On Sunday The New Republic’s Philip Kennicott wrote an extensive report on the status of America’s orchestras, those large-scale outfits fit for stuffy downtown music halls, those grand statements of power and grace that can help define the pulse of a municipality, let alone guide its residents through the history of composed music.
The report wasn’t positive: The American orchestra is dying. Flopping like a fish on the sidewalk. Lockouts, strikes and postponements are plaguing organizations in Minneapolis and San Francisco, and the Philadelphia Orchestra – a major-scale company regarded as one of the country’s “Big Five” – declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. According to Kennicott, a chief reason for these ills boils right down to the role an orchestra plays in society. Once regarded as an bellwether of knowledge, class and esteem, the idea of the classical concert is now fractured. Now orchestras are seeking ways to attract an increasingly diverse population. Poorer residents, the classically untrained and, very importantly, the youth, are among the most treasured potential listeners. And as more traditional classical lovers begin to pass away, there is a very real truth facing the American orchestra.
This means, according to the report, that orchestras are radically altering their programming to fit these new, untapped audiences. One possibility: going beyond the standard stuffy music hall concert. Or as the article says: “Maybe the concert is not what it’s ultimately about.”
Of course, the expansion of programming into fractured and diverse elements (bringing in guest artists from pop and rock; pop culture theme nights that tap into the increasingly retrospective young audience) doesn’t sit well with serious classical listeners. And the very idea of fractured, diverse programming rubs some traditional orchestra company administrators the wrong way. To be short, there are no easy solutions here.
But like the fish flopping on the sidewalk, the American orchestra is much like the American print newspaper or American postman: slowly becoming increasingly unnecessary and with each day, each minute, ever more extinct.
The very night of the publication of The New Republic piece was the night of the MTV Video Music Awards. A few years ago, most pop culture skimmers might tell you the VMAs were themselves going the way of extinction. In 2007 the network hyped the return of Britney Spears, and the decaying pop singer opened the show with a dizzy performance that left many to wonder about her mental health. Spears underwent a breakdown – though the song she performed (“Gimme More”) sold pretty well – and the night was generally considered a bust. One year later MTV brought Spears back as opener; she simply spoke. Then she won three awards. Little happened of media consequence following that introduction.
Then came 2009 and the great confrontation between Taylor Swift and Kanye West, which seemed, at least after the smoke cleared, to pit mainstream America against mainstream America’s idea of iconclasm, or hip-hop culture. Whatever the case, it reignited the idea of the VMAs as something to watch for something “important.” But that’s mainstream America talking. Nothing on the VMAs is important. Even Madonna’s wedding dress romp to “Like a Virgin” in 1984 wasn’t important; she simply altered her innocent image. MTV told us it was important, and so it was.
Sunday night at the VMAs, Miley Cyrus, the girl who starred in the Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana,” performed her song “We Can’t Stop.” Then she performed with Robin Thicke for his song “Blurred Lines.” She gyrated and jolted. She was slinky and – at least toward the thick Brooklyn air inside the Barclays Center – seductive. In totality, she was a 20-year-old pop star trying to further gussy up her image, founded seven years ago as innocent and lipstick cute. Against Thicke, a 36-year-old former-one-hit-wonder striking pop gold with a shot of Marvin Gaye rum, Cyrus looked positively awkward. She sexually employed a foam finger. She pranced in nude lingerie. Giant plush Teddy bears surrounded her. Maybe awkward is too tame.
We know Cyrus was rebelling against her lipstick cute past. We know she had been calculating this for some time. The photos of her hanging out in boutiques wearing cut-off band shirts that showed ample skin. The “spontaneous” haircut, or hairshave, or whatever. The twerking video. Now she has her old pop fans loving her individuality. She has her old country fans wondering what the heck happened to our old lovely Miley. And she has the entire hip-hop community dismayed about how Cyrus became part of its culture. Yes, folks, this was all part of a big plan.
Cyrus is doing what Christina Aguilera did before, but unsuccessfully, and what Britney Spears did before (though she was probably doing it with less business awareness), and of course, what Madonna did before. Change the image, get it on MTV, keep people talking no matter what cost.
And while pop kids chatter about Miley, and while tabloids and websites find out how Robin Thicke’s wife reacted, and while country moms and dads bemoan the loss of their Miley, and while hip-hop searches for meaning amongst what has become a syrupy stain of its former proud image, the true problem is staring us in the face: We’re killing music.
Yes, this is a reflective sigh on the passing of what we’ve called music, but no, this is not a lawn indictment. You see, “Blurred Lines” is catchy. It’s a skilled pop song with a clean sound and perfect phrasing. But it will, like last year’s “Call Me Maybe,” evaporate into the air like the very sugar that has become hip-hop, the very sugar that surrounds us in our processed foods and our morning talk-show excess and in everything else that isn’t clouds. Pop music can be good, and sure, presentations like the VMAs can exist to celebrate the weightless wonder of its defining brand. But does it really matter? Does it really matter what Miley Cyrus is doing?
