Xavier Flory | The forgotten art

The Gadfly | From Beethoven to Beyonce to Bieber — the good, the bad and the ugly

· February 10, 2013, 11:43 pm

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Xavier Flory
The Gadfly

She shimmied, danced and yelled. Her dress was lacy, her hips bared. “It’s like soft porn on acid,” a College sophomore next to me said, his eyes riveted to the screen.

Beyonce did also actually sing during the Super Bowl halftime show. She has a good voice, but modern pop isn’t about the music. Live, it’s mostly visual: good-looking artists perform elaborate dance routines with lighting to match.

The music itself is vapid. It has no harmonic complexity, no charm. Where is the Sam Cooke, the Brian Wilson of our generation? Music today never captivates. Instead it relies on a heavy beat, computer effects and lyrics that range from the banal — “Single Ladies” — to the profane. Almost all the songs revolve around the hackneyed themes of love and lust.

Moreover, they are short, and so repetitive that after a single listen the three-second “melody” is stuck in your head. They don’t sustain a close listening, but then, no one is listening closely. Instead we hear them everywhere — in shops, the gym or on our iPods. Instead of music being an oasis from the everyday, it has become the backdrop to it.

Concert violinist and Juilliard and Yale graduate Igor Pikayzen told me in an interview that pop is more about “creating a sort of ambiance” than producing worthwhile art. Indeed, blasting “Ass ass ass” is a crude but clear message to girls at frat parties. However, nothing great was ever conceived as background music.

There doesn’t need to be any harmonic development or nuance, which is why Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” could never deliver the emotional journey of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. Why then, do people listen to this trash?

Firstly, most people listen to music for fun, to relax.

Secondly, many people don’t have the time, resources or desire that it takes to appreciate classical music. Pikayzen puts it down to laziness. “Like everything that takes effort, classical music will always be at a disadvantage because it requires the listener to devote his attention and time to even begin to appreciate it.”

Pikayzen describes good music “as emotion that cannot be translated.” But it’s not just classical musicians who feel this way. College senior Leo Wolansky, musical director of Off the Beat, a Penn a cappella group, says “Music fills somewhat of a spiritual role in my life, [but] listening to something like ‘Call Me Maybe’ has never inspired anything more than a drunken dance.”

He’s right, and good music is as worthy of study and appreciation as literature and painting, but few ever develop musical literacy. We’re exposed to good literature in school and we’ve all been on a class trip to the museum, but unless we are brought up in a musical family, we never develop a sense of aural beauty.

We listen mainly to other voices, and thus our notions of beauty rarely go beyond singing and those sounds that are immediately and viscerally pleasurable. Visceral is fine for a fraternity’s late night, but music can also be intellectual and poetic.

Instrumental music isn’t bound by language, and thus can express emotions that defy speech. If you listen to the second movement of Scriabin’s piano concerto, you will feel the full panoply of emotions from romance to sorrow, never fully corresponding to either.

In contrast, today’s music deadens the ears rather than enlivens them; songs only cater to and reinforce our most basic instincts. Lenin once remarked that he had to stop listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata or he would never finish the Revolution. No one would say that about Jay-Z.

So instead of subjecting your ears to such dross, give them a treat, a challenge. Penn students pride themselves on being open-minded and educated — why not on being cultured? They have the time and resources — where’s the will?

You wouldn’t disdain Michelangelo without seeing David. But you don’t even need to go to Florence for Beethoven. The Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the best orchestras in the country, has student tickets for 10 dollars and Curtis, the most prestigious music conservatory in the United States, has free concerts weekly.

With so much just a SEPTA stop away, what are you waiting for?

Xavier Flory is a College sophomore from Nokesville, Va. His email address is xflory@sas.upenn.edu. Follow him @FloryXavier. “The Gadfly” appears every other Monday.

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