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Kurt Ellenberger

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Golden Age or Gilded Cage?

Posted: 06/04/2012 3:13 pm


"Invariably, the term Golden Age is bestowed retroactively, when the period in question has ended and is compared with what followed in the specific field discussed."

"A Golden Age is often followed by a decline, where new cultural products are derivative and less inspired and where politics begin to veer off from their initial course. Thus a Golden Age if it could be graphed, would be the high point, the top of the bell on a bell curve, or the apex..."

From Theodor Adorno:
" gold, genuineness, abstracted as the proportion of fine metal, becomes a fetish."

I've been thinking about the "Golden Age" of various styles of music. When does the Golden Age occur, and why? This diagram identifies the styles and time periods that constitute the Golden Age for classical, jazz, and popular music:


(This is not comprehensive by any means, but I think it gives a reasonable overview of the style periods in each genre.)

Each genre appears to hit its populist zenith at somewhere just past the midway point in its development (if it weren't such a cliché, I'd say the Golden Age coincides with the Golden Mean).

Are there any commonalities that might explain why the Golden Age occurs when it does in each case? It seems that the music before the Golden Age is either too simple (Rockabilly, Dixieland) or too complex (Baroque counterpoint). Afterwards, it is either too complex (12-Tone, Hard Bop) or it's just repeating itself (New Punk, Grunge) with nothing really "new" to add to the genre. (Of course, subsequent styles and ensembles display the attitudes and fashion of their own generational cohorts, so there are many differences; I am speaking strictly of the musical elements involved.)

The Golden Age then seems to occur in a homophonic setting where melody is primary and when there is some level of harmonic, melodic, and/or rhythmic complexity (but before the genre has exhausted itself).

Both classical and jazz progressed by becoming more abstract and generally more complex, which resulted in a diminishing number of listeners who were willing or able to engage with the music. Pop music, on the other hand, can't progress in the same manner, or at least to the same degree as jazz or classical did. As soon as it gets too complicated (progressive rock, for example), it loses its audience as well, and as soon as it loses audience, it's no longer popular. To survive, it has to stay within a very limited set of musical parameters.

So what can pop musicians do? Well, they keep repackaging basically the same tunes over and over and over again. Since most laypeople don't notice the similarities, the "new music" is accepted as such and the pop machine keeps cranking it out. (To be clear, this is not an attack on popular music. There is true genius to be found in pop, as in all other styles, but as in all other styles, a great deal of it falls short of that mark.)

The influential Marxist philosopher and critic, Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) identified this repackaging phenomenon, and attributed it to the callous, profit-driven motives of the capitalists running the "Culture Industry" (as he called it). According to Adorno, the music industry offers addictive and formulaic music that is designed to quickly go out of style, requiring a new version of the same thing in order to satisfy the never-ending consumer demand (and provide the industry with never-ending profits).

I think Adorno puts the cart before the horse. The industry doesn't make the audience for the kind of music it wants to make money on, it makes the kind of pop music that the audience wants, which means short songs, formulaic harmony, limited tempos and meters, predictable lyrical content, etc. What's wrong with people wanting to sing along with, or dance to a simple three-minute tune? Does everything have to be a sublime, intellectual, or challenging experience?

Regardless, the music industry can't control the listeners to this extent. And even if it could control demand in the first place, why would it would want to produce pop music rather than jazz or classical? The profit margin would be a lot higher with jazz and classical music because pop music is very expensive to produce (studio time can stretch into months and even years, largely due to the intricate effects and mixing involved) whereas jazz and classical recordings can be produced quickly (often in a week or two, without much editing and technical wizardry).

Still, I think Adorno is generally correct about the repackaging aspect of pop music. It's not, however, limited to pop music. It also occurs to some extent in jazz where there are a handful of prefab forms, like the blues or "rhythm changes" for example, that are used over and over again. Additionally, jazz certainly has a melodic vocabulary that gets used (or abused, depending on your perspective) repeatedly. It can also be found to some degree in pre-20C classical music as well, but mostly in cadential and melodic patterns. Even so, the Axis of Awesome would be hard pressed to create a jazz or classical collage like the one they did for popular music.

The Golden Age can become a stylistic and emotional burden, as many musicians tire of playing the same music in the same way to satisfy the majority tastes in the audience and in the board room. For classical and jazz, this did not, however, prevent the music from progressing in a wide variety of different directions, many that are largely unrecognizable from that of their respective Golden Ages.

Pop music has very serious constraints in this regard. It cannot, as mentioned previously, move too far in any direction before it is no longer pop music. (Again, there are always a few groups that stretch those boundaries, but I'm talking about the general radio play pop music.) I think this may also be part of the answer to my recent post about why younger generations are listening to the music of their parents--when the pop music of 2012 is not all that different (in terms of form, harmony, rhythm, and melody) from the music of 1992, it shouldn't be a surprise that both young and old alike are listening to some of the same music.

The Golden Age of any style is both a blessing and a curse, but for pop music in particular, escape is very difficult. This makes it all the more astonishing that there is still interesting, unique, and creative music being made by pop musicians.


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