Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall: Which is the Top Genre of Them All? (Hint: None of Them)
Last month, which seems so long ago, Greg Sandow hosted some debate over whether classical music really is the best genre in all of music and an island unto itself or not. Greg focused on the question of whether anyone can actually prove classical music’s superiority to all other genres, a question whose answer seems perfectly obvious to me: No.
If you make up some criteria for greatness of a musical genre and then decide that classical music fits those criteria best, you probably selected your with an eye towards getting the answer you wanted. Even if you somehow maintained in your conscious mind a benign neutrality, someone else could make up criteria that would pick another genre with equal validity. Classical music (or the best classical music, anyway) does stuff that no other genre can do, but putting a value like “best” on that…well, you can prove it for yourself, but you can’t prove it for everyone.
But let’s just say you’re someone who will never budge from your position that classical is the king of the hill, cream of the crop, etc. Here I argue that even if your reasoning feels airtight, you should shut up about it in mixed-genre company. Nothing’s going to turn off potential fans of classical music like being told that classical music reigns supreme and unchallenged atop Terpsichore’s pile. Here’s why:
1. It’s insulting to those who like other genres of music. As I type this, I am listening to the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her,” which is a great song. If you were to tell me that I am wasting my time with that pop effluvia when I could be listening to a Brahms concerto, I’d spit in your face. Maybe not even metaphorically! Telling people who love music but not classical music that once they go Bach, they won’t go back is the same as telling people that music in which they have (presumably) a great deal of psychological investment is trash. Most people will not react well to that.
2. It smacks of racism. If you say classical music is the summa of musical achievement, basically what you are saying is that white European males produced all the truly great music in history. Particularly if you are talking to someone who is not a white person, this position may not endear you, or classical music, to your listener.
3. It sets classical music up as something you have to have special skillz to like. Some folks believe this also. For my part, I discovered classical music mostly by hearing my parents play recordings during my childhood, and then going with them to concerts at the University of Maryland back when student tickets were $3. (Ah, halcyon days.) Learning about classical deepened my enjoyment of it, but that was after the bug bit me, not before. Before the bug bites you, acquiring the knowledge just sounds like pointless work, and if you think modern Americans are into pointless work I have a number of extraordinarily valuable collateralized debt obligations to sell you.
Honestly, if I had to choose to listen to only one genre of music for the rest of my life, I’d pick classical. It embraces multitudes and goes places no other genre does. But I don’t have to pick, and so I get to love go-go, hip-hop, jazz, funk, soul, and any other music that grabs my little heart. No one else in this modern world has to pick either, and they’re not going to listen to anyone who tells them that they have to.
So can we get off this? Please? Forever? Instead, I pledge to tell people what I find so exciting about classical music, hopefully in novel and vivid ways, and celebrate performances that generate just that kind of excitement. That’s what it’s all about!