martin had a very important part to play in putting it all together. Sergeant Pepper is, I think, regularly voted as the most influential album of all time, which was in part manufactured in the studio by George Martin.

DJ: Can I bring in another element of this, which is the idea of music as a substitute for religion? You see that already beginning with Beethoven, and the idea of the genius. By the time of Wagner, it’s quite far developed. But all of these musicians were living in a society where there was real religion in the background, creating the intellectual framework within which they worked. We’re now living in a world where institutional, organised religion has been marginalised, and instead people live in a world of “mind, body, spirit” – those sections in bookshops with all kinds of weird stuff. It’s almost as though music has become a substitute for religion. I wonder what you think about that.

TB: I hope this won’t sound too fanciful, but one comparison that occurs to me, which might be helpful, is between Beethoven’s funeral and Freddie Mercury’s tribute concert. When Beethoven was buried in 1827, it was a terrific day, a school holiday, vast processions and so on. When the coffin reached the cemetery, the greatest classical actor of the day read a funeral oration written by the greatest Austrian poet and playwright of the day, Franz Grillparzer. It’s not very long, it’s very eloquent, and it doesn’t mention God once. All it mentions is art, Kunst, understood as Beethoven’s musical art. That’s the divinity that Beethoven served, and which Beethoven was also a substitute for, or that he represented. That’s an early indication of the gradual sacralisation of music which was under way.

Then if you fast-forward to Freddie Mercury’s tribute concert in 1992; he died in 1991 of an Aids-related illness, and then the three surviving members of Queen organised a tribute concert the following April at Wembley Stadium. There were 74,000 people present in the audience, it’s estimated that something like a billion people watched it worldwide on television, and it then appeared on video and DVD. If you look at the DVD you can see that this is not a concert, it’s not people who have turned up to hear a group play. It is a real transcendental experience for many of them, I think. They participate, they are a colossal crowd, they know all the words, they’ve brought along banners which proclaim Freddie to be hero, martyr, a god. It is a liturgical exercise, and I suspect that’s as close as many of those people are ever going to get to a transcendental experience.

I think you can rephrase Marx’s celebrated dictum that religion is the opiate of the people, to read “music is the religion of the people”. Actually, opiates are the opiates of the people – I’m sure that at the Freddie Mercury concert, many of the people there were as high as kites.

IB: A classical concert at its worst is a bit like the Church of England at its worst; you go to a concert, and you have to be quiet, and people are a bit fidgety.

DJ: And you do it to be virtuous.

IB: Yes. Whereas rock concerts are more like enthusiastic religious gatherings.

TB: They’re more participatory, certainly.

IB: Pop music is about all sorts of things that classical music isn’t about – how much of pop music is about sex and dancing? Classical music isn’t directly, I suppose Tristan and Isolde is about sex, but only in a rarefied way.

DJ: In a sense, that’s the whole point of it; that there is something beyond purely earthly sensual love. What about Schubert, on whom you are a great authority?

IB: Schubert is the model for the late-20th- century adolescent love ballad. I’m reading a book by Lawrence Kramer – this sounds very post-modern – the constitution of the modern subject seems to be focused on this idea of lost love and impossible love, which comes out of Schubert and has been inherited by a lot of modern pop, the gloomy end of modern pop. So it remains important. I suppose that I prefer Schubert because I think he’s musically more interesting.

DJ: Isn’t this actually a bit of a regression rather than an evolution? Schubert’s songs are much more musically complex, and also emotionally complex.

IB: They have the capacity for irony, and the way the music relates to the text is perhaps more complex. Sometimes, the text is terrible – it’s sometimes interesting historically – but the text is also often wonderful.

DJ: He did try to find the best poets of his time, huge numbers of them; Goethe, Schiller…It would be an extraordinary thing today for a musician in the pop tradition to use a leading poet to write his lyrics.

IB: Yes, there’s much more separation in that sense. I always think of the period where Pic-asso, Stravinsky and all those people were working together and interested in each other. I don’t think modern artists are very interested in working with classical musicians. By classical musicians I mean people who are working with the stuff of music and trying to push it forward – experimenting, pushing the boundaries of music, which I don’t think pop music, on the whole, is doing.

TB: There’s one connection which occurs to me there – I think some pop musicians are very ambitious – David Bowie, about whom we’ve just had a very interesting article, is a case in point.

IB: But it’s interesting – he’s ambitious in producing a whole artwork, it’s about presentation, it’s about the way he dresses, but the actual music is terribly conservative. Some of the tunes are very nice, but the musical material seems to me very reactionary. “Life on Mars” is a wonderful tune, but it’s really just the sort of tune somebody could have written in vaudeville in 1915.

TB: Yes, he and his producer could often do quite a lot with such tunes. I’m not a fan myself, but the point I was going to make is that so many of these pop musicians, including Bowie, come out of art school.

IB: Lennon is absolutely an art school person.

