Thursday, 28 April 2016

The Beyoncé challenge

We live in such a varied culture. Hard for anyone to keep track of more than a small part of it. But sometimes something comes along that you just can't miss, and don't want to…

If you've been living in our wider culture, you know why I'd be blogging now about Beyoncé. I'll get to her in a bit.

lemonade no wordsBut first something I've been pondering for a while. How will we know when classical music is back? How can we tell that it's roaring back into the center of our cultural world, taking the place we'd like it to have?

One answer

Well, as I've suggested before, if classical music came back, our concert halls — all of our performance spaces — would be filled with an excited new audience.

And as I've also said, we can't easily imagine how that would happen, for many reasons. We've never seen it happen. We think (wrongly) that our culture is too dumb to give classical music any large audience. Or we're afraid of the change a large new audience would bring.

But if it never happens, how do we think classical music will survive?

Even harder to believe

But here's another measure of success. We become part of the cultural conversation. As Angels in America did some years ago (surging out of theater into the middle of the AIDS crisis). Or as Brokeback Mountain did (bringing new acceptance of gays).

Or as Prince and David Bowie immediately did when they died (we relearned how much they meant to so many of us). And of course as Hamilton is doing now, mashing up hiphop and Broadway to make us see both our past and our present in a different light.

Could that happen in classical music? Certainly it used to. Maybe you know some of this, but…

  • Verdi's operas rallied Italian patriots.
  • Handel's opera performances were big news in 18th century London, if only as gossip.
  • Pelléas et Mélisande was so powerful a cultural event in 1902 Paris that Proust — who rarely left his bedroom — had a special telephone installed, so he could hear the performance in bed.
  • Wagner upended culture.
  • Leonard Bernstein was a household name, because…well, he was Leonard Bernstein, as famous on Broadway as he was at the New York Philharmonic.

Today Philip Glass is a household name, even the punchline of a knock knock joke. But apart from him, can we imagine anything like what I've just listed happening now?

That's a brain strain. But how can we imagine classical music coming back if we don't get to this place?

Enter Beyoncé

If we're going to compete in our culture — if classical music is going to take the kind of cultural place it used to have — then we have competition. And our competition is everything else happening in our culture, everything our hoped-for new audience already cares about.

So here comes Beyoncé. And specifically her new album Lemonade, first seen in an expanded video version, a stunning one-hour film shown on HBO.

To say this has attracted both attention and acclaim would be an understatement. (Go here for a summary of reviews, and here for an especially strong one. Though there's more.)

The video is powerful, even searing, and beautifully filmed. The music goes to unexpected places, sounding raw, sometimes, and sometimes minimal.

Why this matters

We in classical music — and in the arts more generally — may not think Beyoncé is part of our world. But we're living in hers, and many of the people we want to reach are (this week, anyway) riveted to her.

And so we have to ask ourselves: Can we compete?

Here's a facile answer. We don't have to compete, becasue we're art, and she isn't.

But that's an empty boast. First because she — even if she's not in the arts — is just as much art as we are

And secondly because, whether or not you think she's art, she executes better than we do. Presents her music and her visuals far more strongly.

So maybe, if we can't compete, it's because —  in some crucial ways — we just aren't as good.

More coming on this.

Original Content: The Beyoncé challenge

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