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Good music, bad genres

I’ve found myself saying a few times this week how much I regret the sharp division, in many print publications, between the pop critic and the classical one. My ideal for newspapers would be a single music department -- different critics would be responsible for different genres, but every critic would be exposed to the full range of what’s out there, and artists, performances, or recordings that straddle genres would be less likely to fall between the cracks.

The music world, today, certainly observes divisions less and less. Yesterday, the Library of Congress announced the list of 25 latest recordings to be taken into the National Recording Registry, and a delightfully eclectic mix it was, from “Fon den Choope” by Abe Elenkrieg’s Yidishe Orchestra (1913) to “Dear Mama” by Tupac Shakur (1995). To be considered for the list, recordings must be at least ten years old and in some way culturally significant - but they don’t have to fall into any other category, not even that of music (the latest inductees include spoken-word classics like Bill Cosby’s comedy album “I Started Out as a Child” and the children’s standby “The Little Engine that Could”).
(read more after the jump)

Those in my own bailiwick include one of my favorite recordings of all time, the 1935 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of “Tristan und Isolde” with Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior, and an extreme contrast, Morton Subotnick’s “Silver Apples of the Moon,” a pioneering work of what was called, in 1967, “computer music,” composed on, with, for the Buchla synthesizer. There’s also the original cast album of “Gypsy,” Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe.” The message, hardly new: cultural heritage isn’t restricted by genres.

Reinforcing that message is the brand-new iPhone app from NPR, which all iPhone-owning music lovers should immediately get (after all, it’s free). The home screen of NPR Music is divided into six segments, including “Rock/Pop/Folk,” “World,” “Classical,” and “Live from Bonnaroo,” the latter presumably a flexible slot that will accommodate different events. Click on the “Artists” tab, though, and you get an alphabetical list of artists in every genre: Alice Cooper next to Imogen Cooper, John Adams in an “Adams family” extending from Alberta to Yolanda. Not all of these listings are yet linked to content, but in a best-case scenario, clicking on a name brings you to a screen that links to concerts, studio performances, interviews and news broadcasts from the NPR archives relating to or somehow featuring the artist in question.

You can quickly create a classical-only list, if you want to. I imagine, though, that many people, like me, will browse through a wide range of names in different genres out of curiosity to see what’s available. That’s how most of us grew up; it’s how most of us actually listen; and it represents a healthy kind of cross-pollination.

This isn’t news: it’s today’s reality. (“No genre is the new genre,” the tag line of the blog Mind the Gap, rings nicely true.) The newspaper approach to it goes back, I believe, to the days when the New York Times was first writing about pop music. As I understand it, John Rockwell, who I believe was the first person to bring pop music into the paper's fold, felt that there should be a single music department; but that idea was rejected in favor of the classical/pop dichotomy that now stands. A single music department would have allowed more flexibility, made better use of everyone’s expertise, allowed more reasonable allocation of print space on a week-to-week basis.

But this may be an issue that concerns newspaper writers more than the general public, who are too busy exploring different kinds of music -- or whatever kind they happen to like -- to worry about it.

By Anne Midgette  |  June 24, 2010; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  news , random musings  
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For the record, I freelanced for both the pop and classical music critical apparatuses of the Washington Post for a brief period, before the pop side decided they didn't want me anymore. It was difficult to manage bureaucratically, but intellectually stimulating.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | June 24, 2010 9:24 AM | Report abuse

Genres are for people who talk about music but know nothing about it.

Posted by: steampunk | June 24, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

A lot of the music stories are also available in podcast form, e.g. NPR Topics: Music Interviews.

Anyway, as a news organization, I'm not sure how much NPR reinforces your point. Do their reporters/critics (not hosts) cross genres? Even on All Songs Considered, when Boilen plans a show around hip hop, it is usually the same person or persons on the show who last talked about hip hop. I don't see how that is different than the Post or Times having the same person or persons cover the hip hop scene in the paper or online.

I think the model is fine. Readers get critics who know a lot about a little (expertise in their genre) vs. critics who know a little about a lot (shallow reporting). Unless you think the Post editors should force you to attend the MJ BSO concert? You know, to expand your horizons and get the full range of what's out there! :)

Posted by: prokaryote | June 24, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

While I am not at all qualified to say how the music department of a newspaper should be structured, it seems to me that the real premise of the posting is that the distinction between so-called “classical” music (I despise the term for reinforcing the stereotypical notion that this music is somehow antiquated) and pop music is too pronounced, not just in the newsroom, but for the everyday listener as well. Personally, I have just the opposite reaction, particularly looking back on the postings of the past week in this blog. When a listener thinks they are consuming art music, but they are listening to an orchestration of Thriller, I think we are doing them a disservice. Why pretend that these musics are the same? There are likely legions of listeners who are sick of turning on their radios in the car, but hearing only clichéd chord progressions and vapid lyrics. They are specifically looking for something that is not pop. I know that you enjoyed Ann Powers’ articles on the LA Ring, but it seems to me that classical music is already in danger of loosing its identity when a pop critic must indicate that its worth going to the opera, because it is a lot like a Lady Gaga show.

