Is it art or is it pop?

Written: December 24, 2003

For a while, I’ve been trying to find a way to cleanly distinguish pop music from classical music. Not with an eye towards claiming that classical music is superior to pop music (well, maybe), but just as a useful tool (useful how, I don’t really know). I realize it’s not possible to separate the totality of music into those two categories – but I think the distinction might be handy nonetheless. I have failed conclusively, for a variety of interesting reasons.

One of the first lines of defense (as it were) is to claim that pop music isn’t as ‘sophisticated’ as classical music. But generally, the word ‘sophisticated’ is defined and used in a limited and self-serving way, one transparent step removed from “I know it when I hear it.” Some pop uses pretty complicated and subtle techniques – although, I suppose, the words ‘complicated’ and ‘subtle’ are in and of themselves loaded with value judgements, which I’ll ignore for now. But I think the fact that there is sometimes overlap in technique and/or language is enough to discount this line of thought.

More meaningful, perhaps, is the idea that classical music exists as a kind of Platonic ideal. That is to say, a piece of classical music doesn’t really exist in any concrete way. I can’t point to the score of a Beethoven symphony and claim that it defines the symphony. Nor can I do the same to a performance or a recording of it. Those are manifestations of the music, or realizations of it – but they are far from the totality of it.

Pop, on the other hand, works differently. A CD of, for example, The Beatles’ music encompasses the whole of it. Abbey Road will never change, I can point to something specific and claim with confidence that it is the entirety of Abbey Road. Live performances of it (although the Beatles had stopped touring long before, I think) would have been ‘live performances of Abbey Road’. The distinction might be considered semantic – but semantics are important. Similarly, any band covering Abbey Road isn’t performing ‘Abbey Road’ – they’re covering it, producing something entirely separate, that would probably be considered Band X’s version of Abbey Road.

This breaks down too, though. What about an old pop standard, like ‘My Funny Valentine’, that exists to be interpreted very differently by different performers? What about a purely electronic piece of classical music, like Stockhausen’s Gesang der Junglinge which will always remain the same? There are enough examples to cripple this distinction as well.

Having said all that, though, I realize that my attempt to separate the two is inherently and egregiously flawed. I assume that there is a difference between the two. That, I’m not particularly concerned about. Worse, I’m starting with already-formed assumptions about what music fits into the ‘pop’ category and what music fits into the ‘classical’ category, and simply trying to find a definition that satisfies that assumption. Hm.

One of the best attempts at delineating the two is a quote from composer Robert Ashley:
Popular music, when it works, reminds us of something we already know, or it reminds us of something we’ve already experienced.

Implicit is that art music is that music which introduces us to the unfamiliar. I like this very much, and it seems more important than the pop/classical distinction. What it means for me is that some music I might have initially assumed was ‘pop music’ can be considered ‘art music’, and vice versa. Any music that makes us experience something new can be considered art.  [7/15/2004: Of course, the question of whether that makes it good is entirely separate.]