TB: And Mick Jagger and some members of Queen were out of art school, too. This is in answer to Ian’s point about pop musicians not wanting to work with artists. But I think many of the more sophisticated or ambitious of them, people like Bowie and even the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, have ambitions which plug into a wider cultural context. Others are very modest in terms of ambition; an extreme example would be Larry Parnes’s stable of rock ‘n’ rollers from the early 1960s, called things like Duffy Power and Vince Eager. Cliff Richard came out of that too.

IB: But that’s performance art, in a way, more than music. The Sergeant Pepper thing was a bit of performance art, it was all about dressing up in funny costumes, and presenting a whole thing.

TB: It would be now, because they’d put it on a DVD, but in 1966 it had to simply go on a vinyl record, admittedly with a very striking cover.

DJ: Just to go back to where we started, on the political role of rock stars, do you think they get bored? Perhaps partly for the reasons that you suggested: that the music doesn’t really progress very far. You do your thing, and that’s it – all people really want is for you to do it again and again. So some of these people then seem to want to save the world; they feel that having created their musical product, they then owe something to society, or they have to become something else, go beyond being musicians, to become messiah figures.

TB: That’s a very generous interpretation of their motivation. I think it’s in part because they’re fawned on and flattered by the politicians. It starts with Harold Wilson back in 1964, giving the presentations to the Beatles, and cuddling up to them, to acquire some of their charisma by osmosis, which he badly needed. It goes on right into the present day. If, for example, when Blair invites Noel Gallagher round to 10 Downing Street to meet him after the 1997 election, and tells him how wonderful he is, he begins to think, “Perhaps I’m not just a rock’n’roller after all, I’m someone more important than that.” So I think it’s because of the politicians, and the press, in particular, who fawn on them and tell them that what they’re doing is not just recreation.

IB: I wonder if it works politically – I can’t believe it had any effect on Blair except to make him look slightly ridiculous. In fact, it wasn’t really Blair being politically canny, it was Blair’s vanity that he was wrapped up in, and it actually made him feel very good about himself, to feel that he could mix with these people.

TB: I think you’re right in that case, and indeed I think there were long faces among some of the Labour ministers. Chris Smith wrote about that, saying it was all a ghastly mistake, that picture of Blair with Gallagher. On the other hand, John Lennon claimed afterwards that he’d won the 1964 general election for Harold Wilson. That picture of Wilson with the Beatles went round the UK electorate, and when Wilson sneaked in, in the autumn of that year, Lennon said: “We did it for him.”

IB: But I wonder if the electorate has become more sophisticated in reading those sorts of things – maybe when Wilson did it, it did contribute to some notion that he represented modernity, but now it’s different.

The other thing with pop and rock music is that it’s grounded in rebelliousness. What’s funny for me is this false consciousness. It’s all about being rebellious and against authority, but on the other hand it’s so bound up with selling stuff and consuming stuff and keeping the whole wheel of the consuming, credit-ridden economy going, making us want things.

DJ: This was of course the most privileged generation in history, the one that was rebelling in the 1960s. They hadn’t had to fight a war, for one thing. Materially, they’d never had it so good. And yet they were the ones who rebelled. So there’s something a bit false about that in the first place.

IB: But to be fair, there’s a similar thing in classical music, because when we look at classical music and analyse musicians in the past, we like to feel that they were producing something that went beyond the desires and needs of their patrons in the same way that we do with painting. We like to feel that, when Velasquez painted the Habsburgs, or Goya painted the Bourbons, he was making some sort of radical comment about them, because he wasn’t really taken in by it. It’s the same with music. But actually a lot of art is bound up with patronage and with the current social and economic order, it’s bound to be like that. The question is how it can get beyond that.

TB: True. Politicians today watch television like everyone else, and they know that every Saturday night, and on many other nights, there is in effect a kind of karaoke competition. It started out as Pop Idol, then it was The X Factor, now we’ve got Strictly Come Dancing, where music plays a hugely important part, and what do they see? They see that millions of people watch, and millions of people vote. This is democracy 21st-century style. Where Joe Public really participates in an electoral process with enthusiasm, even pays for the privilege, they’re voting for their pop idol, or whoever they think ought to win X Factor. Whether we like it or whether we don’t, this is the way the world is going.

DJ: There have been one or two of these competitions with classical themes, like Maestro and various choral things.

TB: Young Musician of the Year, Cardiff singer of the year…

DJ: Some people are a bit sniffy about these things, and say it’s dumbing down, but it is bringing more people in.

TB: Ian, you were saying that politicians have made a mistake, that it’s silly on their part. I agree with that, but they do think it’s important; Gordon Brown turns up to award ceremonies to give away prizes, I’ve got a picture in my book somewhere of Brown giving an award to George Martin.

It’s politicians who decide who become knights and dames. And the list of musicians who become knights and dames is a very long one, and it’s growing with every year that passes. It’s now pretty well impossible for a conductor to reach a certain point without being knighted. Mark Elder delayed it for a while, by criticising the traditional line-up for the Last Night of the Proms during the first Gulf War, but he’s got his “K” now.

DJ: But if we think about the relationship between music and, say, Stalin or Hitler, it’s on a whole different plane, the stakes are much higher. Here we argue about whether you get a CBE or an MBE, but there, for someone like Shostakovich, it was a matter literally of life and death.

