The Death of the Highbrow
The singer Beyoncé Knowles just released a new album, or video, or whatever it is, and it has been greeted with yet another flurry of "Beyoncé thinkpieces" in the middle-brow publications.
It's part of a distressing pattern these days of overwrought commentary about popular culture. There are the Stars Wars thinkpieces, of course, and the Lana Del Rey thinkpieces or God help us even Kanye West thinkpieces. And don't get me started on the fact that "thinkpiece" is now treated as if it were a single word.
Somehow, back in the day, I'm pretty sure our grandparents were spared the indignity of Benny Goodman thinkpieces, even though that probably would have been more interesting.
The problem with the Beyoncé thinkpiece phenomenon is not just that they tend to be hackneyed and pretentious and are really just a gimmick to hijack a famous name and use it to direct Web traffic to the far less interesting ramblings of a second-rate writer. The real problem is that it's just pop music.
The problem is the pretense, which suffuses all contemporary writing on popular culture, that we can write about the latest comic-book superhero blockbuster as if it's Shakespeare and Kanye West's latest album as if it's Mozart. But it's not Shakespeare, and it sure as heck isn't Mozart.
Popular music is fine. It's fun, at least if it's done right. But it tends to be ephemeral, dealing with relatively simple themes in a relatively simple manner, and its appeal is often tied to a time and place and ultimately retains a mostly nostalgic value. Don't tell the kids that. They'll hate the idea that the cool, cutting-edge stuff that only they have discovered is really just building up the soundtrack they'll listen to wistfully when they're 50, their hair is thinning, and they're recalling their lost youth. I have plenty of my own favorites that I still listen to because they recall a certain era and time of my life, but which I would not publicly defend as timeless or universal or, in some cases, particularly good. (This may or may not involve The Go-Go's.)
But Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, the great works in the canon of serious music, do have a timeless and universal value. They are more complex, deeper, more profound, and the more you listen to them the more you get out of them, over a period of decades. I played Chopin's Etude in E Major (well, a simplified version) when I was taking piano lessons as a kid, but it was only much later that I really understand what it's about, both the technical aspects of it and its emotional meaning. So I'm slowly working on learning it again (the full, hi-test version). I'm still only a so-so musician and Chopin is fiendishly difficult, so give me a year of solid work and I might get somewhere with it. But my point is that it's worth that kind of effort, even if you're only playing for your own pleasure—which popular music rarely is.
Compare that to this.
Whatever value this may have, which I won't disparage here, if you look at it objectively, you have to admit it involves an extremely simple, even shallow sentiment, tied to a simple melody, or fragments of a melody, driven home by whole lot of plain repetition. (As for that awkward turkey-dance choreography, the less said the better.) It doesn't offer much of anything in the way of variation, development, structure, or emotional range. And that has nothing to do with its length. At a little over three minutes, this is about as long as that Chopin etude I just mentioned. But there's a whole lot less going on.
I don't say this to disparage popular music, even though I suspect that in a hundred years, most of it will be remembered about as widely as Mairzy Doats. (Look it up, kids.) A simple and catchy tune is perfectly valuable on its own merits, and not every piece of music or television show or movie has to engage the brain at full capacity.
But the middle-brow cultural establishment is determined to freight the flotsam and jetsam of popular culture with more intellectual weight than it can carry, sinking it under a lot of pretentious commentary about its very great significance.
In part, they are going where the clicks are, desperately seeking the Web traffic that keeps the lights on and that doesn't go to thinkpieces about Mozart. You might notice that I did the same thing, baiting the clicks for this article by putting Beyoncé in the title. [Update: This refers to the title when the piece was originally published in The Federalist.] Like I said, it keeps the lights on. But if we're just responding to the cultural environment as we find it, it's worth asking how it got that way.
This is part of a wider trend I call the death of the highbrow. Educated middle-class intellectual types are now supposed to be ostentatiously "pop-culture-savvy" and to read (or write) a lot of thinkpieces about ephemeral pop culture. So that is what we get instead of articles about Mozart or Chopin or Shakespeare, or a hundred other works of "high culture" that are a lot more worthy of the attention. Let's just say that if you hear the name "Homer" and immediately think "Simpson," you're part of the problem.
There has always been a populist strain in American culture that detests snobbery and approves of the simple virtues of the common man. Benjamin Franklin recounted how, as a young printer, when he purchased paper he would carry it himself through the streets in a wheelbarrow, "to show that I was not above my business." So there has always been a certain pressure on highbrow intellectuals to show that they can be just like regular folk by declaring how much they like baseball or jazz bands just like the rest of the kids—to compensate for liking opera, which is just plain weird.
