Andrei Strizek

Music | Musings

Filtering by Tag: NPR

NPR Music's Guilty Pleasures

For the past few weeks NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog has been running a series on “Guilty Pleasures,” interviewing regular contributors about music they are “embarrassed to love.”

The stated premise is commendable:

Over the years, friends and acquaintances who know my passion for music have asked, "So, what are you listening to these days?"

It's tempting to respond with something like, "Oh, I'm back in one of my big Mahler phases again." It sounds impressive and it's easier than admitting to what I might be really listening to — which could indeed be Mahler, but could just as likely be some schlocky pop band.

There's pressure on classical people to: a) never admit liking pop music and b) always maintain distinguished taste in classical music itself. Conversely, lovers of pop, rock and other genres might feel bashful about a secret love of Beethoven. So here's where I'm throwing all of these hang-ups out the window — and I invite you to do the same.

Yet, in actuality, the premise of this series seems to be that there are the Great Composers, the ones we all know: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mozart, etc. And there are the lesser composers, the ones who have been brushed aside by music history (or music history classes) or who have – heaven forbid – become popular with a large audience, mainly for their inclusion on concert programs as crowd-pleasing encores, on a “pops” concert, or a “greatest hits” compilation CD.

At least, that’s how it appears to me. In many ways, this is understandable. Many academically trained musicians learn this in music schools and conservatories. As Bruno Nettl writes (in Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music),

In the conversational rhetoric of the Music Building, “great” refers mainly to the largest works. It is no coincidence that in one of the few books about the concept of musical masterworks the first two works mentioned are Don Giovanni and Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung.


The great composer-deities are obviously present. Their inscribed names adorn the building inside and out, six master (four of them German) instructing students assembled for weekly convocations in the auditorium that all important issues of music reside within a 150-year span and nothing else is needed – this is the great music. (He is directly referencing Smith Music Hall at the University of Illinois, but this can be seen in institutions across the country.)

Having this background, it’s understandable that someone might think of Strauss, Rachmaninov, or Tchaikovsky as a guilty pleasure. They’re popular composers, and have traditionally been frowned upon by classical music institutions.

We all have guilty pleasures. It is beyond my scope here to examine why we have guilty pleasures, or what makes us consider them “guilty.” But I strongly recommend reading Carl Wilson’s fantastic book Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste and watching his interview on The Colbert Report:



He doesn't come away with a newfound love for Celine Dion, and neither did I after reading the book (and listening to her), but he has great insight into the notions behind our musical tastes and pleasures.

It can be a blow to our egos and senses of musical taste if we are to hear that a respected individual finds music that we enjoy is treated with the impression that it's not supposed to be worthy of enjoyment. Personally, I went through that journey with the music of Gershwin (among others), that wasn’t uprooted until I took a semester-long seminar on him (corresponding blog post here), and I regret the missed time spent listening to, performing, and appreciating Gershwin's music.

I think many people in the classical music world agree that we want that music to be spread to as many people as possible. But can we do that do that by making people feel guilty about enjoying Copland, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Vivaldi, or Strauss? Are people really embarassed by listening to those composers?

The artists who regularly post on NPR's blog, and the blog itself, overall do a great job of expanding audience's education. I’m grateful that NPR started a classical music blog (much as I am for their jazz and indie pop blogs). But they missed the mark with the guilty pleasure series. The "behind-the-scenes" view we get from conductors, composers and performers is great; the out-dated mode of thinking behind this needs to be reexamined.

Music Videos

This has been a big week or two for music videos: Lady Gaga's Telephone video; a new video by OK Go for This Too Shall Pass (the official video is with a marching band; the new one features an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine) ... Within the span of an hour or so the other day I got to thinking about music videos, thanks to showing a friend the crazy REM video of Imitation of Life (it requires a few views to grasp it), and a "parody" of Taylor Swift's You Belong With Me that popped up online, featuring a gay couple rather than a straight romance.

My sister and I didn't grow up on MTV (we didn't get cable until I was in 10th or 11th grade). We did get a chance to watch it at my grandparents' house, though, and I remember seeing videos like Madonna's Like a Prayer (ignorant of the controversy surrounding it, but attracted to the gospel choir & the beat), Was (Not Was) Walk the Dinosaur (yes, we would do the dance around the living room), and of couse videos by Tiffany, NKOTB, Debbie Gibson and other 80s stars. When we didn't have that to occupy our time, we would watch musicals (I grew up on Sound of Music and West Side Story), and concert videos of NKOTB & Gloria Estefan.

It wasn't until about halfway through my undergrad that I started paying attention to music videos again. They came a long way in that time (and they've come a long way since then). I don't claim to have any sort of expertise with music videos ... but I am always interested in how they portray the song. Some tell a story similar to the song itself, or supporting the story: You Belong With Me & Love Story come immediately to mind. (I personally think that Taylor Swift is a great storyteller, and her videos share qualities with her lyrics.) Some are just plain fun, like Weezer's Keep Fishing with the Muppets & the Fatboy Slim video with Christopher Walken. Some have great cinematography & feature cool camera tricks and other effects, like the REM video above and Justin Timberlake's Cry Me a River. Some are elaborate: The new Telephone video, for instance, tells a story (different from what the lyrics imply) & references movies like Kill Bill and Thelma & Louise. Thriller has long been noted for his epic nature. Some are parodies in different forms: Ben Folds Rockin' the Suburbs, a lot of the digital shorts from SNL, and pretty much anything by Weird Al Yankovich.

I find it fascinating that an artist can take a song that tells a story, or implies a story, and come up with a different way to present the music in video form. And now with the viral nature of the Internet, a video can become popular almost immediately (as seen with Telephone last night, when it leaked early and was already a trending topic on Twitter before its official premiere - even the YouTube URL was a trending topic as people posted the link). A lot of people complain that MTV & VH1 don't show videos anymore, but with outlets like YouTube, do we need them to? (Although I do miss Pop Up Video - that needs to come back with a vengeance.) Music videos are becoming a great marketing tool. I wouldn't be surprised to see if Telephone and This Too Shall Pass climb higher on the charts in downloads thanks to the videos and media attention. Unfortunately, record companies don't always understand this, as the recent fight between EMI & OK Go demonstrates.

I know I'm missing a lot of great music videos here. I left out a lot of some great Michael Jackson ones because they're so popular & well-known, and OK Go's most-watched video of the decade. But what are some other good videos? Why do you like them? Leave some comments - I'd like to see what I forgot about and what I've never seen before.

By the way, check out OK Go's first video, "featuring" Ira Glass & Peter Sagal of NPR/WBEZ fame, and one of my favorite musical performances of recent years, Maya Rudolph singing the national anthem on SNL.

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