Posted by: Jason41 | June 24, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Jason41: Actually, my premise is not that the distinction between classical and pop is too pronounced, but that the world is full of discriminating listeners who are likely to like things in a wider range of genres than this distinction indicates. I think the divide between smart, creative pop music and Britney Spears (or the kind of radio music you describe) may be greater than that between the former and classical music.

And prokaryote, I wasn’t inveighing against expertise. I just think that a “music” department as opposed to a “pop music” and “classical music” department represents a philosophical stance that I find better reflects the reality of music today. (Though the reality today is that having a single “music” department would make it easier to cut back to a single “music” critic responsible for covering everything, so it may be a good thing that didn’t happen.)

Posted by: Anne Midgette | June 24, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

"I’ve found myself saying a few times this week how much I regret the sharp division, in many print publications, between the pop critic and the classical one. My ideal for newspapers would be a single music department.... [...] The music world, today, certainly observes divisions less and less."

Oh dear. Et tu, Brute? How depressing.

I had my say on this matter in a 2008 post on S&F titled, "Houston, We Have A Problem", which can be read at:

As time goes by, more and more quixotic does my advocacy position on this and cognate matters seem to become.

Most disheartening.


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | June 25, 2010 5:30 AM | Report abuse

Anne, from a reader's perspective, a "sharp division" can be useful. For example, if there were only one undifferentiated "music" blog, I would have to pick through it to find the entries about classical stuff, because I'm just not interested in new developments in pop. (I like a lot of pop music, but of the "oldies" variety, and have no interest to read about "oldies").

On the question of cross-pollination: Almost all the "new" (in the sense of new to me) stuff I listen to is of the traditional "classical" variety. It's what I like. I'm not sure how my enjoyment of it would be enhanced by "cross-pollination" with anything else. Should I look for a country-western rendition of Mahler's Ninth?:)

Posted by: shovetheplanet | June 26, 2010 9:07 AM | Report abuse

From this reader's perspective, a "music" blog would be helpful, because right now I follow two Post blogs about music, this one and Click Track. One is less than two which equals easier following.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | June 26, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

Yeah … and why doesn’t Ms. Midgette invite herself onto Sharon Rockefeller’s Classical WETA-FM one Saturday afternoon to talk about Michael Jackson and spin her favorite MJ tracks in lieu of Lisa Simeone’s street smart and hip NPR World of Opera? Hell, Classical WETA-FM should share its air-space with Lady Gaga. For every week of Sunday night 9 PM Edward Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius” or Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” there should be a Sunday evening for full albums of MJ and Lady Gaga.

Thumbs up to ACDouglas and shovetheplanet (and to Lisa Simeone and Bob Boilen), and thumbs down to Anne Midgette and Lindemann777 (in my opinion).

(For the record, our son is a MJ -- and tennis -- fan.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 28, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse


Dear Snaketime1:

I'm sorry to have to write this, but please remember that I consider you on probation and I don't want any more of your vitriol on the blog, period. I'm perfectly happy to have you disagree with me or other posters, but there are ways to disagree while maintaining a cordial tone.


Anne Midgette
Classical Music Critic
The Washington Post
1150 15th Street NW
Washington DC 20071

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 28, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

Actually, that's inaccurate. Here's the full text of what Snaketime1 received from me.

"Dear [real name of Snaketime1]:
I enjoy so many of your posts that I'm sorry to have to write this, but please remember that I consider you on probation and I don't want any more of your vitriol on the blog, period. You've been a valuable contributor in recent weeks, writing with far less snark, and I appreciate it (though this will probably only annoy you). In any case, please don't make any further posts that will lead to me having to ban you from the blog. I'm perfectly happy to have you disagree with me or other posters, but there are ways to disagree while maintaining a cordial tone - and as I've said before, I think that wins you more readers anyway."

And I didn't write "Sincerely," which I scarcely ever use. I signed it, "All best."

Goodbye, Snaketime1. Sorry to see you go, but it's your own choice.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | June 28, 2010 5:16 PM | Report abuse

I think Lady Gaga has officially overtaken Britney Spears as classical music partisans' designated pop bugaboo. So the traditionalists are willing to embrace at least one kind of change...

Posted by: Lindemann777 | June 29, 2010 5:21 AM | Report abuse

Is there really such a sharp division, though? Allan Kozinn wrote a lengthy piece on the Beatles reissues when they came out recently in the New York Times, and Anthony Tomassini interviewed Barbra Streisand. Alex Ross has written about Radiohead and Bjork in the New Yorker. Steve Smith is the epitome of a critic who can write on any genre. On a less exalted plane, when I was the classical critic at Time Out Chicago, I wrote about Uri Caine, Belle and Sebastian, Thelonius Monk, Keith Jarrett, various cabaret performers, and interviewed Dweezil Zappa. Of course, I knew my limits on writing about rock and jazz and didn't go beyond them, so I couldn't have been one of them main rock critics. Still, the attitude there was much more, "If you can make a case for it, we'll print it." Maybe the rock/pop critics don't walk over to the classical side that often, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of push-back of classical critics writing about popular genres.

Posted by: marcgeelhoed | June 30, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

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