IB: Maybe it’s better that our politicians on the whole tend to be philistines. Music can get you worked up into a terrible state, and if you’re then having to make decisions about millions of people, maybe it’s not a good idea.

TB: So if we hear that Gordon Brown has started to listen to Wagner’s Ring cycle, then we should become extremely worried.

DJ: There’s a whole different theme that we didn’t talk about here, which is formality – I think this is what frightens people still about classical music, that there’s something formal about it, you have to be quiet, and listen. And the modern aesthetic is all about informality. Simon Gray is hugely popular because he’s so informal.

TB: Maybe that’s the big difference, that classical music can’t be interactive in the same way.

DJ: You can clap at the end, but you can jolly well shut up until then.

IB: It has been, but the modern concert is a really recent invention, in a sense. When Mozart played a particularly brilliant cadenza, people would cheer, and ask to hear it again, while he was still playing. In the 19th century, silence became important. And even in the early 20th century, the structure of the concert was to be much more bitty and long. They didn’t have much organic unity. The sort of thing I like doing best is a song recital with one composer, where I try to make it into a whole work of art, although of course it’s already somebody else’s work of art. That’s such a new thing, that attitude to programming. I think the silence is a great thing, and the concentration, it’s a pity if people feel it’s not. One of the big problems with modern culture is the loss of the idea that you have to give something, that the more you give as a member of the audience, the more you’ll get out of it, and instead the idea that you can go to a concert, not prepare for it, not know anything about it first, and expect to have some transcendent experience. In our lives, we know that if you commit to something and you work at it, then you get something out of it. I don’t know why people expect classical music to be the sort of thing you can just consume. With sport, people know that if they’re going to get the rush of joy in whatever sport they do, then they’re going to have to train.

DJ: Is it partly because of recording, having music on in the background all the time, as a sort of aural wallpaper? I was in Bond Street Tube station the other day, and I heard this strange noise in the background, above the hubbub, and I realised it was actually Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Some station master obviously liked his Beethoven, so he’d put it on. When you think of how that work, of all works, would have been listened to… In a way, it’s equally appalling how the European Union turns it into a sort of anthem.

IB: There’s that thing of having it rammed down us, but then there are the choices we make – I can decide to chop some onions to the Matthew Passion. When I was a teenager I used to put records on and listen, sit down and just listen, and I don’t do that any more. I don’t know if people do.

TB: I do it when I’m walking the dog.

IB: But then you’re doing something else. Hardly any of us, except weird hi-fi buffs, actually sit in a room and listen to a piece of music.

DJ: We pay other people to do that for us really, don’t we?

TB: I do watch DVDs of operas and concerts, usually when the children have gone to bed. We haven’t talked about that – that seems to be an entirely benign development. To take an example which affects yourself, do you remember recording some Bach cantatas with Harnoncourt at Melk Abbey? Christine Schäfer is singing, and Chris Maltmann and the wonderful Bernarda Fink. I think it’s just wonderful, I’ve played it again and again. And with a DVD you can do such things, it’s a terrific performance, and there it is, preserved for evermore. I think that’s just wonderful.

DJ: It is wonderful, but it’s changed the way we listen to things. What was once a unique experience, a one-off event that you would remember for the rest of your life, is a repeatable thing that we can have whenever we feel like it. And that’s bound to bring it down to earth a little bit, it’s not so sublime.

TB: I don’t think so, because every time I listen to this great performance I find different things in it.

IB: I think the big change is that we don’t make music at home. I don’t play any instruments at all, and I’m only a singer by accident, I’m not really a trained musician, but we don’t sit at the piano and play piano duets together, we don’t get the score of the latest symphony and try and work out what’s going on before we go and hear it for the one time in our life that we hear it.

DJ: People used to do all that, before there were record players, that was the only way you could.

IB: Even though you were only hearing the piano reduction, you were actually entering into the music in a very different way.

DJ: It was a very intense experience, I’m sure, because it comes into literature so much, the young lady of the house playing. It was a very erotic experience, I think, for a lot of people, and that’s gone.

IB: We shouldn’t underestimate how sexy classical music is, that’s one of the problems. Because it’s in the past, people imagine that people are very distant, and they’re all wearing 19th-century costumes, and people think it’s stuffy, when in fact it’s incredibly sexual and erotic.

TB: Take Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, for example.

DJ: But nobody’s writing novels and stories like that any more, are they? Actually that’s not quite true, classical music does come into Vikram Seth, for example. He wrote a book just recently which is really all about sex and music.

IB: Tom Adès’s music is extremely erotic with a capital “E”. It’s very passionate and rich.

DJ: He has actually acquired a certain charisma, almost like a rock star.

IB: He is the one of this new generation that everyone is paying attention to. As classical composers were in the past, he’s connected to pop music. In the same way that you have popular tunes which Brahms or Schubert used, and then transformed, Adès takes house music – there’s one famous piece he used that in, Asyla. That has a very insistent beat.