Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Is the general public deaf, or do they actually prefer mediocrity?

If there's one thing that drives me crazy it's the fact that many (most?) classical radio stations waste time playing Baroque junk like Telemann Oboe Concertos and Purcell Concerti Grossi (an exception is the wonderful WGBH here in Boston ... of course they have the good sense to use my performances on air with some frequency, haha). Or if they manage to escape the Baroque era (a supposedly classical station I've listened to, grudgingly, only in the car, in a state famous for lobsters and blueberries, seems to rarely get as "modern" as Haydn) they will devote large portions of their listeners' time to a forgettable symphony by one of Bach's sons or a cello concerto by Brahms's next-door neighbor. Yet, one rarely hears a Mahler Symphony, or the Mozart C minor Mass. One almost NEVER hears the great works of the last 100 years.

Is this because people don't know the difference between Telemann and Bach? These same people would surely know (and appreciate) the difference between a microwave pizza and a pie from the original "Pizzeria Uno" in Chicago. Who, given a choice, would want the microwave version? Presumably these horrendous classical stations are basing their playlists on some kind of market research that suggest listeners would prefer Purcell to Schumann. But WHY?

Allison and I were talking about this a bit this evening, and she suggested that the public just doesn't want to be engaged, doesn't want to have to actively pay attention to the music (sometimes this is referred to this as being "challenged" by the music, but that term seems unnecessarily belligerent). In other words, maybe people *prefer* a radio station that won't interrupt their washing dishes or doing a sudoku puzzle by actually requiring their attention. A Beethoven Sonata is just too interesting - it distracts from other stuff, like folding laundry.

Maybe that's not such a bad thing while listening to the radio in the car - earlier today I was not paying much attention to the road while listening to a recording of Messiaen's "Vingt Regards." But what about live concerts? Do people want to avoid having to really listen to a concert? But why else are they there? To check out the social scene? To relax? Is mediocrity more relaxing than real beauty?

Life on earth is too precious a time to waste on banalities. I know it's unrealistic to spend every waking moment reading Shakespeare or listening to Bach. But when I turn on the radio at least I'd like to feel like I'm getting something worthwhile in return for my time.

1 comment:

ckoh71 said...

I absolutely agree, but I think there are two thinks at work:

a) As you pointed out, people don't like to be "challenged" or taken out of their comfort zone. This applies to everything from food to art. People like to know what to expect - even if it isn't that great - they're more comfortable if it's familiar. I think it points back to our bourgeois desire to "own" the art. It may be mediocre, but hell I know it and therefore "own" it. Don't show me something I don't know. I've noticed extremely angry reactions from people who are confused or don't know how to process new work. This is especially true in narrative forms like plays and movies. But I think it holds true for music.

b) Most people have crap taste. I realized a while ago that I'm the perfect barometer to what most of America does NOT find funny. If I was laughing, there was a good chance most people were not. I watched as shows that I found terribly amusing like Arrested Development or both of Andy Richter's shows disappeared from the boob tube. This is why I'm in mortal fear for the well-being of 30 Rock. Yet, this doesn't seem to hold as true on cable tv where niche audiences can sustain more specialized (and usually superior) fare.

So the answer to your question: "Is the general public deaf, or do they actually prefer mediocrity?" Unfortunately, a little of both is true. Yes, I'm an elitist - just like Obama.