Think of this Portlandia sketch:
What makes this funny is the air of earnest dedication Fred Armisen brings to his quest to master the history of hip-hop. It's exactly the kind of earnestness a previous generation might have brought to bear learning about Renaissance paintings or opera—but directed in the opposite direction. Middle-class cultural aspiration has been turned away from the highbrow and directed toward music and culture at its crudest level.
In America, this gets loaded with extraneous racial significance. After all, a lot of high culture was created by those awful dead white European males, so writing thinkpieces about Kanye or Beyoncé provides you with a claim to being in touch with "authentic African-American culture." Which, if you ask me, is very condescending toward African-Americans. And that still doesn't explain all the thinkpieces about Taylor Swift or Macklemore.
In a British context, where the "underclass" is largely white, the conservative writer Theodore Dalrymple describes this phenomenon as "uncouth chic." In previous eras, earnest middle-class strivers sought to emulate the manners and tastes of the wealthiest and most sophisticated. Uncouth chic is the determination to emulate the manners and tastes of the slums.
In thinking about this, I remembered an eccentric fellow who calls himself Mr. B the Gentlemen Rhymer, a pioneer of a tiny little sub-genre called Chap-Hop—hip-hop performed in the crisp, flawless Received Pronunciation of the English upper classes. I stumbled upon an amusing little satire he recorded about Timothy Westwood, the well-educated son of an Anglican bishop who has pursued a career as a hip-hop DJ and affects the roughest Cockney accent he can muster. This is the embodiment of uncouth chic.
There is an old war on the very idea of "high culture," which offends egalitarian sensibilities. In her notes for The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand observed that her egalitarian socialist villain, Ellsworth Toohey, "says that he is fighting Rockefeller and Morgan"—the big capitalists of his day—but he's really "fighting Beethoven and Shakespeare." The egalitarians are opposed to the very idea that one man can be greater than another, or that some cultural products can be greater and higher than others.
This was why the hippies were so obsessed with folk music: precisely because it was not the product of great men or highbrow culture but was instead written by "the people." (Which, as Tom Lehrer observed, is precisely why so many folk songs are so bad.) We now live in the era this counterculture created, in which the highbrow has fully and finally been knocked down.
This has been aided and abetted by the collapse of our educational system, so that a lot of people never really encounter highbrow culture or acquire the knowledge and tools necessary to understand it. If you barely understand modern English, much less Elizabethan English, you are much less likely to be able to get anything out of Shakespeare.
But it's no good blaming others. We also have to face up to the ways that highbrow culture has destroyed itself.
One of the reasons nobody writes much about Mozart or Michelangelo is that the great works in that style of art and music are all at least a hundred years old. There's little that's new, and what there is is very much outside the mainstream of what passes for the highbrow artistic establishment today. So if no one's writing about opera, it's because no composer has written an opera any normal person can force himself to sit through since Puccini.
Modern opera is worse than Vogon poetry, but its advocates and explainers make up for it by being insufferably pretentious. Back when I lived in Chicago, I went to a public concert put on by the Lyric Opera, and in amongst the crowd-pleasers by Mozart and Puccini they slipped some screeching piece of modern opera. Afterwards, observing the fidgeting impatience of the audience, the emcee informed us—and I'll never forget his exact words—"It's really quite beautiful, I assure you." We had just heard it with our own ears, and if it had been beautiful, we probably would have noticed. But he had to tell us the correct conclusion we were supposed to come to.
That pretty much sums up the impact of 20th-century Modernism, which knocked down all of the conventions of highbrow art while still trying to steal its prestige. Instead, they simply used up its credibility and drove away its audience. In the visual arts, it's just smears on canvas (if you're lucky) and statues of The Blob. It's screechy, tuneless music and weird movies that don't make any sense.
So we get stuck between pretentiously unappealing Modern highbrow culture and fun but ephemeral pop culture. If art is food for the soul—and it is—that doesn't leave us with much spiritual nourishment.
It's not just that highbrow culture isn't receiving sufficient attention. It is in very real danger of being wiped out as an institution. Classical music is dying along with its audience. The only positive evaluation I could find for its future touts the impact of the Baby Boomers, who are now entering their prime listening years. But that will buy perhaps another 15 years. Then the Boomers' buying power will fade away and they will find it harder to leave the nursing home to go to concerts, and there does not appear to be another generation ready to take their place.
You can see signs of this everywhere, and for once it really does remind me of the dying years of the Roman Empire, when a long and profound and powerful intellectual tradition was simply fading away and becoming invisible to the world. And with nothing to replace it, the culture is being hollowed out.
We are losing sight of the heights of a three-thousand-year-long intellectual and artistic tradition, and somehow I don't think Beyoncé thinkpieces, much less Beyoncé herself, are going to fill that vacuum.