The End of Western Civilization?

I usually agree with what I read in crisis. But this month, Robert Reilly, the music critic for the magazine, was talking about popular music, and how he thinks it has been going downhill compared to “old show tunes” (I suppose he means popular music from before around 1950) because popular music has stopped taking its influence from ‘high’ music (my term – since ‘classical’ refers to a particular time period). He hints at how this is a result of Western Civilization’s implosion, brought about by our godlessness or somesuch.

First of all, I don’t like such apocalyptic talk. It seems to me like a metanarrative that doesn’t make any sense. Every generation, of course, has the tendency to feel that its descendants are destroying what is left of the culture. But if they were actually right, the world would have collapsed into chaos long ago. I see Reilly’s complaint as another symptom of this. Here’s why.

To start – Reilly says that the old show tunes were superior in quality to today’s popular music – his basic proof being that he likes the old music, he doesn’t like the new. I call this the ‘argument from nostalgia’. There’s a tendency to forget the mediocre – mediocre means, almost by definition, forgettable – and to remember only the very great. This isn’t a bad tendency in general; usually you only need to remember the important deeds, good and evil. But music (and art in general), unlike, say, politics, isn’t divided into good and evil; great and mediocre is the only standard. So the forgetfulness tendency tends to skew our view of the music of the past. Sure, you remember a bunch of great songs from that period. But there were assuredly many more mediocre songs, we just don’t remember them, because they weren’t worth remembering. Today, we can’t automatically screen out the mediocre – we don’t even know immediately which songs are which. But that doesn’t mean no great songs are made anymore.

Now, Reilly’s explanation for why popular music should have declined so (which it hasn’t – see above) is that the old popular music took its influence from the old high music, while the new doesn’t. This is evidenced by the fact that much of modern music ignores basic musical structure (building up to a climax and having an actual ending, instead of e.g. continuing in a loop and slowly fading away into nothingness). And this is true, of some modern music. Perhaps most.

(The difference, incidentally, would perhaps be best reflected by the fact that the author of music used to be considered the composer, but now it has shifted to the performer – because the focus is now not on the quality of the music but on how well it can be performed. There is some truth to this. For some reason Reilly doesn’t point this out.)

But I maintain that there are still bands today that are quite good, and could perhaps even be considered artists rather than performers. And good artists. (Most of them are good because they take influence from high music. I’m not contesting Reilly’s assertion that popular music is bettered by taking influence from high music; I’m arguing against his claim that popular music no longer does this.)

Some examples (most of them drawn from the world of metal, since that’s mostly what I listen to) –

Rhapsody of Fire. Their songs can be a bit repetitive, and their lyrics can certainly be cliched fantasy stereotypes, but the instrumental aspect of their work – which includes not just guitar, they use a whole bunch of instruments – is astounding. They take a strong influence from the Romantic period of high music, as well as from film scores (which are kind of midway between high and popular music, I think). I wouldn’t claim that any of their albums constitutes a cohesive work of art, but some of their individual songs do, such as “Silent Dream“, which is currently my favorite song.

Blind Guardian. Their album A Night at the Opera is, in my opinion, very close to true art. They have a variety of types of songs, their instrumental work is good, and their lyrics are actually intelligent (and able to provoke intellectual debate – I disagree with their views on Christianity, I think, but their songs “Precious Jerusalem” and “Sadly Sings Destiny” are two of my favorite). I would much rather listen to this album than any of the show tunes Reilly is so fond of. You might not like this style of music, but admit, it’s very well. I would claim for Nightfall in Middle Earth the same honor, though much of its greatness comes from its reliance on the greatness of Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

TÝR. Their Erik the Red and Ragnarok both have original works and traditional ballads with new instrumentals. Both are certainly worth listening to, and some of the tracks I would claim to be just as artfully done as anything by the above two groups.

I’m not claiming that all metal is art. I agree that there is a great deal of it that isn’t. Much of what the above groups have done I would not give that distinction to. But some of it I would. And all of it I would say is just as much worth listening to as much of the old popular music. That same sentiment would apply to many non-metal groups, which I won’t listen here because there are too many of them.

My basic point is that popular music has not gone downhill. Yes, there is a lot of bad stuff, but there always has been. And there is some good stuff. And there is even some that I would say is good enough to not just be popular music. So stop the cries of apocalypse, at least when it comes to music. It simply isn’t coming, much as you might believe it is.


2 Responses to The End of Western Civilization?

  1. Stephen Wang says:

    Disclaimer: I did not read your whole post. Sorry. However, I looked through it and would like to add that I think some electronic music takes a lot of influence from classical music. A lot of people who are into trance compare its structural forms and styles with classical music. There are even orchestral or chamber music interludes in the middle of a number of trance songs before the main “danceable” melody is totally introduced. You even noted that IDM is analogically like the atonal movement against classical/romantic forms for electronic music.

    Oh, and I do claim that trance is art. A lot of it is not, yes, because a lot of it commercial, but good trance can be viewed artisically.

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