Listen to “We Can’t Stop.” Actually listen to it:
Red cups and sweaty bodies everywhere
Hands in the air like we don’t care
Cause we came to have so much fun now
Bet somebody here might get some now
If you’re not ready to go home
Can I get a hell no
Cause we gonna go all night
Till we see the sunlight, alright
So la da di da di, we like to party
Dancing with Miley
Doing whatever we want
This is our house
This is our rules
And we can’t stop
And we won’t stop
Can’t you see it’s we who own the night
Can’t you see it’s we who ’bout that life
Like in most of the songs Cyrus has sung in her life, and like in most of the songs on the radio, in pop music, and on the VMAs Sunday night, words are advertising tools, buzzwords and recently acquired vernacular. The red cups mean college parties and help satiate the country base that might enjoy Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup.” “Hands in the air” is just a stock phrase used in a million party songs over the last 20 years. She mentions getting some, because you know, she’s not a girl anymore. “Can I get a hell no” is a call-and-response moment, good to get the crowd into the song, and what the hell, it’s a redneck phrase. Going all night till we see the sunlight? That’s stock once again.
But the chorus is when “We Can’t Stop” takes off. “La da di da di” isn’t quite the “Hey hey hey” of “Blurred Lines,” but it can stick. “Dancing with Miley” is laughable but will anyone really call her out for that plug? It’s our house and our rules, you know, because most 20-year-old kids can relate to that (remember, even frats and sororities have to play by some rules).
Along with the twerking and the general “I don’t give a crap” mantra Cyrus has recently employed, hip-hop has to be upset about the singer stealing the genre’s tentpole phrases in this song: “We can’t stop” and “We won’t stop.” Hell, Diddy was saying those things nearly 20 years ago. Even worse, Cyrus – after swiping the newly minted pop phrase “Own the night” – grabs onto the hip-hop “’Bout that life,” which hasn’t reached mainstream status quite yet but just might now.
It’s not that Cyrus has stolen and swiped and grabbed onto all these terms to boost the playability of her song – which, by the way, is a not a good song (it’s a party anthem played as a slow jam [probably to satisfy her shrinking country fanbase]). The real problem here is that people are talking about Cyrus, and Thicke, and the songs that include this blatant commercialism and disregard for true musical weight, and the twerking, and the nude underwear, and the bears, and the VMAs, and treating it as if it’s important.
It’s not important.
What’s important is that orchestras are losing money, talent and the ability to produce concerts on even a weekly basis. What’s important is that orchestras are trying dreadfully to expand repertoire to younger audiences, but younger audiences won’t even show up because they’ve been sucked in too much by Miley Cyrus and the Great Advertising Machine. And she’s not the only one. It’s Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake, and Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. It’s Skrillex and Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Daft Punk. It’s Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and even Madonna. It’s the idea that image means more than music, that “Maybe the concert is not what it’s ultimately about.”
Of course it’s about the concert, because it’s the concert that moves somebody. And it’s the song that can ultimately flow into your veins and energize, move you spiritually and emotionally. It’s not the plush Teddy bears limping around a scantily-clad 20-year-old pop tart. It’s music. Music is what matters, and yes, the Video Music Awards are more about the visual, but ask most of the kids watching the VMAs if they can tell the difference between the audio and the visual anymore. Their answer isn’t that they can’t, it’s that they don’t care.
And that’s the problem.
We are killing music. And most of us are guilty; hell, I said I found “Blurred Lines” catchy. And I found Cyrus’ old “Party in the USA” catchy, even when that song was just as much a marketing tool for the pop singer. But we glance over these things and let them evaporate into our skies because we allow it. And we let orchestras die before our eyes because we allow them to die. An orchestral concert costs as much as a Miley Cyrus concert, and listening to even Mozart on YouTube is still free. Most of it even comes without advertisements and Vevo! But does it matter?
We’re fooled into visuals because we’ve allowed ourselves to be fooled by the visuals. MTV told us Madonna’s romp around the stage was a seminal moment in popular music, and that the Buggles were correct in their assumption as their song opened the network’s programming 30 years ago. We accepted all of that. So now it’s what we deem as fact, and so we watch the VMAs because we deem it as important. And all the while the orchestras are flopping on our sidewalks.
And MTV can’t stop. It won’t stop. It really won’t. Just as pop culture can’t and won’t stop, because there will always be children dictating where it heads, claiming the new audience for the next brand of pop stars. The best we can do is educate early and, at the very least, introduce other music – and it doesn’t just have to be classical, by the way – into the lives of our children. If there is a minimum, it’s to simply introduce.
But it’s not just up to parents. The New Republic piece details the League of American Orchestra’s awkward inability to marry modern electronic music with traditional orchestral music through a youth orchestra. The marriage is at least a stab, but it takes more than a stab, and it surely takes more than some marriage of sounds. It will take complete culture shifts, better understandings of how young people acquire information and where they talk about the culture they know. And they talk about the culture they know alone because they’ve never been given other cultures in new and exciting ways.
In short, the future of American orchestras has to be a proactive one, aimed at acquiring new audiences, and that means diversifying and playing a bit more to image. But it doesn’t mean selling souls and giving up on tradition. It means stepping out onto the sidewalk and visiting the home, entering the community with instruments and video cameras. Let the children make their own music. Teach artists to be more accessible to audiences. Bring the orchestra to the home and the park, to the school and the smartphone, because that’s where the kids are. Get them where pop culture gets them.
If there is a goal for American orchestra administrators, it’s to make their music important again. Show people why it means something. Give people a reason to emote through music. Cut through the visuals and make audio once again sing. We may not be able to stop the beasts of grand calculation, but nobody is saying we cannot start our own beast.