By Gabe Kanengiser
Over the past hundred years, popular music has made its shape in various genres. In the 1920s, popular 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. However, during the eighties and nineties, despite Michael Jackson’s reign, the emergence of far too many boy bands, various meaningless and crass hip-hop artists, and the unfortunate number of “plastic-platinum” pop-singers, it seems that the quality of popular music declined.
There are always going to be outliers and loopholes, though. For instance, Michael Jackson would be the 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 her unique voice and image and songwriting skills that are more advanced and more developed than most of her contemporaries, but the fact of the matter remains. Is it really fair (correct, moral, conscientious) to put her in the same group with Sinatra, Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Gaye, and Michael Jackson? The obvious answer: No.
As important as the quality decline in popular music, though, is the disappearance of art music from the popular psyche. In the popular world, there exist certain types of music and genres: Pop, Rock, R&B, Country, Classical, Dance, Rap/hip-hop, Jazz, Folk, Electronic, and “other”. What popular music aficionadosfail to recognize is 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.
The real problem with the wealth of abominable popular music and the disappearance or ignorance of art music is that two hundred years ago, popular music and art music were joined at the hip. Lieder,which is German for “song” or “art song”, was a genre of classical music that composers such as Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann wrote in that could be played in the home.
At the same time that the middle class expanded they attained a more formalized and substantial education, which included 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, and rather, was suited for the salon. The music was attainable, and it featured poetic verses with an easily (sometimes not so) sung tune. Stephen Foster would be a good example of a more popular American equivalent, although his music was far less refined and complex as Schubert or Schumann’s.
This begs the following questions: 1) What is considered art music today if art music two hundred years ago bore similarities to popular music? 2) Why aren’t the masses listening to and emulating a modern day Schubert equivalent? 3) Why is James Blake so important to all of this?
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 parts of electronic music, or even in the more “out” rock, is mostly considered avant-garde by the majority of listeners, with the exception of late Radiohead.
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. Nor is it between Jazz/Blues, Folk/Traditional, or Classical. It’s between choice of genre, and inside each genre, choice of subgenre, and inside each subgenre, choice of thousands of different artists. The masses are still focused on listening to something that is attainable, and that must be understood. 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?
James Blake is the reason why I am not worried.
James Blake began his career in the genres of electronic music and dubstep (a genre of electronic dance music) less than three years ago. Blake did not follow the normal conventions of growth in terms of popularity, though. On his first three EP’s, The Bells Sketch, CMYK, and Klavierwerke he set forth a unique sound, immediately garnering respect and assuming a position of leadership in his genres. The young sensation gained fame for elements of dance music and popular music. Since then, in his self-titled LP, James Blake, and in a later EP, Enough Thunder, he hasreceived criticism in regards to his abandonment of his former style for more of a singer-songwriter approach.
His new work has components that are electronically driven, but his melodious phrases bear 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 confusion that prolific songwriters such as Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell are at the forefront of his influencers. Blake has already attained widespread popularity, and yet what he is creating is art music.
Art music is defined by one musician as music that “requires significantly more work by the listener” in order for it to be fully appreciated. On the first level, Blake’s work is so sonically pleasing that even the most disinterested listener won’t find anything in it so repugnant as to declare it worthless. On the second level, the music is infused with his background and initial interest in popular music genres such as dubstep and electronic music, which is why he appeals to such a large audience. And on the third and final 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 innovative and as pop-influenced as 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 regards to the current state of music; and that forty years from now, music, and popular music in specific, might even be pretty…decent. Art music is not dead; its popularity has just been dormant.