June 13, 2007

Indicate precisely what you're trying to say

I was in a Starbucks for coffee this morning, which is unusual for me, but my local joint is closed for vacation this week. This is a long way of explaining why, although I knew Starbucks had been hawking Paul McCartney's new solo album, I hadn't actually seen the tag line they were using to promote it:

The solo album worthy of his musical legacy.

That there is some semiotically complicated advertising copy. I'm guessing the immediate subliminal message is supposed to be a solo album as good as the stuff he did with the Beatles, but what really fascinates me is that, although the vocabulary is supposed to hint at classical-music high-art timelessness (for better or worse, nobody talks about Lipps, Inc.'s "musical legacy"), almost every word of that sentence points up some difference between pop music and classical music.

The: It's not "an" album, it's "the" album, implying that fans have universally been waiting for the event of this CD. This is a pretty common conceit in pop music—lots of releases are touted as "the new album"—but it's one you almost never see in classical music. Next season, the BSO is premiering a new symphony by John Harbison, and I'll bet money that's how it will be described in the press release: "a new symphony by John Harbison," not "the new John Harbison symphony." I'm not sure why this is: more focus on the piece than the composer? A tacit agreement to withhold judgement on the work's significance until after it's been heard? Unconscious self-effacement due to classical music's comparatively marginalized status in popular culture? You make the call.

One other thing: notice how "the" in this case also separates this album from all of McCartney's other solo albums, which presumably weren't worthy of his musical legacy, although it leaves open the possibility that the Wings albums were.

Solo: Well, of course it's a solo album, unless you think Paul McCartney is arrogant enough to form a new band and then name the band "Paul McCartney." But the word is due to the complicated fact that McCartney's musical legacy is indelibly bound up with three other guys. Take out "solo" and the playing field is uncomfortably expanded—I'm sure there are plenty of people who think that the one album really worthy of McCartney's musical legacy is Let It Be.

I can't think of a classical performer that's in this boat—for example, a solo violinist who's in constant competition with memories of his or her string quartet days—and the only composer I can think of is Arthur Sullivan. In rock and pop, though, this happens all the time.

Album: Even forty years after Sgt. Pepper's, the single still rules the pop world, whereas masterpiece status in classical music still tends to accrue to large, multi-movement works. I always think of McCartney, who's at his best on a three-minute canvas, to be caught in between that particular rock and hard place. Really, what would be worthy of his legacy would be a bright, melancholy pop gem that ruled the charts for a summer.

Worthy: The most loaded word here, because it's talking about three things at once: the album itself, which (according to the ad) is something good enough for McCartney to put his name on; McCartney himself, who (according to the ad) has finally lived up to the potential he's teased his fans with all these years; and, most importantly, the fans who (according to the ad) at long last have the album they've been patiently awaiting that whole time, suffering through McCartney's previous presumably sub-standard efforts. This one word, I think, encapsulates the essential impossibility of McCartney's position, and makes me glad to be in the classical world, where simply reliving your past glories or doing what everyone expects of you tends to get old really fast. I may never have millions of fans, but I'll never have millions of disappointed fans, either.

Of: Equally loaded. Think about this one for a minute—the ad is saying that the intrinsic essence of this album somehow deserved to have Paul McCartney's musical legacy bestowed on it. (Maybe it's supposed to mean "worthy of being part of his musical legacy"—but that's not what it says, is it?) The idea that creations take on a life of their own, independent of the creator's intentions, is pretty common; here we have the notion that creations are out there, totally independent of their creators, and whether or not the one you happen to stumble on is amenable to your own talents is pretty much a crapshoot. This one could apply equally well to any genre, really; in classical music, it's usually used as a warning against slack diligence. Think of Ravel's comment to the effect that, he composed every day, because when inspiration struck, he wanted to be sure he was around.

His: A near-symmetrical reinforcement to "solo." Interestingly, in classical music, one's personal legacy is usually transmitted through other people: students, adherents, disciples who continue to work in the stylistic furrow you first plowed. In pop, it seems, your legacy is transmitted to yourself, which would echo the American ideal of self-invention—and re-invention.

Musical: Something that pop music does much better than classical music is put aside the musicians' personal foibles. Is this album worthy of McCartney's personal legacy? Who cares? It's all about the music, man. In the classical world, we're constantly talking about Wagner's anti-Semitism, or Tchaikovsky's homosexuality, or Mozart's potty mouth, as if they were some window into the interpretation of their works. The thing is, the translation from music into notes and back into music again is so fuzzy at each step of the way that a good performer will inevitably turn to the composer's life for any possible clues or insights. Does this mean Wagner's anti-Semitism should somehow inform how you play (or hear) his music? No—but it's much, much harder to ignore. Pop songs, as we experience them, are pre-existing sound, not notation that needs to be converted to sound—any personal information you might need to understand it is usually already part of the finished product.

