Pop Triumphalism Redux, Neoliberal Aesthetics and the Austerity Agenda

A Response to Robert Fink

John Halle
Bard College Conservatory

A central point of my piece “The Last Symphony” is that in its late, neo-liberal form which we are now confronting capitalism transcends its function as an economic system regulating the distribution of goods and services becoming a philosophy of life dictating important aspects of how we see ourselves and the world around us.

The arts, culture and music are a revealing piece of this puzzle. But, in my opinion, they are only a relatively small one and it is perhaps for this reason that the piece has elicited relatively little comment among musicologists, as I noted previously.

One of the few was posted recently on the blog of the American Musicological Society by UCLA Professor Robert Fink, a leading representative of what is known in the discipline as the New Musicology school. As will be seen, it stands to reason that it would have derived from this quarter, as does Fink’s having objected to some of the conclusions.

To explain why requires identifying, for those outside of the tribe, the basic outlines of this one formerly dissident now well established, arguably dominant wing of the profession.  The New Musicology can fairly unproblematically be seen-and indeed, according to Fink, sees itself- as music historical scholarship’s response to the post-modern turn in other humanistic fields.   A central component of this movement was to challenge the privileged status accruing to the traditional literary and artistic canon, much of which was produced by white male Europeans.  In music, the demographic profile is even narrower with names beginning with unvoiced bilabial consonants highly over-represented.  The most iconic of these B’s, Beethoven, would be a particular target, in the final stages of “rolling over” according to Fink in his widely cited essay Elvis Everywhere.  More generally so-called classical music had “lost its ability to define hierarchies of tastes” having become by now “one style among many, and by no means the most prestigious.” No longer insulated from the realities of the marketplace via a system of elite patronage, classical music would be required to compete with other styles formerly denigrated as “commercial” laying bare its inherent vacuity previously obscured by protective layers of pretentiousness and snobbery.

For Fink, a seminal moment within this delegitimation process was the funeral of Princess Diana, described by Fink as “one of the most powerful media events of the decade, seen live by over 30 million and rebroadcast to hundreds of millions more.”  Its signficance derived from the “Libera me” movement of Verdi’s Requiem having been pitted against Elton John’s  “Candle in the Wind,” with the latter having emerged as the clear victor in the competition for survival in the Darwinian marketplace.

Fink’s evidence resides in the latter having become “the biggest-selling single in the history of recorded music; every newspaper printed Bernie Taupin’s new lyrics, and CNN camera crews captured crowds of British mourners swaying and singing it together over and over during extravagant midnight vigils.”  According to Fink, “(t)his was the Music of the moment” and Verdi having definitively lost the “battle for cultural hegemony.”


While bracing at the time, at a quarter century’s remove these and other claims of the New Musicology have provoked among some musicologists a degree of buyer’s remorse.  It would appear that Fink is aware of these criticisms, his response to me providing at least two indications that he may be walking back some of the more extravagant claims.  The first is obvious: it would be hard to find a clearer statement of what Alex Ross calls pop triumphalism than Elvis Everywhere which reads more like a manifesto than a scholarly monograph. Statements such as the above roll into confident assertions as to  “‘popular’ styles hav(ing) more cultural prestige than classical music”, due to their having “claimed the historical moment”.  Meanwhile, classical music canons have “lost their role as cultural validators”, classical “composers forced to resort to “(rummaging) through every discard bin of popular culture searching for the hipness and cultural cachet they used to think they could create for themselves.” Based on these, it comes as a surprise to find Fink disavowing the label pop-triumphalist label, albeit in in carefully parsed, lawyerly syntax suggesting more a discomfort with the form in which he previously expressed his positions than reservations about their essential content.

A second indication of a softening of a previously hard line is Fink’s concern that some on the left will regard him as a “traitor to the working class”.  No one on the left will make any such judgment for the simple reason that to be a traitor requires some indication of a prior allegiance to the economically disadvantaged 99% of the population. Celebrating a stage managed, corporate media product having at its center a billionaire pop star’s elegy for a feudal aristocrat is about as far from an expression of solidarity as could be imagined.  At worst, it is a sign of contempt, valorizing a cynically hyped celebration of loyal subjects mourning their supposed aristocratic “betters” reduced to passive spectators in an event in which they have a supporting role at most.