Legacy: For pop music to be talking about legacies is a big change from the 1950s and 60s. Nik Cohn, in his fantastic late-60s rock eulogy Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, mentions a Stan Freberg satire on pop music of the 1950s: a young heartthrob is ushered into a recording studio and just sings the words "highschool highschool highschool" over and over again. That's what rock and pop was: music for teenagers. I've always thought that big shift in popular culture in the 60s wasn't the fact of rock-and-roll, but that everybody started talking and writing about rock-and-roll in the same way that previous generations had talked about classical music, which, to my ear, was always in uneasy conflict with the ephemeral, youthful nature of the music itself—the vocabulary that had evolved to talk about music as an art form was a square peg in the round hole of a genre that didn't put a premium on ambiguous reflections on the essential decay and mortality that's part of the human condition. (Not that all classical music mines this ore, of course, but when you think about it, a lot of the really celebrated monuments do, either with rue or defiance.) McCartney is now, famously, sixty-four, and even the title of the new album hints at the constant presence of the past, the interlocking network of time within which we construct our perception of the world and ourselves. Rock and pop songs navigating this territory have been in the minority; looking around now, though, you can see a new confluence in the psychic landscape of pop and non-pop.

Yeah, yeah, I know this post now represents an approximately sixteen-thousand-percent expansion on a bit of text from an advertisement. But it puts into words the sort of thing that all musicians, especially composers, try to embed in the music: a management of expectations that results in a more meaningful experience for the listener. In this case, the goal may only be measuring that experience as meaningful in so far as the listener forks over his or her money to buy the album. But, in a sense, every piece of music is also functioning as its own tag line; it gives a little taste of the inexhaustable complexity of music to realize just how complicated even a simple advertisement can be.

9 comments:

DavidH said...

Thank you for a(nother) very thought-provoking post!

One of McCartney's other (dubious) 'legacies' lies in his attempts at writing classical music. A few years ago, we in Helsinki were 'honoured' with a performance of his mammoth oratorio 'Standing Stone', inducing yawns in both performers and audience. So much material from a man who famously can't read music... In light of this, I find it rather specious that people should talk about any kind of legacy other than with the Beatles.

PWS said...

Have you ever heard Paul McCartney's "Junk" from his first solo album? It's beautiful, I tell you.

me said...

wow. that's dizzying.

Michael Leddy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Leddy said...

Good work, Matthew.

Elaine says I should offer a link to my scrutinizing of some sentences promoting Norah Jones. Okay: Bookstore music.

By the way, it's "indicate precisely what you mean to say."

Yours sincerely,

Michael

Matthew said...

See, if I misquote the lyrics, nobody sues me.

David's opinion of the "classical" stuff is mine as well, but I think that his pop stuff gets automatically downgraded because it's not the Beatles. I actually like a lot of those Wings songs. PWS's point really emphasizes how the single/album dilemma enters into this. "Junk" is a lovely song, and, in fact, every post-Beatles McCartney album I've heard (I certainly haven't heard them all) always has at least one fantastic, catchy, stuck-in-your-head-for-days cut. If the single-track-oriented iTunes distribution model had hit in 1970, would McCartney's solo work be as unfavorably compared with his Beatles work as it is?

sfmike said...

So how's the album, or did the ad copy disturb and enlighten you so thoroughly that you didn't check it out?

docker said...

I heard the album through 2 and a half times. You see I spend a lot of time in Starbucks - often writing my own music.

The music they play in Starbucks covers a huge stylistic gamut - things I like to things I simply ignore. (Classical music only for Christmas.)

The McCartney day was the most annoying day of music Starbucks has ever presented. What a piece of crap. I bet they sold dozens.

Doonesbury had a nice parody with Jimmy Thudpucker and Burger King

Giordan said...

'I'm sure there are plenty of people who think that the one album really worthy of McCartney's musical legacy is Let It Be.'

Really? I love Let It Be, but 37 years later I still haven't met anyone else who shares my enthusiasm for it. I always figured that it had something to do with the fact that it was the first record I ever owned. But I still think McCartney's tracks on that album are all first-rate, that the Lennon tracks are also very good, and that Harrison's I Me Mine is superb. Glad to read that someone else also thinks highly of it.