The spectacle of the hoi polloi obediently taking their place in the natural order is, of course, a familiar trope of the reactionary right. And so is taking bottom line statistics as a proxy for cultural centrality. Fink breathlessly itemizes these: “600,000 copies (of Candle in the Wind) were sold in Britain in one day, which along with the 1.5 million advance orders meant it went double platinum in 24 hours“ vs. “U.S. classical record sales . . . hav(ing) dropped below 2 percent of the industry total”.  All this causes one briefly to wonder why post-modernism was embraced as a project of the political left, and why it was so successful in drawing the ire of cultural conservatives.

The answer, of course, resides in postmodernism’s challenge to the traditional canon, and the presumed challenge to elite hegemonic structures this shift appeared to anticipate, at least in the rich fantasy world of the right.  At three decades’ remove, it is becoming clear that the bite of postmodernism which so alarmed the right and excited the left was not much more than pro-forma academic barking. Yes, concessions in the cultural and artistic realm constitute a minimally significant attempt to redress the balance of centuries of elite neglect and condescension. But viewed critically, as it has been recently by Walter Benn Michaels, Adolph Reed and Barbara and Karen Fields, now dominant academic multiculturalism can been seen in a darker light-a way of purchasing leftist bona fides on the cheap through symbolic concessions in the aesthetic and cultural realm while failing to challenge capital’s virtually uncontested string of triumphs in the political and economic spheres.

In this connection, it should be remembered that the ascendency of post-modernism overlaps almost exactly with that of neo-liberalism.  For example, Fink’s paper, which celebrates “pre-bop jazz” and “Mississippi Delta blues” displacing white European males from the canon of Western classical music was delivered in the same year as the passage of Welfare Reform (the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act) which, as was predicted at the time, would gravely and disproportionately effect African Americans.  The Clinton years also saw an intensification of the “war on drugs” and the passage of draconian crime bills leading to the grim reality of over two million African American males now in prison. Another example along similar lines, in the decades since post-modernism made its appearance, numerous truck drivers have had their jobs cut and wages reduced due to deregulation under the Carter administration and subsequent anti-union legislation presided over by both parties. Their compensation consists in one of the best known musicological papers of the past decades having at its center a truck driver from Tupelo Mississippi.  And over the same period, casualization of the academic workforce has resulted in a full 75% of university teaching now being done by grossly exploited adjunct or part time faculty. Roughly concurrent with this, numerous scholars have found their path to the tenured ranks through waging war against elite hegemony previously enjoyed by classical music.

In my previous response to criticisms of the piece, I itemized other instances of symbolic victories (exclusively in the cultural and aesthetic realms) functioning to obscure the grim substance of neo-liberal capitalism.  These were offered in response to defenders of post modernism who reacted angrily to my referencing certain uncontroversial facts with respect to notated forms of music compared to others, accusing me of racism for simply doing so.

Fink himself concedes that I have “no problem swatting these away.”   It is therefore rather disconcerting to find him responding with similar racialized innuendo to that of the vampire left, referring to what he calls my “defense” of Western art music as a variant of the notorious “one drop rule” based on “the presence or absence of melanin.”  The road to the conclusion that I am a supporter of Jim Crow anti-miscegenation statutes is a tortuous one, and I won’t retrace the steps here except to note that it begins with Fink’s assertion that I endorse “the basic ideology of nineteenth-century theories of musical structure.” These, in Fink’s account, provide the foundation for the conclusion “that the best music, like the highest civilization, was that which delayed gratification the most.”  Underlying these attitudes, according to Fink, is a “Hegelian worship of telos, the quality of goal-direction” a stance which is “congenial to a socialist critic because it springs from the same (impulse) that gave rise to Marxist theories of class struggle.”

Suffice to say that there is not a single phrase here which accurately represents the position advanced in the piece. Most transparently, the article never once mentions “telos”, teleology, or “goal direction,” hobby horses which Fink has been riding for years, including in Elvis Everywhere, and which he trots out despite their being no demand for their services.  Furthermore, while some leftists consider themselves Marxists, for many, including myself, Marxism is a relatively peripheral influence and Hegelian dialectics still less of one.  As to the notion of “delayed gratification”, socialists demand immediate fulfillment of ordinary peoples’ demands e.g. for the restoration of decent standards of living which have been stripped away during the neo-liberal era.  While an infantile acquisitiveness has, as mentioned in the piece, infected significant portions of the meritocratic elite, this does not in any way apply to those outside its ranks who have been subject to a decades long campaign of austerity.

One instance of this, the assault on the unionized Minnesota Orchestra, was the main focus of the piece, or more precisely, some of the specific difficulties involved with defending them against a predatory corporate board. Fink confuses these with a “defense” of the kind of music they perform, namely notated, classical music, even though my response clearly states that I regard it as a mistake to valorize any particular genre above others as doing so undermines a united front of solidarity which is necessary for workers to successfully respond to capital’s increasingly relentless assaults.  Furthermore, I state that this is easy to do since “the best of all forms of music have more or less equal claims to greatness; a failure to appreciate that musical treasures have been produced in virtually every known genre, is mainly an indication of one’s inability to listen or to figure out how.”

That said, a defense of this musical labor force is now necessary at least in part due to multiculturalism having become the reigning academic orthodoxy, with these attitudes having trickled down to less rarefied settings-including, it would seem, corporate boardrooms. It is therefore now unfashionable to the point of taboo to recognize any unique characteristics in the formerly canonic repertoire and the unique skill set of the workforce associated with those fluent within it. And it is necessary to deny these even when they are staring you in the face. Thus, as I note, the introductory piano literature (not to mention the core of the symphonic repertoire) “are works of ‘pure’ music which cohere, not by a text with its own self-contained expressive content and narrative logic, but by a logic entirely based on the abstract relationships inherent in the pitches and rhythms.” Fink seems to think that “the Western literate tradition is filled with three-to-five-minute songs, mostly religious ones but some about love, from Dufay to Duke Ellington” constitutes a refutation of the blandly uncontroversial categorization of Mozart sonatas, Bach fugues and Schubert variations as “pure music”.  Obviously, as a matter of simple logic, it does not follow from “some X’s are Y” that “all X’s are Y”. Nor does anything follow from the claim, even if true, that “Western intellectuals before the late eighteenth century . . . would have ridiculed. . . the idea . . . there was some meaning in music alone just because it was written down.” In particular, it does not address, let alone challenge, the contention that the abstract forms in which they are composed allow extended works to cohere, which is to say, to exist as cognitive objects represented in the memory of listeners. (Incidentally, the structural characteristics implicated here have only a vague metaphorical connection to Fink’s obsession with teleological structure.)

It should hardly need to be mentioned that whatever medium a piece of music is transmitted through-a recording, lead sheet, youtube video, tablature or conventional notes on a staff-has nothing to do with its quality. Intricately notated scores range from abysmal to lame to competent to divinely inspired-as do songs learned on a parent’s knee.

Profound, complex, and subtle musical traditions, will necessarily include representatives of the entire range.  They need to be sustained not because they are superior, whatever that means, but simply because that’s what decent societies do. The fact that an expensive infrastructure is required to support one of these should be entirely irrelevant to this determination, particularly to a society which thinks nothing of investing hundreds of billions of dollars on useless weapons systems, subsidies to the fossil fuel industries or bank bailouts.  All this is, unfortunately, invisible to market populists who take as the pre-eminent indication of artistic and social significance black ink on a multinational communications conglomerate’s balance sheet. Fink’s worm’s eye view of the past and present amounts to not much more than high brow cheerleading for the bland Opraesque mono-culture which is an increasingly conspicuous feature of commercial musical genres-and much else-in the neo-liberal era.

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